A U.S.-Only Church

Map Assessing the Worldwide Mission of The United Methodist Church (UMC.ORG)

It has been intriguing to follow a series of blog posts from “Mainstream UMC,” a newly minted special interest caucus. The posts have been analyzing an unscientific, non-representative survey that they administered through the Internet. Over 13,000 people took the survey and self-identified as either Traditionalist, Centrist, or Progressive. Mainstream UMC provides the numbers and analysis. We do not have access to the raw data. So my conclusions are based on their analysis.

Of course, the survey results are being touted to support the narrative that Traditionalists just want to “break up” The United Methodist Church. Well over two-thirds of Traditionalists answering the survey said they could not live in a denomination where same-sex marriage and ordination of practicing LGBT persons was allowed. The vast majority of Centrists and Progressives said they could continue to live in our denomination ONLY if it changed to allow same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination. In other words, if Centrists and Progressives get what they want, they could live with that. But if Traditionalists are forced to be in a denomination they believe violates Scripture, we could not live with that. Hardly breaking news.

More significantly, over 80 percent of Centrists and Progressives believe that if the Traditional Plan stays in place at the 2020 General Conference, there would need to be a change in the “common governance structure.” This could be understood as code for creating the U.S. as its own central conference to govern its own affairs. The vision is that the U.S. would have different standards of ordination and requirements around LGBT ministry than the rest of the world. The Connectional Table is submitting the beginnings of this plan to the 2020 General Conference.

More than 86 percent of Centrists and Progressives think that the U.S. conferences should have the same right to adapt the requirements of the Discipline to our cultural and legal context that the central conferences outside the U.S. have. This is despite the fact that the U.S. still has a majority of the delegates at General Conference and much of the Discipline is aimed at the U.S. context. There is only one area where the U.S. cultural context is not honored, and that is on the definition of marriage and standards for human sexuality. For the sake of that one issue, the U.S. Centrists and Progressives want to separate their governance from the global church.

Remarkably, more than three-fourths of Centrists and Progressives said it is not “appropriate for delegates from outside the United States to vote on LGBTQ ordination and marriage that affects the U.S. church.”

Again, more than three-fourths of Centrists and Progressives said it is not “appropriate for churches in the U.S. to pay for 99.3 percent of the global budget but to have only 56 percent of the votes (and declining) at General Conference.”

More than 80 percent of Centrists and Progressives thought, “The church in the United States should change our common governance structure with the global church.” This means setting the U.S. to determine its own affairs separately from the church outside the U.S. Even the way this question is worded betrays a U.S.-centric bias. According to the question, it is up to the church in the U.S. to change the governance structure, not in consultation with the global church.

Finally, three-fourths of Centrists and Progressives would be willing to continue funding the global church in a revised structure that allows the U.S. to govern itself separately. The Mainstream analysis did not say whether they asked the question whether Centrists and Progressives would be willing to continue funding the global church if the structure continues as it is today.

The biggest omission from the survey is the input of members from outside the U.S. It gives the clear impression that Mainstream UMC believes U.S. members of the church can and should determine our church’s standards and governance without even considering the 45 percent of the church that lives outside the U.S.

From the answers and analysis of this survey, it seems that many Centrists and Progressives do not want a global church. They want an autonomous U.S. church that does mission work in other countries. They want a U.S. church that can become more “relevant” to U.S. culture, while allowing the UM Church outside the U.S. to make different decisions. They want to decide matters for the U.S. church without the “interference” of United Methodists in other countries.

This attitude reflects a post-modern concept that marriage can be whatever we want it to be. Sexual morality can be determined by what works for individual people. Moral standards can wildly vary from one culture to another.

The problem with this concept is that it is not true. While customs and cultures vary over the historic eras, marriage has only ever been between a man and woman – in biblical and non-biblical cultures. God has a blueprint for human flourishing and moral standards that apply to all human beings, regardless of race, nationality, or culture.

