Archives for April 2019

Why Traditionalists Are Not Leaving

Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey observes the results from a Feb. 26 vote for the Traditional Plan at the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

In a recent blog post, the Rev. Adam Hamilton outlined the results of two leadership meetings held to identify options for a way forward for The United Methodist Church from the perspective of moderates and progressives. He identified two options his groups are considering:

  1. Leave to form a new United Methodism
  2. Stay, resist, give the Good News/Confessing Movement/Wesleyan Covenant Association the gracious exit they’ve been looking for in hopes that they will leave, and then reform the United Methodist Church for mission and ministry for the 21st century

Is Option 2 a realistic one? Will traditionalists really leave? Let’s take a closer look.

Traditionalists have not been eager to leave the denomination. It is a mistake to think traditionalists have “been looking for” a gracious exit. For over 50 years, Good News has enthusiastically encouraged evangelicals to remain in The United Methodist Church and help reform it. We have heard from hundreds of clergy and laity that they would have left United Methodism long ago, if it were not for Good News. Our ministry’s whole reason for existence is to help bring reform and spiritual renewal to The United Methodist Church, not to lead evangelicals out of the church. There have been multiple times over the past 25 years when leaving might have seemed like a good idea, if that were the direction Good News wanted to take. Yet we have steadfastly committed to staying and helping make the church better.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) has consistently said that its goal is to reform United Methodism. It has stated that, if the church were to change its position in order to allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, only then would the WCA seek an exit for those wanting to maintain the current, biblically-based teachings on marriage and sexuality. When it looked like the One Church Plan might pass the special General Conference, the WCA engaged in extensive contingency planning in order to be ready for such an exit, should it be needed. But exiting the denomination was never the first priority of the WCA.

To fair-minded observers in the broad center of United Methodism, it would be more than a little befuddling to ask traditionalists to leave after the General Conference adopted a Traditional Plan. It would not make sense for traditionalists to abandon the denomination when it affirms traditional standards on marriage and sexuality.

Readers of the proposal at General Conference knew that the gracious exit that was part of the Traditional Plan was primarily for those who could not live with the current requirements of the church. We acknowledged that there might be a few traditionalist congregations that might desire to leave because of their unique local circumstances, perhaps feeling isolated in an overwhelmingly progressive annual conference. But in an attempt to implement the Golden Rule of treating others as we would want to be treated, we sought to implement as generous an exit path as possible for progressives who could no longer live under the church’s Discipline. Ironically, it was the moderates and progressives who opposed an exit path and blocked our attempts to ensure it was constitutional. The very ones that it was for, rejected it.

Traditionalists believe that we stand in the line of the Wesleys and Asbury, Otterbein, Boehm, and Albright. We see ourselves as purveyors of the same doctrine, the same disciplined way of discipleship, and the same spirit that prompted the founding of Methodism in England and America. Justifiably, traditionalists would be reluctant to depart from that inheritance.

United Methodism’s teachings on marriage and sexual ethics stand in continuity with 2,000 years of Church teaching and 135 years of Methodist teaching. It is those who want to jettison our teachings on marriage and sexuality who should be unencumbered to launch into a new direction with a new vision and a new denomination (Option 1 in Hamilton’s scheme).

Traditionalists are unwilling to abandon our brother and sister United Methodists outside the United States. Generally, United Methodists in Africa, most of the Philippines, and Eastern Europe and Eurasia hold to the same traditional perspective on marriage and sexual ethics as traditionalists in the U.S. They make up the vast majority of United Methodist members outside the U.S. Devoid of evangelicals and traditionalists in the U.S., our international brothers and sisters would have few partners left whom they could trust to share their theological perspective. It would set up a dynamic of conflict between U.S. United Methodists and those outside the U.S. Such a conflict would probably spell the end of a global United Methodist Church. Persistent attempts to create a U.S. central conference demonstrate the move away from global Methodism to national Methodism on the part of some. The hostile reaction of some moderates and progressives toward African and Russian United Methodists who spoke out for the traditional perspective at General Conference are harbingers of the coming conflict, should U.S. traditionalists leave the church.

Traditionalists believe we have the votes to fully pass and implement the rest of the Traditional Plan at General Conference 2020. With Africa gaining votes and the U.S. losing votes, and with the full ten-day time frame available, revised versions of the provisions that failed to pass in St. Louis or are declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council can be passed and implemented. The denomination can continue to move in a more traditional direction, opening the way for other reforms that can make the church more effective for 21st century ministry. Why would traditionalists leave when their prospects for further success in reforming the church are growing increasingly brighter?

