It was 50 years ago that the United Methodist Church was born out of two separate congregations.
On April 23, 1968, the Uniting Conference between the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren Churches was held in Dallas, Texas.
“Here we are this morning, gathered together from all over the world and from all sorts and conditions of men, to celebrate a birthday – our birthday – as the United Methodist Church,” said Rev. Albert Oliver, who delivered the sermon at the ceremony.
Two bishops -- Rueben Muller of the Brethren – and Lloyd Wicke of the Methodists stood on stage and proclaimed in unison,
“We now jointly declare that the plan of union between the Evangelical United Brethren Church, and the Methodist Church, become effective and henceforth go forward as a single entity to be known as the United Methodist Church.”
“And so at that moment, a new denomination was given birth,” said Tim Trent, Superintendent of the UMC’s Pensacola District. He’s now in his 44th year in the ministry, but in 1968, the merger was well off his radar.
“I remember my mother coming home and announcing to us that we were now the United Methodist Church,” said Trent. “At [age] 16, I didn’t care much one way or the other, but in the church I was a member in, it seemed like people were excited about it.”
One of the wrinkles that had to be ironed out, Trent says, was the status of women in the new church.
“That was the turning point, when we began to ordain women into the ministry,” Trent said. “They were able to become district superintendents, denominational leaders; they were consecrated bishops.”
Marjorie Matthews was the first woman elected a United Methodist bishop, in 1980.
The union was forged 232 years after John and Charles Wesley arrived in America to spread Methodism, which they began as students in England. In Pensacola, the Methodist Church dates back to 1821 – the year Florida became a U.S. territory when ceded by Spain.
“We are the oldest Protestant church [in Pensacola], and we are the oldest Methodist church in the state of Florida,” says Brandon Bures, an Associate Pastor at First United Methodist Church in downtown Pensacola. “We’ll be celebrating our 200-year anniversary in 2021.”
The denomination has its roots in the 18th century, both in England and across the pond, where Methodism was the de facto religious movement during the American Revolution.
“Clergy on the side of Britain had to swear to the King of England; the American colonies’ clergy was not going to do that,” said Bures. “So John Wesley sent Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury over here to form a kind of a Methodist movement. And that is where we really start seeing the formation of the Methodist Church in America.”
The first Methodist congregation in Pensacola was established by the Mississippi Conference as a missionary outpost.
“From there, there’s a long history of moving churches, because [of] church buildings being destroyed by fires, and epidemics, and you name it,” Bures says. “From that, we now are a thriving downtown church here in Pensacola.”
In 1968, the United Methodist Church began with 11 member members. U.S. membership today stands at around 12 million – second only to the Southern Baptist Convention among Protestants. District Superintendent Tim Trent says while there’s growth in other parts of the world, a cultural shift in the United States is causing a loss of membership.
“Where more and more people not only are ‘unchurched,’ but what we are calling ‘de-churched,’” said Trent. “Where people have been in the Church but have fallen out of the Church for whatever reason.”
In trying to stop the bleeding, the UMC has a program called “Fresh Expressions,” which bring the Methodist message to areas outside brick-and-mortar churches.
“We have a guy who meets with a group of unchurched people to shoot pool; we’ve got some ministers who are actually chaplains in some barrooms,” said Trent. “They don’t drink; they’re there to take somebody home if they need to be driven home. They’re there just to have a shoulder to cry on and somebody they can confide in.”
A celebration of the United Methodists’ half-century of service is set for July in Dayton, Ohio.
Another merger of sorts could be on the horizon. The United Methodist and The Episcopal Churches may enter into "full communion" within the next five years, after decades of formal dialogue. The two mainline Protestant congregations appear to be very close to recognizing each other's sacraments and ministries.