The actions of many Centrists and Progressives betray the fact that they know morality is not relative, but universal. None of them, for example, is uncertain about the wrongness of polygamy or child marriage. That is the right impulse – but it also acknowledges that there are certain relationship barriers that should not be crossed. If morality accords with the culture, on what basis can Centrists and Progressives oppose the cultural practices of others? One cannot have it both ways. When they advocate for same-sex marriage they are merely disingenuously elevating their standards in preference to anyone else’s.

The Mainstream UMC analysis is preoccupied with the issue of money. They apparently believe that, since Americans give a great share of the money that funds the church, they should be the lone determiners of how that money is spent. It appears they believe that those who do not give as much money have no right to tell Centrists and Progressives what moral standards should be operative for them.

This attitude turns the concept of connectionalism and a global church on its head. It certainly does not accord with the vision of the church that Paul paints: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (I Corinthians 1:27-28).

Never in our lifetime will United Methodists in developing countries be able to contribute as much financially to the work of the church as we in the U.S. This elitist approach condemns less advantaged United Methodists (most of the world) to a permanent second-class status. Does the fact that the U.S. has much more money mean that we can simply ignore and disrespect the voices of our brothers and sisters in less advantaged nations?

The real lesson of the Mainstream UMC survey is that there are deep and irreconcilable differences between Centrists/Progressives and Traditionalists. We have different visions for the church. We have different understandings of Scripture and different standards of morality.

The Mainstream analysis says the survey “shows that Centrists and Progressives are still trying to find a way toward some kind of unity.” With all due respect, this comes across as wildly unrealistic. It is difficult to see how any form of unity can persist in the midst of such deep divisions. Centrists and Progressives want to have unity on their terms. Traditionalists can only accept unity on our terms. The terms are mutually exclusive. Therefore, unity is impossible without one side or the other surrendering their deeply held beliefs.

Rather than consistently demonizing Traditionalists, a more fruitful approach would be to seek a constructive way to separate in order to honor the spiritual integrity of both groups. Rather than try to force a unity that is not there or force Traditionalists out of the church (as if we were the problem), it would be healthier to recognize reality and seek a way forward that minimizes the pain and shame attached to any perspective. If we cannot honor one another together in one body, can we not at least honor one another enough to allow for a gracious separation that does not stigmatize?

 

 

 

Several Bishops Uphold UM Discipline

Bishop Grant Hagiya. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

One would not think that bishops upholding the United Methodist Book of Discipline would be worthy of a headline, but such are the times in which we live. In the recent announcement of rulings on questions of law coming before this fall’s Judicial Council meeting, it was encouraging to see even some bishops one would not expect to rule in a positive way to live by the Discipline.

The October Judicial Council meeting will consider a number of rulings by bishops on questions of church law arising from their annual conference meetings this spring. Some of those rulings relate to resolutions passed by annual conferences opposing the Traditional Plan, which was enacted into the Discipline by the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis.

Several bishops ruled that resolutions were invalid because they negated the requirements of the Discipline. Annual conferences are permitted to pass resolutions in which they disagree with actions by the General Conference. However, they are not able to legally “negate, ignore, or violate” the provisions of the Discipline. Sometimes, that becomes a very fine line to walk in the language of a resolution.

Bishop Laurie Haller (Iowa) ruled that part of a resolution passed by the Iowa Annual Conference illegally limited or eliminated funding for “background investigations, complaints, just resolutions, or clergy trials pertaining to LGBTQ+ ordination and marriage.” Quoting Judicial Council Decision 1340, she ruled, “The Discipline does not ‘authorize annual conferences to impose financial controls or eliminate funding for fair process proceedings based on the nature of the charge.'” That portion of the resolution was therefore ruled out of order.

Bishop Mark Webb (Upper New York) ruled that part of a resolution passed by the Upper New York Conference recommending a similar limitation on funding for fair process proceedings is both contrary to the Discipline and unconstitutional under the Discipline. The offending language stated, “Be it further resolved, that we strongly recommend that UNYAC refrain from expending funds or monies (either directly through payments or indirectly through the time of employees of the conference) for the purpose of background investigations, complaints, just resolutions, or clergy trials pertaining to LGBTQIA+ ordination and marriage.” This language not only negated the Discipline’s requirements for certain expenses to be paid on these matters, it unconstitutionally usurped the General Conference’s power to provide for and define the judicial process of the church.