There are many reasons why traditionalists are reluctant to leave The United Methodist Church. But traditionalists would be open to a mutually agreed separation that multiplies Methodism into two or three new denominations. In that case, no one would be “leaving” the UM Church, but everyone would be on the equal footing of deciding on a new affiliation with a new denomination.

A scenario of multiplying Methodism would seek to treat everyone fairly and equally. There would be no winners or losers. All annual conferences and local churches would be able to make an informed choice about which new Methodist expression they want to be part of. The consciences and convictions of all would be respected because all could belong to an expression that embodies their convictions.

The contingency planning that the WCA has done could provide the foundation for a new evangelical Methodist denomination. The current Discipline altered to include the Simple Plan or the One Church Plan could provide the foundation for a new progressive Methodist denomination. Both groups could modify and reform their church structures in a way each believes would best position the church to engage in 21st century ministry.

Unhindered by the theological conflicts over the authority and interpretation of Scripture, marriage, and sexual ethics, each expression could focus more intently on its vision for mission and ministry. The possibility for two new vital expressions of Methodism could spark the turnaround that our denomination needs after 52 years of decline.

Multiplication/separation is a lot different than “leaving.” And Good News has maintained for a number of years that some form of separation, allowing different groups to follow their own path in ministry, is the only reasonable way to resolve our theological conflict.

Interestingly, this multiplying Methodism scenario is not included among the progressive/moderate options, based on Hamilton’s published report. It appears that some progressives and moderates may still be stuck in binary win/lose, leave/stay models that ensure continuing conflict, rather than leading to peaceful resolution. One hopes that they will be willing to entertain other options. If they are banking on traditionalists leaving The United Methodist Church, they are simply setting us all up for another hurtful and divisive General Conference.

 

 

 

The Church’s Foundation

After Notre Dame fire, a GoFundMe ensured black churches burned in Louisiana also got funds

Watching the fire consuming the roof of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on the evening news aroused a feeling of horror and helplessness. Would the whole building be consumed? Would priceless treasures from 850 years of history be lost? Would beautiful works of art and sculpture be destroyed? News in the aftermath provided hope that at least some elements could be preserved or restored.

More personal for many was the awareness that this cathedral was a working church, a place where children were baptized, marriages celebrated, departed loved ones remembered. And it was a cathedral not just of a particular parish, but of the nation of France, holding the place of sacred space for the crowning of monarchs, the celebrating of deliverance in war, and the mourning of national leaders. The loss of this place as it was threatens the precious memories of what was celebrated and remembered there.

These thoughts and feelings captured on a grander scale what other congregations have gone through, even recently, as three African-American churches were burned down in southern Louisiana, allegedly set afire by a young white man. The sanctuaries were St. Mary Baptist in Port Barre, as well as Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist in Opelousas.

These three churches each carried over 100 years of memories. One parishioner, Monica Harris, said, “Seeing the church in the condition it is now, it’s almost like losing a family member.”

The fact that the Notre Dame fire occurred on Monday of Holy Week added to the tragedy. This is the high point of the church year, when Christians remember the last week of Jesus’ life on earth, stretching from Palm Sunday through the Last Supper, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, enduring the trials and torture, his crucifixion, burial, and finally, triumphantly, his resurrection from the dead. There would have been services of worship scheduled for every day, with hours-long remembrances on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Now, where will the people worship?

In the midst of the tragedy, in the providence of God, perhaps we are to focus on the oft-repeated cliché that the church is not the building, but the people. As the Rev. Harry J. Richard, pastor of Greater Union Baptist Church, put it, “They burned down a building. They didn’t burn down our spirit.” The building is destructible, but the people of God is eternal. In fact, Jesus said the very gates of hell could not prevail against the Church.

On Good Friday, we remember how Jesus gave his body to be put to death for all of humanity, to reconcile us to God. We cannot fathom the immensity of the gift. Yet his spirit remained, and was endowed with a new, resurrection body for a new, eternal existence as the ever-embodied Son of God and Savior of the World. Church buildings can suffer destruction, but the Spirit of Christ can remain in the community of God’s people in that place, ready to be embodied in a new structure that can serve as the ongoing launching place for worship and ministry.

The most essential point of focus for Holy Week, however, is Jesus Christ himself. This week is all about him – what he did, what he said, what he allowed to be done to him. If it were not for the events of this week, there would be no Church, there would be no people of God. In instituting the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion), with the washing of the disciples’ feet, and even with his last words on the cross, Jesus was creating a new family – the family of God. We are joined together by him and because of him. (See the sermon by Fleming Rutledge posted on the Good News website.)

