The United Methodist Church is about to become the divided Methodist church. The Council of Bishops finally conceded that a split is imminent. The liberal wing will remain in a predominantly U.S.-based successor denomination while conservatives remain in connection with the growing, mostly orthodox African church. Despite efforts to delay the inevitable, the latter body, the Global Methodist Church, officially came into existence over the weekend.
What is happening to what has heretofore been the third-largest denomination in the United States, after the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, is emblematic of mainline Protestantism in general. Once culturally dominant, its social, political, and theological witness was compromised by constant squabbling. Despite a slogan of "open hearts, open mind, open doors," the reality in many local churches was increasingly empty pews.
One side wanted to remain rooted in historic Christian teaching on issues of faith and morals, including sexuality, to which the world's largest churches mostly remained committed. The other wanted to move in the secular world's direction on these issues, first as a matter of attracting new members but eventually and increasingly out of a strong moral conviction that these teachings were exclusionary.
The United Methodist Church remained so for as long as it did because the denomination remained orthodox on paper but liberal in practice except in areas where its evangelical members were numerically prevalent. That compromise became untenable as liberals came to regard the official orthodoxy as unjust and conservatives could no longer tolerate the flouting of those teachings throughout vast swathes of the church.
For a time, it seemed possible a coalition of white Southerners and Black Africans would transform United Methodism from a center-left denomination with a strong evangelical subculture into a mildly center-right one with a robust liberal subculture, making it the first mainline Protestant church reclaimed by its more conservative members. But there was no democratically accountable executive authority through which to replicate their legislative and judicial progress, so the day-to-day running of church agencies was little changed.
Same-sex marriage hastened the divorce. But there's one thing both sides claim to agree on: It's time to stop arguing about sex and make disciples of Jesus Christ. May it be so.