Bishop Webb also ruled part of another resolution null and void. The resolution would have encouraged the bishop, Board of Ordained Ministry, and conference leadership team to “impose an immediate moratorium on any punitive action related to LGBTQ clergy and same-gender weddings.” Webb ruled that this provision would tend to ignore, negate, or violate the Discipline and would therefore be unlawful.

Bishop Grant Hagiya (California-Pacific) ruled an entire resolution unlawful. The resolution (passed by 82 percent in legislative committee and then on the plenary consent calendar) was a wholesale rejection of the actions of the 2019 General Conference. Entitled, “Action of Nonconformity with the General Conference of the UMC,” the resolution would have committed the annual conference to:

  • “Not conform to, comply, or cooperate with any provisions of the Traditional Plan”
  • “Not conform to, comply, or cooperate with any provisions of the Book of Discipline … that discriminate against LGBTQIA+ persons”
  • “Not conform to, comply, or cooperate with any other provisions relating to minimum penalties or the composition … and responsibilities of the Board of Ordained Ministry, among many others”
  • Expend “no funds, resources, or monies” for the purposes of “just resolutions, background investigations, or the process of complaints against clergy because of gender or sexual identity or their ministry with LGBTQI+ persons of faith”

Bishop Hagiya ruled, “It is not lawful for the California-Pacific Annual Conference to adopt RES 19-07 because it violates the principle of legality and the fair process rights of clergy persons. The resolution is, therefore, unconstitutional, null and void.”

Bishop Karen Oliveto (Mountain Sky) ruled that parts of a resolution passed by the Mountain Sky Conference were invalid. The parts ruled out stated:

  • The members of the Mountain Sky Conference “cannot and will not comply with the strict requirements of the Traditional Plan”
  • The members “reject and will not enforce the punitive and exclusionary policies in The Book of Discipline focused against gay and lesbian persons, their partners, allies, or their friends”
  • The members will support clergy who “choose to conduct same-sex unions and will take no disciplinary action against them on this matter”

Of course, Bishop Oliveto’s consecration as bishop was ruled “unlawful” by the Judicial Council in 2016 because she is married to another woman. (The Western Jurisdiction has not taken action to remove her from office.) Yet despite her vested interest, she ruled “with sincere regret and shared pain” that the above provisions “are contrary to the Book of Discipline and out of order.”

These rulings are notable because three of the four bishops involved favor changing the Discipline to allow same-sex weddings and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Yet they rightly ruled that annual conferences cannot negate, ignore, or violate the Discipline. In their rulings, the bishops demonstrated the proper way to address the conflict in our church: compliance with the decisions made by General Conference while continuing to disagree and advocate for change.

If this had been the approach taken by bishops and clergy over the past eight years, The United Methodist Church would not be in crisis today. It is not the disagreement within the church that is the problem, but the decision by many to ignore and violate the decisions of General Conference, thus disrespecting the constitutional decision-making process of the only body empowered to speak on behalf of the whole church.

We pray and believe that the Judicial Council will uphold these rulings in its October meeting, lending much-needed stability and certainty to our church’s governance.

 

 

 

Exclusionary Politics, Money, and Statistics

It’s all about the money. That could have been the title of the latest opinion piece from Mainstream UMC. And of course, beneath the issue of dollars is the issue of power and control. The central question is whether, in the name of including LGBTQ persons in marriage and ordained ministry, the church is willing to exclude millions of United Methodists outside the U.S.

Underlying a bewildering onslaught of statistics in the Mainstream piece is this message: We moderates and progressives contribute the money that funds this denomination, so we should control the church. The subtext is that traditionalists (what the piece calls “WCA conferences” in an attempt to target the Wesleyan Covenant Association) are disloyal to The United Methodist Church because they allegedly contributed a lower percentage of apportionments and a lower total of dollars than moderate and progressive annual conferences. The implication is that these disloyal traditionalists should just leave the UM Church, since they do not want to support it financially anyway, and stop trying to force their outmoded theology on the rest of us.

