By The Living Church
We Anglicans like to take credit for starting the ecumenical movement, but the real human dynamo behind the work was a Methodist layman. John Mott (1865-1955), a former Iowa farm boy, was the longtime leader of the college student wing of the YMCA, an organization then more focused on Bibles than barbells. Mott built connections with student Christian movements around the world, travelling an estimated 1.7 million miles in the days before air travel. He preached Christ to unbelievers and called the half-convinced to total consecration. Along the way, he came to see that Christian division stood in the way of the Spirit’s work.
Mott chaired the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference that issued a bold call: “The world for Christ in a generation.” The ecumenical movement was born out of the delegates’ common conviction that expanded mission demanded fuller unity. Mott was a movement builder, forging relationships between young leaders through associations and conferences and building consensus around the gospel’s call to conversion, social transformation, and Church unity. When the World Council of Churches first met in 1948, three-quarters of the delegates had been formed by the student Christian movements Mott had shaped.
Mott brought his ecumenical passion and his gifts as a parachurch ministry organizer to his own fervent Methodism. Somewhat rarely for movement leaders, he was deeply committed to the institutional Church, and shared his talents in gathering up the scattered limbs of American Wesleyanism. As part of the 1939 Unity Conference, Mott chaired the meeting which fused the three main mission boards of the Methodist church. Well into his eighties, he helped create the World Methodist Council in 1955.
In 1968, the United Methodist Church joined English and German-descended church bodies. They did so by holding hands in a Dallas convention center and praying in words that speak from the heart of Mott’s vision: “Lord of the Church, we are united in thee, in thy Church, and now in the United Methodist Church.”
Methodism began as a movement, a voluntary association in a great age of such societies. It initially gathered members of different churches for gospel preaching and mutual encouragement. It had no ministry or sacraments, little need for dogma or canon. Early Methodism was much like Mott’s YMCA, with room for freedom and flexibility, and only as much mutual loyalty as its members found necessary.
At Baltimore in 1784, Methodism took on the functions of a church almost accidentally. The decision can be parsed as a genuine call to mission or a burst of wearied impatience. But a few ordinations do not automatically transform a group of people used to living as a movement into a church. A church ethos takes time, and Methodism’s early controversies and resulting tendency to easy — almost natural — division show a movement’s old habits dying slowly.
Mott’s great ecumenical project pushed Methodism in a different direction. Across the decades of the twentieth century one can trace a clear catholicizing trajectory, fostered alongside an enduring zeal for soul-winning and “social righteousness.” The whole gospel, Methodists increasingly believed, must be shared by a united Church — multiregional, multilingual, even multinational, as United Methodist missions in Africa grew rapidly in the late twentieth century.
The drive toward unity was accompanied by a liturgical awakening that resulted in the current Book of Worship’s rich anthology of eucharistic prayer. Thomas Oden’s mid-career conversion to the great tradition sparked a renewal of orthodox doctrinal scholarship. Bolstered by institutions like Duke Divinity School, United Methodists increasingly claimed the fulness of their Wesleyan heritage — not just John Wesley’s vigorous preaching and penchant for social reform, but his indebtedness to Greek patristics and Charles Wesley’s eucharistic spirituality.
The various attempts at Methodist-Anglican unity have all failed, mostly because Anglicans got cold feet. Though often castigated as timid rigorism or imperious snobbery, thoughtful Anglican reluctance came armed with lots of reasonable questions about how far along the trajectory from movement to church Methodism had actually advanced.
Movements towards structural unity between churches, as opposed to open-ended dialogues, demand deeper consensus about intention, the setting aside — or careful codifying — of former flexibility. Inevitably we come down to the enduring brass tacks that anchor Catholic Christianity in place. Are Methodists actually committed to the apostolic creeds? Do they share common commitments to a robust doctrine of sacramental efficacy? Is their understanding of ministry ontological or purely functional? The answers to such questions, as the 2010 United Methodist-Episcopal dialogue text, Theological Foundation for Full Communion demonstrated, remain troublingly unclear.
Until very recently, though, a conscientious Catholic Anglican had to marshal his qualms against a breathtaking trajectory of incipient Methodist Catholicism. Perhaps they were vague on the creeds and contradictory on baptismal regeneration, but United Methodists had a book of discipline full of ancient ascetical wisdom and a treasury of robust sacramental liturgy. They had knit together all those old denominations. That must surely count for a great deal.
Most importantly, Methodists were committed to living together across the divisions over biblical authority and sexual morality that have shaken all the churches in recent decades. Anglicans can invoke provincial autonomy to hive off the challenge, but Methodists had Africans in their own church. Slowly, they were even granting non-domestic conferences proportional representation in their governing bodies. Progressive Western Christians never surrender their power to conservatives from the Global South. Surely this is an axiom of modern ecclesial geopolitics. There’s still never been an African pope or archbishop of Canterbury. But those catholicizing Methodists would heed the word of the poor. They would obey the voices rising from the continent of evangelists and martyrs. Despite it all, Mott’s enduring witness would hold true: “Lord of the Church, we are united in thee, in thy Church, and now in the United Methodist Church.”
Or maybe not. The United Methodist Church has heaved with anguish since its General Conference voted last summer to maintain and enforce the traditional definition of marriage in the Book of Discipline. Church leaders hired an experienced mediator, and plans were announced a few weeks ago for an amicable separation, the final decision to be made at a General Conference later in the year.
It’s a clean and tidy plan, with the progressives taking up the now deeply ironic “United Methodist” name and most of the financial resources. The conservatives, mostly from the Global South, will depart with a promise of $25 million to start their own denomination. They hope that the resulting churches will relate to one another ecumenically, that is, amicably. “The United Methodist Church and its members,” the agreement says, “aspire to multiply the Methodist mission in the world by restructuring the Church through respectful and dignified separation.” Mott’s vision hits the ground with a thud.
Plenty of Episcopalians and ACNA Anglicans rose in rare chorus on social media to sing the praises of the deal. “If only we had done it this way,” they say, “think of all the money that we would have saved.” Indeed, had we set aside the Dennis canon, the angels would have rejoiced. If only we had found a way to heed St. Paul’s probing question, “When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous?”
Despite these real sins, and the consequent scandal of good money squandered, it’s also true that we Anglicans have never managed anything like the “dignified separation” envisioned by the United Methodist settlement. We call one another schismatics, but those who break away do so only to cleave closer to another part of our common, dysfunctional Anglican family. There are plenty of impaired communion declarations, boundary-crossing bishops, and rival instruments binding different parts of the same would-be communion. It’s a mess to be sure, but the Archbishop of Canterbury has still broken bread in every primate’s kitchen and all of the dioceses end up one day on the Anglican Cycle of Prayer.
Maybe, as an Anglican Communion official suggested recently, we’re crossing a line from the end of the war to the beginning of the peace. Maybe a new generation will lead with more patience and charity, as they do already in places like Nashotah House and the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where doors have been carefully left open just a little, and the light still burns in case there are second thoughts.
Maybe we’re learning to “walk together at a distance” (in current Anglican parlance), in hopes that our paths may eventually converge again. Maybe there are possibilities, like the new Cairo Covenant, which can help us make real commitments to each other, building what Ephraim Radner calls a “thicker Communion” to address the undeniable “ecclesial deficit” in our mutual relationships.
At least, thanks be to God, we have left it all a tangled mess, evidence of our sin and of God’s sole capacity to sort it out properly. Catholic churches, and churches that hope to be catholic, unlike voluntary associations, cannot cleanly divide.
The United Methodists still have time to settle their troubles. May God grant that such a splendid catholic trajectory won’t end in those cold words: “I have no need of you.”