Methodists are creedal. Bear with me now.
Methodists are creedal because Wesleyan movement is derived from Anglicanism. Anglicanism is deeply creedal. At its best, it is also deeply committed to the Jesus of the Bible and the tradition.
Despite our heritage, however, the UMC formally rejected the Nicene Creed as a standard of doctrine at the 2016 General Conference. This would have meant, de jure, the creed would have equal weight to Wesley’s sermons and Notes on the New Testament, as well as the EUB Confession and Articles of Religion.
For all the (usual) paranoia and conspiracy that surrounded this legislation, the reasoning behind it (as one several who submitted parallel petitions) was quite simple. All of our doctrinal standards only go back to the Reformation. Adding the Nicene Creed as a formal grounding for our doctrine not only connects us to the universal church in a more direct way, it also gives us a better position for ecumenical conversations. The Nicene Creed is what the World Council of Churches (a well-known fundamentalist cabal!) uses as the basis for its doctrinal work. This is all pretty basic, to my view.
So, there we were in Portland. We had an opportunity to reach back beyond our roots in the 18th century to the doctrinal and spiritual font of the undivided church of the first thousand years…
….and it didn’t even get out of committee.
Fast forward a year. In May, a group of self-described “Centrists” met in Nashville to much fanfare. Called by large church pastors, the invitation to this gathering (shared in the press release) read in part: “Our vibrant future as a movement calls for a guiding vision of the church that is biblically rooted, solidly orthodox, and relentlessly Wesleyan.” Of course, all of these are highly fungible virtues. “Biblically rooted” can be miles apart from biblical, “orthodox” has no meaning in a church that refuses doctrinal investigation, and literally everyone thinks they are “Wesleyan.”
I believe most of the folks at this meeting sincerely care about the future of church. There were several people at the Nashville meeting I consider friends. That said, the simple truth is that the language of “Centrist” is bankrupt. (Some of the people present in Nashville were part of the West Ohio “Centrist Movement,” and many of the critiques I offered here apply to this new group.) One of the conveners of the May meeting was Rev. Tom Berlin, a large church pastor in Virginia who was also an episcopal nominee in 2016. During General Conference, he wrote:
My observation is that United Methodists have more agreement on the Christian faith as described by the Apostles and the Nicene Creeds than I have experienced in my lifetime. Those who see Jesus’ resurrection as a quaint metaphor are a tiny fraction of our clan.
The ironic thing, of course, is that he wrote this in the midst of the General Conference that rejected the Nicene Creed as a standard of doctrine for the church. If we have broad agreement on the “Christian faith as described” in the Nicene Creed, why did we vote it down?
I believe Berlin and other institutional leaders are sincere when they articulate a belief that the majority of the UMC is, in some sense, orthodox. I also believe they are naive. What I often observe in the Southeast Jurisdiction is that moderates and progressives who come out of doctrinally orthodox but socially moderate or progressive seminaries (some will dispute this divide, but it is true to my experience in North Carolina) believe that moderates and centrists across the church believe as they do: they may or may not agree with the UMC’s social positions, but they can recite every line of the Nicene Creed without crossing their fingers.
But outside of the Southeast, I think this is a much less common occurrence. It’s simply not reasonable to assume places like Claremont, with its historical ties to John Cobb and process theology, or Boston, once the home port of Personalism, are bastions of creedal Christianity. Many UMC (and Mainline, more broadly) seminaries also focus heavily on contextual theologies, which – while important in many ways – often carry with them problematic implications for christology, the Trinity, and the via salutis, among other areas of Christian teaching. A denomination holding all these various streams of theology together cannot be neatly and simply “orthodox.”
Of course, I may be wrong. But if I’m wrong, and Berlin and the Centrists are right that we share a broad Nicene Christianity across the connection…why did we vote the Nicene Creed down?
The Next Methodism will be unequivocally creedal. The creeds will be not kept behind glass for historical purposes, but placed front and center in the life of the community for worship and formation. They will not be taken as suggestions, but understood as they have been when recited, prayed, confessed, and sung for generations: the creeds are summaries of the gospel which tether us directly to the teaching of the apostles and the early Church under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
John Wesley was creedal. His dislike for the Athanasian Creed is often misunderstood. He came close to writing his own creed, as a matter of fact. The UMC is, on paper, creedal. We have the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds in our Hymnal, and the Apostle’s Creed is part of our baptism liturgy (as it was in the ancient church). But, much like the distance that must be closed between our view of the sacraments on paper and our practice on the ground, in the UMC at present the creeds are often misunderstood, even by official denominational channels (see here for an example of such a truly bad miss).
I agree with Stephen that the Next Methodism will be meaningful. It will impact lives, warm hearts, and change communities, just like the Wesleyan movement transformed Britain in the 18th century.
But a PTA or a Rotary Club can be meaningful. For a movement to be meaningfully Christian, it must be boldly committed to the Trinity, the empty tomb, and the Kingdom of God – in other words, to the basic Christian grammar that has sustained God’s people for generations. The creeds are an indispensable tool for teaching, celebrating, and sharing this faith of the church.
There will be no Next Methodism without the creeds, and for this, we should all be grateful.