The Rev. Dr. Mark Holland uses this latest blog and fundraising letter on behalf of Mainstream UMC to cast this spin on the reports of election of delegates to General Conference compared with the amount and percentage of apportionments paid by each annual conference.

Of course, the reality is more complicated and nuanced. Any serious analyst of annual conference apportionment giving would agree. There are solidly traditionalist annual conferences that pay full apportionments, including one annual conference that pays 113 percent – the highest rate of any annual conference. And there are progressive annual conferences that pay lower percentages than most. The reasons for conferences not to pay full apportionments range from not receiving those moneys from local churches to the decision not to cannibalize annual conference resources to support the general church to ideological concerns on both the progressive and traditionalist ends of the spectrum.

Contrary to Holland’s rhetorical sleights-of-hand, there is no such thing as a “WCA conference” or a “WCA bishop.” The WCA does not control annual conference finances, nor has it called for the withholding of apportionments (contrary to some progressive leaders who have called for such withholding). Giving decisions are being made by hundreds of thousands of individual United Methodists and thousands of congregations. There is no organized movement on the traditionalist side to withhold or redirect apportionments. Again, this is contrary to recent moves after St. Louis by some progressives, including at least one annual conference that makes official provision for withholding general church apportionments.

The reality of our current situation makes Holland’s flashy color-coded maps of the United States seem overblown.

Regardless of the numbers, fair-minded people should thoroughly examine the underlying presuppositions of Holland’s argument.

One presupposition is that those who give the money ought to call the shots. Money represents power. What makes many U.S. progressives and moderates nervous is that in the next eight to twelve years, the membership growth in Africa will be at a tipping point when it overshadows the decline in North America. At that point, the Africans may control budgetary decisions in how the church’s money is spent. This fear of losing control of the money is prompting many centrists and progressives to reconsider the value of belonging to a global church.

(In my experience, African church leaders are very grateful for the financial support for mission and ministry that U.S. churches provide. Primarily concerned with clergy training, orphanages, hospitals, and schools, they have no desire to take advantage of that support and our goodwill by demanding what we cannot provide. Their desire is to work in equal collaboration, not as junior partners in our relationship.)

Make no mistake about it, money, justice, and control should be openly discussed. These are biblical and ethical issues addressed throughout the Scriptures. However, it is ironic to hear concern about finances and power articulated at the annual conference and global levels, yet denied at the local level. For years, traditionalist church members have been repeatedly told to give their money to the church and trust the church to know how best to spend that money. Any attempt by local members to channel their giving in ways that church leaders deem “unacceptable” is frowned upon and often actively resisted. Local church members are not able to control how their money is spent. They have only one choice: give or not give (and of course the amount).

After many years of seeing their money fund causes and political stances by the church that they do not agree with, many traditionalists have chosen to redirect or to reduce their giving. Now in response to the St. Louis General Conference, many progressives are exercising the same choice to protest a stance by the global church that they disagree with.

How this plays out in the current conflict in our church is that some progressives and moderates apparently believe it is poor stewardship to give money to support parts of the church they believe are doing harm to LGBTQ people and their allies. They are exercising a choice that many traditionalists have made for years, being unwilling to support parts of the church that violate their consciences.

Holland states, “There seem to be a lot of local churches in these [more traditionalist] conferences that are simply not invested in our global mission. Leaving is just the next step.” Does that mean that progressive annual conferences and local churches currently withholding the general church apportionments are not invested in the church’s global mission? Is the Rev. Adam Hamilton not invested in the church’s global mission because his church is reportedly withholding half its multi-million-dollar apportionments until the end of the year? Are the half-dozen annual conferences that formed task forces to explore the possibility of leaving The United Methodist Church not invested in the church’s global mission?

Holland’s characterizations ring hollow when the tables are turned in his rhetorical exercise.

Good News supports the proposition that United Methodists should not be compelled to financially support ministry that violates their consciences. But Holland should not pretend that traditionalists are the only ones who do so, nor that exercising conscientious stewardship is disloyalty to the denomination that means we should forfeit our voice.

