What future now for evangelicals in the Methodist Church?

(Photo: Sandy Millar)

After the Methodist Church's decision to back gay marriage and affirm cohabitation, evangelicals are weighing up their future in the denomination. 

The Rev Dr David Hull, Chair of Methodist Evangelicals Together, speaks to Christian Today about the change of position on marriage and what options are available to evangelicals.

CT: The Methodist Church seems to have been on this trajectory for a long time. Is it fair to say the vote didn't come as any great surprise?

David: Sadly, the vote hasn't come as a surprise at all. These resolutions were passed provisionally two years ago before coming back for ratification, and the voting around the country already indicated that there would indeed be a majority very much in favour.

But the results of these local votes also show that there are tens of thousands of Methodists across Great Britain who will be very, very unhappy with these decisions and find themselves in a very difficult position within the life of the Church.

There are many Methodists who remain committed to the teaching of the Bible and of Jesus himself, that the Church has held through thousands of years of history and which is still held by the majority of Christians throughout the world today. That is, that part of God's purposes for creation and His vision for life and society is that marriage is between one man and one woman for life, to the exclusion of all others - the only appropriate context for sexual intimacy.

That belief has now been relegated to a minority position within the Methodist Church that requires the protection of a conscience clause, and that does leave evangelicals in a very difficult position within the Church.

CT: What do you think John Wesley would make of all this?

David: All the indications are that John Wesley was a man who was absolutely committed to the authority of the Bible and the clarity of its teaching. He described himself as 'a man of one book', which doesn't mean he only read one book - he read widely! But he was absolutely committed to one book above all other books - the Bible as the supreme authority of faith and practice in the life of the Church and Christians.

And Wesley was also committed to that principle of the Reformation - that the Bible is understandable, generally speaking, to ordinary Christians, and what we need to know for life and faith is clear to us from the Scriptures.

It's interesting that scholars generally agree that the Bible's teaching on this subject is very, very clear - that God created us for either single celibacy or marriage between one man and one woman for life - the only appropriate context for sexual intimacy.

And Wesley was all about the transformation of society through the preaching of the Gospel, and it was his belief that this transformation occurs as individuals respond to the Gospel and their lives are conformed to Scripture.

Wesley stood against many things in society that were demeaning to life and that were restricting people's freedoms. He created societies of hope and holiness all around Britain and these spread throughout the world.

Sadly, what the Methodist Church seems to have done is align itself with the spirit of the age, rather than holding out a vision of freedom, hope and holiness to a world that is desperately in need of it.

CT: What's the general temperature among evangelicals in the Methodist Church now? Is the mood to leave?

David: The general temperature is one of sadness mingled with hope. We have very much identified with Psalm 130 - "Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord." And so we've been calling out to the Lord in the sadness of these days while reminding ourselves that the decisions of the Methodist Conference do not change ultimate reality, that Jesus is still on the throne and He is still committed to His promise to build the Church. Nothing will ever prevail against that; He will still one day usher in a new Heaven and a new Earth, and He still calls us to be caught up in His mission to this world, to bring hope and holiness to a world in need. It is confidence in this that gives us hope. And so we move forward in hope and we fix our eyes on that promise.

CT: Now that the dust has settled a bit from the vote, is a sense forming of what the next step might look like for evangelicals in the Methodist Church?

David: In some ways, nothing has changed over the last few days. We've known these decisions were coming and indeed, they seemed to us to be almost inevitable for a number of years. During the debates, evangelicals have been speaking out, calling the Church to remain faithful to the Lord and his Word, and have also been counting the cost of remaining faithful within the direction of travel the Church seemed to be adopting. We haven't wanted to preempt the final decisions of the Conference and, now that they have been made, we will take our next steps through our Remaining Faithful: Moving Forward conference on 17 July.

Some are very clear that their sense of call to be within the Methodist Church remains as strong as it ever did. They are committed to remaining within the Methodist Church and holding the Church to account on its promise to make space for and give freedom to evangelicals remaining committed to the teaching of the Bible. Others are very clear that the line has now been crossed and that they cannot in good conscience remain and so they are moving in that direction. MET has been clear that we will support all evangelicals as they seek to move forward.

CT: So some difficult decisions lie ahead.

David: One of the things that complicates those decisions is that as well as moving away from the teaching of the Bible on marriage and on cohabitation, the Methodist Conference in passing these resolutions, also voted not to release buildings and resources to those who feel that out of conscience they have to move out of the denomination. That's very disappointing and means that the 'golden handcuffs' remain.

It's not at all that these Methodists think that their buildings are the most important thing or that their buildings are more important than their consciences. What they are committed to is the sense that local Christians have been given resources to further the Gospel in their locality and they feel they cannot just walk away from that without looking into options for a little bit longer. So we will continue to argue for the releasing of the resources so that the Christian mission can continue in a way that enables all Methodists to flourish across the country.

CT: Do you think an option for evangelicals in the Methodist Church could be to unite with Anglican evangelicals who have set up their own structures?

David: We are open to conversations with all who are committed to the gospel and the teaching of the Bible, Christian ministry and mission within this country. As the Chair of MET, what I have said throughout is that I am very much in favour of us strengthening existing work, whether that's in partnership with Anglicans or Free Methodists or independent Methodists or any others who stand where we stand. MET is committed to supporting all evangelicals whatever direction they sense the Lord to be leading them in.