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Eventful 20 years added to Methodist history (UM News)

February 2, 2023

United Methodist Women is now called United Women in Faith. Methodist suffragette and temperance advocate Frances Willard had a longtime female partner. What are respectful ways to refer to different ethnicities?

In the first 12 chapters of the updated denomination history book “American Methodism,” published by Abingdon Press, the majority of the edits are of this variety.

“It was a lot of stylistic updating,” said Ashley Boggan, top executive at the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, who is one of four authors on the first update of the history book in a decade.

“We brought it up to modern standards of how you talk about different ethnicities, how you talk about LGBTQ-plus persons.”

“When the new millennium began, some bishops expressed (naïve) hope that the ‘debate on homosexuality’ might not continue to divide the denomination but instead might bring ‘us closer together,’” Boggan writes in the new chapter. “However, Good News and other conservative caucus groups such as the (Institute on Religion and Democracy) sought to enact punishment for clergy coming out or blessing same-sex weddings.

“Simultaneously and covertly in 2004, the conservative caucuses circulated among allies a blueprint for exit and dissolution of the UMC if their restrictions failed.”

In the new addition, Boggan also covers how the church is keeping up with technology advances; the COVID-19 pandemic; budget cuts; the rise in membership in Africa while U.S. membership declined; and acts of repentance directed at minorities such as Native Americans.

It’s a lot to cover. In an interview with United Methodist News, Boggan reflected on the revised and updated history. The interview is edited for length and clarity.

United Methodism appears to be on the brink these days, mostly over the sexuality debate. Does history show us a way forward?

Methodism has had many divisions, and now we’re in this moment where we have a chance to redefine who we are, and that’s a really cool opportunity. If we are brave enough to actually do it, who knows? We can craft something new and something inventive and something truly Wesleyan. Wesley was an innovator. He was not a theologian, but he was innovative in missiology. We have that moment again, if we’re brave enough to do it.

One common argument in the sexuality debate is that if we don’t follow all the rules in the Book of Discipline, then there are no real rules and the whole thing becomes meaningless. What do you say to that?

I would encourage those who take that stance to pick up a Book of Discipline from the first 20 years and read it. It looks radically different than our Book of Discipline. The Book of Discipline in its original form was more of a devotional. It did have Q & As, and it did have rules. I’m not saying Wesley was not a rules guy. He definitely had his own rules, but it also was more (about) a disciplined way of life. Like, ‘Why do we fast? Why do we pray?’ It was more contemplative and less legalistic. It didn’t have rules on who you should be and how you should love. It had guidelines and suggestions or provoking questions that you were meant to sit with and think about and pray about, not try to attack each other because someone broke X, Y or Z rule. It’s really in the 1860s that we start to see a shift in the legalism of the Book of Discipline.

Was it hard to find a good stopping point with the denomination at such a dramatic point in its history?

I had this constant desire to complete the story. But the story’s never completed. New questions get asked. At some point, you have to draw the line, and that’s always a frustrating line to draw because I fully believe that history is always now and always forthcoming. There’s always new stuff that is going to change how we see this moment.

How do you stay objective while writing and editing a history with such radically different viewpoints?

Anybody who says that history is neutral or that historians are neutral or that history is not biased, clearly doesn’t know historians. We do our best to present multiple sides of the story. But the sources that we choose show our own bias and our own take on certain things. Not only is the story not finished, but it’s drastically affecting the lives and ministries and faith of people. It made me very careful, I think, with words. I would say that this is probably the least political writing that I’ve done. I’m not shy when it comes to taking certain positions. But with this, I tried to treat it more like a textbook and less like a research manual because I know how it’s going to get used.

I have taught my 13th chapter to a Methodist history class here at Drew (University). It was interesting to see the students’ reactions to it, since they are about to enter the ministry. They are aware of some of the things that are going on in the denomination, but they don’t know the full scope and the history or the backstory behind all of the problems that we have. It’s really interesting to get their perspective. After reading this, many of them came to class that day depressed. I don’t sugarcoat things. I don’t present it like there’s not a problem with The United Methodist Church today. But I do want people to read this and to be fully informed with what’s going on.