It is not disloyalty to the church that is causing people to withhold or redirect their giving. It is mistrust in the leadership of the church and the decisions made about how to spend money. UMCOR universally receives overwhelming support because it spends its money to help those in need – a cause nearly everyone agrees on. Givers want to be good stewards of the resources God has entrusted to them, and are increasingly unwilling to write “blank checks” to the church.

That leads to the second controversial presupposition in Holland’s piece: the speculative claim that progressive/moderate annual conferences fund 78 percent of the global church’s budget and his belief that progressives and moderates should therefore determine the beliefs and direction of the church.

To put it simply, that is not how The United Methodist Church works. Responsible centrist and progressive leaders know this is true. Dollars are not votes. The rich do not get to dictate to the poor. The wealthy West does not get to overrule the voices of Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe.

Holland has already made his feelings clear when he wrote about “Five Reasons to Consider a U.S. Church” that would break apart the global UM Church along national lines. His latest piece continues the same line of reasoning, using the resources of the U.S. church to discount United Methodists in other nations. In many circles, that perspective comes across as boilerplate colonialism. It is one thing for those who have resources to set a boundary on what they are able and willing to afford spending. It is another thing to use those resources to dictate how the church should operate. We rightly decry this abuse of power in local churches. Why not in our global church?

Finally, it defies logic to blame the WCA for a shortfall in current apportionments and then criticize the WCA for raising funds to help make up the shortfall. Here, Holland is confusing apples and oranges. The shortfall in general church apportionments is not a new phenomenon. Reasonable centrist and progressive leaders know that to be true. It is caused by local churches and annual conferences across the theological spectrum for a variety of reasons, and it affects the total ministry of the church.

What is new is progressive and moderate individuals and annual conferences who had previously committed to fund specific mission work in Africa and Russia suddenly pulling the funding after the 2019 General Conference explicitly in response to the church’s decision to maintain the traditional biblical stance on marriage and sexuality. It is this shortfall that the WCA Central Conference Ministry Fund is designed to help remedy. The WCA did not cause the shortfall but is doing the responsible thing by attempting to supply assistance to central conference mission work that is jeopardized by progressives and moderates exercising their conscience-driven decision.

The big picture takeaway from all of this is that we have a demonstration of the impossibility of various parts of the church living together and sharing a common mission. Many U.S. Methodists have come to the point where they can no longer financially support those parts of the church they believe cause harm to LGBTQ people and allies. At the same time, many other U.S. Methodists can no longer financially support a church structure that not only fails to defend a traditional biblical sexual ethic, but also actively supports disobedience and defiance of the church’s requirements, decided globally by the only body with the authority to speak for the whole church.

Some moderates and progressives can discount our non-U.S. members as less than equal or not worthy of full participation in the processes of the church. However, our brothers and sisters outside the U.S. bring a needed corrective to the cultural myopia that afflicts our theology and practice of ministry. And we can do the same for them. As such, central conference leaders and members are valued and equal partners in the global ministry of The United Methodist Church, regardless of how much money each of us brings to the table.

 

 

 

The Distortion Continues

Every person is to be highly valued. That value makes it important to listen to every voice, whether critical or supportive, to discern which elements in what they say would be helpful in understanding their perspective and/or refining our own.

That is why it is important to listen and respond appropriately to a recent internet open letter from 70 alumni of Asbury Theological Seminary critical of their seminary for supporting the Traditional Plan. That plan, which was enacted by the 2019 General Conference and is now part of our Book of Discipline, maintains the biblical teaching that the definition of marriage is between one man and one woman and that sexual relationships are to be reserved for heterosexual marriage. It also attempts to increase clergy accountability.

Of course, it is not surprising that some alumni of a large and historic seminary like Asbury actually disagreed with some of the things they were taught. Although I did not study at Asbury, my experience has proven that its graduates are thoughtful and independent thinkers. They do not march in rigid lockstep. The intellectual commitments of the school encourage such independent and critical thinking.