That is why my favorite hymn about the Church is The Church’s One Foundation written by a Church of England clergyman in 1866. It realistically describes the Church in all her glory and in all her fallenness. Through it all, Christ is the single foundation of the Church, for

She is his new creation by water and the Word.

From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;

With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.

Far from being narrow or parochial, the Church is

Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth.

This universal reach was seen in the outpouring of faith and sorrow by the internationally diverse crowds in Paris and condolences from around the world. The Church is a global community of faith encompassing every nation, race, gender, and language.

At the same time, the hymn is realistic in seeing the struggles of the Church.

Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed,

By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,

Yet saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up, “How long?”

And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.

We long for things to be set right according to God’s perspective, and we grow weary of the struggle and impatient for God to act. But S. J. Stone, the hymn writer, encourages us that after the night of weeping comes the morn of song. On Good Friday, we remember that Easter Sunday is coming. God will make all things right once again.

She waits the consummation of peace forevermore;

Till, with the vision glorious, her longing eyes are blest,

And the great church victorious shall be the church at rest.

We press on to one hope, “with every grace endued.” In the midst of the struggle, in the midst of the uncertainty, in the midst of the disappointment, in the midst of what seems like death, the Father pours his abundant grace out upon his children. We are sure, not of what we have, but of what we hope for. We are certain, not of what we see, but of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1).

We walk by faith, not by sight (II Corinthians 5:7), trusting that after death comes resurrection, believing God’s promise that he will never leave us or forsake us, whether the denomination divides, the church building burns down, or whatever in life we might experience. It is this hope, this faith, this certainty, that gives us confidence to face each day, not standing on our own powers and abilities, but built together by faith on the one foundation that can withstand all – Jesus Christ, our loving Lord.

 

 

 

An Open Letter Response to James Howell

Dear Dr. Howell,

A friend called my attention to the video you posted on YouTube for your congregation. I believe you to be an informed and thoughtful person, which makes your gross misrepresentation of the Traditional Plan and those who support it appear to be not just a mistake but a purposeful mischaracterization of the motives and character of your brothers and sisters in Christ.

We may well see the issues of marriage and sexuality in different ways, but there is no reason to call into question the character and motives of those we disagree with.

At one point in the video, you describe Traditional Plan supporters as “not your kind of conservative” to the conservative members of your congregation. Frankly, the persons described in your video are not my kind of conservative either. In fact, I have never met anyone in The United Methodist Church who conforms to the ugly caricature you have labored so hard to create.

As one of the primary authors and the submitter of the Traditional Plan, allow me to address a few of the misstatements you make in your video, with the hope of correcting the record and enabling your listeners to get a more accurate picture of the Traditional Plan.

You say, “The goal of the Traditional Plan is to stamp out homosexuality from the church and to stamp out even those who are sympathetic.” There is no truth in that statement. The Traditional Plan affirms the long-standing position of The United Methodist Church that all persons are created in God’s image, of sacred worth, in need of God’s grace, and in need of the ministry of the church. At the same time, the church affirms that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God’s will for human flourishing.

As the Wesleyan Covenant Association recently stated, all persons, gay or straight, celibate or sexually active, are welcome in our churches and ministries. We are all broken and fall short of God’s glorious standard. We can, and do, welcome people into the church and into our lives whether or not we can condone all of their behaviors. Our hope is that all persons will have a personal, life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ, own him as their Savior and Lord, and experience the transformation of life we all seek by the power of the Holy Spirit.

You say that Traditional Plan supporters “wish to be rid of centrists, moderates, progressives, and even thoughtful conservatives.” Once again, there is no basis in the language of the Traditional Plan for this claim. The Traditional Plan sought to regain conformity across the church with what the church has decided in conference, the actions of the General Conference, which is the only body that can speak for United Methodism as a whole.

What organization establishes rules and standards and then allows its leaders to routinely violate those standards with impunity? The Traditional Plan allows those who cannot abide by the policies of the church to withdraw under gracious terms, keeping local church property. It expels no one. The Plan’s concern is not over people who disagree with the church’s policies, but with those who willfully break them. Would you not do something similar with clergy who were unwilling to provide infant baptism or ordain women to ministry in our church?

You say, “Severe penalties are imposed on anybody who thinks at all sympathetically and doesn’t act at all severely toward the LGBTQ community.” Once again, this is false. The Traditional Plan says nothing about what anyone thinks about gay persons or hopes for the church. It establishes penalties for clergy who perform same-sex weddings. It also requires annual conferences to abide by the church’s policy restricting self-avowed practicing homosexuals from being candidates, commissioned, or ordained into ministry in our church.