The dissent letter has caused a recent dustup on United Methodist social media. Ironically, 70 signatures represent less than one-fourth of one year’s graduating class of United Methodist students at Asbury. Some on the list graduated as long as 50 years ago. Considering that Asbury has literally tens of thousands of United Methodist graduates over the decades, the small number makes the story search for newsworthiness.

More importantly, does the critique merit our attention?

The dissent letter states: “The [Traditional] plan also enforces harsh penalties through mandatory minimum sentences against LGBTQ+ leaders and LGBTQ+ allies. These are the same kind of sentences used in the United States criminal justice system that created mass incarceration, particularly among people of color in the United States. Stunningly, though the United Methodist Church opposes mandatory minimum sentences in the U.S. criminal justice system, the church will be utilizing these kinds of sentences to purge LGBTQ+ leaders out of its fellowship. The Traditional Plan is unbiblical in its construct and in its implementation.”

The authors of the letter fail to recognize that mandatory minimum sentences are a last resort action to regain accountability to the church’s requirements. Over the last several years, numerous instances of clergy openly and sometimes defiantly performing same-sex weddings resulted in no meaningful consequences for such actions. If the accountability system in place for the past 40 years had worked, there would have been no need for mandatory minimum sentences. If those who swore to uphold and be obedient to the Discipline had kept their oaths, there would have been no need for mandatory minimum sentences. It seems unfair to blame the church for trying to enforce its rules when those doing the blaming are the ones breaking the rules.

The dissent letter compares the church’s mandatory minimum sentences to those imposed by U.S. federal and state governments resulting in “mass incarceration.” This kind of overheated and nonsensical rhetoric is unhelpful and distorts our current reality. There is no United Methodist “mass incarceration.” There have been less than a handful of instances over the last 30 years when a clergy person received a meaningful consequence for performing a same-sex wedding or union. The “mass incarceration” rhetoric is clever, but deceptive.

The letter’s clumsy attempt to connect the church’s teaching about marriage and human sexuality to secular justice practices that could unfairly affect “people of color” is a ridiculous attempt to paint biblical teaching as akin to racism. Racism is reprehensible and must be continually combatted by all people of good will, including United Methodists of all theological stripes. But to implicitly compare the church’s biblical teachings, affirming over 3,000 years of Judeo-Christian doctrine, to racism is to stoop to character assassination.

In the most recent issue of Good News Magazine, Dr. Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, makes this important point: “[I]t is important to remember that the church of Jesus Christ is the most inclusive, diverse, multi-ethnic, and multi-linguistic movement in the history of the world. More people, from more countries, speaking more distinct languages, belong to the church of Jesus Christ than any other movement, whether religious or secular. The church of Jesus Christ is growing faster and including even more diverse peoples and ethnicities today than at any time in the history of the world.”

Additionally, the ecumenical consensus of Christianity around the globe strongly supports the traditional and historic teachings on marriage and sexuality.

The dissent letter claims, “the church will be utilizing these kinds of sentences to purge LGBTQ+ leaders out of its fellowship.” On the contrary, The United Methodist Church welcomes all people, including LGBTQ+ persons, into its fellowship, recognizing that we are all sinners in need of God’s redeeming grace. The “purge” rhetoric is one more misdirection.

The letter continues, “As we learned at our time at Asbury, to persecute people for who they are — for who God has created them to be — is a denial of the Imago Dei within each person. To stand in judgment over others and to attempt a systematic purge [misdirection again] of LGBTQ+ people through a series of complaints and trials is sin.”

Here we reach the nub of the disagreement. Genesis reminds us that God created us male and female for each other (the opening words of the Service of Christian Marriage). That original creative intent has been spoiled by the sin and brokenness that affect all humanity and all of creation (Romans 8:18-25).

The answer to sin is not to accept the behavior and redefine it as acceptable to God (Isaiah 5:20). Rather, the answer to sin is repentance, redemption through the blood of Jesus Christ, and transformation of heart and life by the power of the Holy Spirit.

It is this deep theological disagreement over whether God created people to be LGBTQ+ and whether such sexual behavior is sin, that causes the divide among us. The two views are incompatible with each other.