The Plan requires no one to “act severely” toward the LGBTQ community. The Plan merely continues the long-standing policy of not allowing same-sex weddings to be performed by our pastors or on church property and of not allowing self-avowed practicing homosexuals to serve as clergy.

You claim, “None of our pastors who serve our [local] church could be ordained under this plan.” This could be very confusing for the members of your local congregation. The only persons who could not be ordained under the Traditional Plan are self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Those who are merely supportive of same-sex marriage or LGBTQ ordination are not addressed in the Traditional Plan and certainly are not penalized. I would encourage your listeners to read the Traditional Plan for themselves to determine what it says.

You go on to say, “If you answer yes to the question ‘will you accept gays in your church’ you cannot be ordained.” Again, this is false. All the Traditional Plan supporters would, to use your phrase, “accept gays in our church.” Accepting LGBTQ persons in the church does not prevent a person from being ordained under the Traditional Plan, only an unwillingness to abide by the policies set by the church, which every candidate for commissioning and ordination promises to uphold.

You cite the first rule of John Wesley’s Methodism is to do no harm, and you state that the 2019 General Conference “did a lot of harm.” I agree. When Traditional Plan supporters are called hateful and bigoted, when they are accused of bringing a “virus” into the church, when every parliamentary trick in the book is used to thwart the will of the majority and to mock our longstanding practice of holy conferencing, a lot of harm is done. When Traditional Plan supporters’ motives are falsely represented, when provisions of the Traditional Plan are distorted and misrepresented, when deception becomes an acceptable advocacy practice, a lot of harm is done. Even in deep disagreement, we can and should treat one another with Christ-like love and respect. Can we not treat one another the way we would want to be treated?

It is possible you are saying that the church’s position that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching is inherently harmful. If so, that indicates to me that some form of separation is most likely the only way to resolve our differences, as you yourself have acknowledged.

Neither of us wants to be part of a church that does harm. For you, calling same-sex relationships sinful does harm. For me, affirming same-sex relationships does harm by contradicting the Scriptures and by foreclosing the opportunity for repentance, personal transformation, and holiness. When the church calls out sin — whether it be heterosexual, homosexual, or non-sexual — it might be “harmful” in the sense that it hurts the feelings of those caught in that sin, but the ultimate goal is our healing, forgiveness, and redemption. Just as many medical treatments cause short-term pain in the interest of healing, God’s call to holiness may cause pain but lead us to reconsider our life choices and pursue God’s will for our flourishing. That is the goal of the Traditional Plan.

Finally, you say that you “stand with people whom other people may not want to be around.” That kind of derogatory innuendo is a tremendous disservice to your congregation when you attempt to portray in this way your fellow United Methodists who supported the Traditional Plan in St. Louis. It is reckless for you to presume to say we do not want to be around LGBTQ persons. Many of us have gay persons in our families, in our neighborhoods, and in our local churches. We want to be around them — and we are — simply because we love them.

Furthermore, we want to be a living example of Jesus’ love in drawing them to himself. How can people be drawn to Christ (our primary goal as Christians) if we are unwilling to “be around” them? That is a self-defeating proposition and one that would not characterize most evangelical United Methodists.

Dr. Howell, I am disappointed that you would so cavalierly dismiss Traditional Plan supporters with your false portrayal of the Plan and our thoughts and motivations. Such an approach might influence your congregants, but it does a disservice to the church, and it will not help us to resolve our church’s crisis in a God-honoring way. It would go a long way in advancing the dialogue in our church upon a higher plane if you retracted or corrected your video.

Thank you for your consideration.

In Christ’s service,

Tom Lambrecht

 

 

 

The Rise of the Moderate Incompatibilists

When the Committee on a Way Forward was first established, I floated a way of categorizing various perspectives regarding United Methodism’s view of marriage and sexuality. In these categories, “traditional incompatibilists” and “progressive incompatibilists” could not live in a denomination that allowed practices they disagree with. On the other hand, “traditional compatibilists” and “progressive compatibilists,” while still holding their perspectives, could see themselves living in a denomination with the practices of both perspectives allowed.

There were those who later would emerge as “moderate compatibilists” who could live with either perspective as long as there was institutional unity.

Recent statements from the “moderate compatibilists” demonstrate that they may well have jumped categories – proving to be neither moderates nor compatibilists.

Good News president Rob Renfroe has described UM moderates as progressives who simply want to move more slowly to change the church. The Rev. Adam Hamilton, for example, has stated that he believes the controversy over same-sex marriage and gay clergy will be a non-issue in twenty years because the church will have become fully affirming of same-sex relationships. In the meantime, he has been willing to tolerate the presence of a theologically conservative voice within the UM Church, believing that it will eventually fade away.

Prior to General Conference 2019, many moderates declined to take a position on whether or not they themselves would perform same-sex marriages. However, the decision of GC 2019 to reaffirm the church’s long-standing teaching that all persons are of sacred worth and that, simultaneously, the practice of homosexuality is contrary to Christian teaching appears to have radicalized many moderate leaders.

With uncharacteristic hyperbole in the aftermath of St. Louis, Hamilton wrote, “The policy … passed at General Conference treats gay and lesbian Christians as second class. ‘You are people of sacred worth, but so long as you wish to share your life and love with another, you are living in sin.’ … How long will our people continue to feel it is okay to treat their LGBTQ friends this way?” In an open meeting with members of his church and livestreamed on the internet, he said, “I cannot pastor a church in a denomination that treats LGBTQ persons as second class citizens.”

The Rev. Tom Berlin, a Virginia pastor who submitted the One Church Plan to General Conference, told his congregation, “Those of us who support marriage and job equity find the more stringent conditions of the Traditional Plan to be a movement away from the way of Christ.” He instituted a special committee in his church to come up with a six-month plan to be more intentionally inclusive of LGBTQ persons in the congregation.

Neither of these prominent moderate leaders have publicly said so, but their statements seem to imply their willingness to perform same-sex weddings if allowed by the denomination to do so. Of course, many other more progressive clergy have already signed statements indicating they are willing to perform same-sex weddings now in defiance of our church’s teaching.

The point is that many moderates no longer seem to be on the fence. They are no longer trying to hold a middle ground between theological conservatives and progressives. They appear to have joined the progressive advocacy for same-sex marriage and gay clergy.

At the same time that these moderates seem to have become radicalized, they have also become incompatibilists. Prior to St. Louis, they all waxed eloquently about how maintaining the unity of the church was the most important value. They asserted repeatedly that there is room in The United Methodist Church for people with all different views and practices regarding LGBTQ ministry.

Now, however, some of these same leaders have decided it may be time to leave the church or to work toward some form of separation. Hamilton wrote in his blog, “I’ve never seriously thought about leaving the UMC, until now.” He is quoted in a Washington Post article as saying, “To be in a church that will be in the future led by the most conservative caucus in our denomination feels untenable for [centrist churches].”

According to the Post article, the Rev. James Howell, a nationally known moderate leader and pastor of a 5,000-member church in Charlotte, North Carolina, has come to the same conclusion. “Right after the conference, people were saying, ‘Are we going to leave? Is there going to be a new denomination?’ Not today. There’s millions of people involved. You can’t form a new denomination by Thursday,” said. Howell. “I don’t know anybody who thinks we can continue to stay together with what we have now. I was someone who dreamed of that for a long time…. It’s sad, but it’s just not viable.”

“We’ve either got to figure out how we go together [with same-sex marriage], or how we separate,” declared North Georgia’s Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson in the Post article.

Compatibilists in the past have given the impression that they can get along with a variety of perspectives and practices. It appears that this only holds true if progressive practices are allowed. In other words, they are happy to stay in one church with different viewpoints as long as they get to do what they want to do. If the church says no, as it did in St. Louis, they become an incompatibilist and cannot remain in the church.

This is actually an encouraging development, as it means that at least some progressives and moderates are coming to the conclusion that we have irreconcilable differences in the church that make it impossible for both groups to live together in one structural body.

It was striking to read both Hamilton and Berlin say that many of their people felt that the way the church or traditional delegates characterized LGBTQ persons was hurtful or offensive. I do not recall any comments made by traditional delegates at General Conference that maligned the character of LGBTQ persons. What this means is that the traditional message that sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage are contrary to God’s will and therefore sinful is a message that a significant group in the church finds hurtful and offensive. At the same time, it certainly is hurtful and offensive for traditionalists to be called hateful, bigoted, and backward.

If the basic message of each perspective is that harmful to those of a different perspective, how is it the best decision to stay together in one church? It appears that more moderates and progressives may be coming to the same realization. Our only hope of not repeating the battle of St. Louis in Minneapolis is to come to a negotiated agreement on separate ways forward. Hopefully, enough leaders across the theological spectrum will come to that realization to work together toward a positive future for Methodism in America and around the world.