The dissent concludes, “It is indeed far past time for members of the Body of Christ to rid ourselves of theologies and missional practices that deny the Missio Dei and which cause harm to others.” It takes quite a lot of nerve to call all the church fathers and mothers, teachers and theologians for the past 3,000 years sinful and causing harm because they adhered to the scriptural teaching that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is contrary to God’s will. On what basis would the authors have us adopt their understanding of the Missio Dei (mission of God in the world), as opposed to the one put forward by countless generations of Christian teachers and leaders?

Let’s be clear, no seminary is above critique. The traditional understanding of Scripture is not above critique. The Traditional Plan itself was imperfect, and critique leading to its improvement is welcome. However, the dissent letter offers no constructive critique — only name-calling. There is no engagement of the issues. It offers no theological undergirding for its criticism.

The letter offers yet another example that parts of the church are operating under completely different theological worldviews, unable to communicate effectively with each other. It is this disconnect that is causing untold harm to the church and to God’s mission through the church. It demonstrates why the most effective and healthiest way forward is not to paper over this disconnect, but to acknowledge it as insurmountable. We need to find a gracious and loving way to walk separately according to our divergent worldviews. That would be far preferable than continuing to battle for control, engage in political gamesmanship, or call each other names. These behaviors (engaged in by all “sides”) are not worthy of the Body of Christ.

Traditionalists are working with persons of differing theological perspectives toward an agreed-upon proposal that would end the fighting in the church and set all “sides” free to pursue authentic and life-giving ministry in the name of Jesus Christ, according to each particular understanding of the Gospel. Pray for this endeavor, as the 2020 General Conference seems to be our last best hope for an amicable solution to turn from conflict to focused disciple-making, world-transforming ministry.

British Methodists Take Steps Toward Progressive Sexual Ethic

Methodist Central Hall in London

In an action taken July 3, the British Methodist Conference voted 247-48 to approve a report titled God in Love Unites Us. The report marks a “watershed moment in the life of the Methodist Church in Britain,” according to Methodist Evangelicals Together, the British Methodist renewal group.

The report includes these proposals:

  • Allow same-sex couples to marry in British Methodist churches, changing the definition of marriage to “two people” from “one man and one woman”
  • Celebrate civil partnerships of the same sex or opposite sex with church liturgies and prayers
  • Profess understanding for couples who cohabit without marriage, providing prayers for blessing their relationships, thereby abandoning Christian teaching that the sexual relationship is to be reserved only for marriage

Regional district conferences will now discuss these proposals and the full report before final approval would be enacted at the 2020 British Methodist conference. Anticipating that final approval, a task group is already at work developing the requisite prayers and liturgies.

The conference’s action is not a surprise, given that the report notes, “the Conference has already decided that there is no reason why any member, ordained or lay, may not enter into a (same-sex) civil partnership or same-sex marriage.” So married or partnered lesbians or gays can already serve as clergy in British Methodism.

How this action creates a “watershed” is in its change of the definition of marriage and its change in the formal understanding of human sexuality no longer being reserved for marriage. These changes have caused the Anglican Church of Britain to slow down plans for mutual recognition of ministry and eventual reunion between the Anglicans and Methodists in Britain.

The British Methodist proposal also envisions the possibility of “hold[ing] together in practice as a Christ-centred community of equal persons who hold differing convictions about relationships and marriage.” This idea is very similar to the One Church Plan approach rejected by the 2019 United Methodist General Conference.

The evangelical critique of the British Methodist proposal calls the report “unbalanced” and faults it for:

  • Failing to fully account for Scriptural teaching about marriage and sexuality
  • Failing to recognize two millennia of consistent Church teaching about marriage and sexuality
  • Failing to attend to the voices of Methodists and other Christians around the world today, placing the British proposal outside the mainstream of global Christian teaching
  • Neglecting the testimony of same-sex attracted Christians who choose a life of celibacy in obedience to the church’s teaching
  • Neglecting the testimony of same-sex attracted Christians who “have entered into traditional marriages and found God’s call to them there”
  • Ignoring the experience of Jesus, a single, celibate Jewish rabbi, and of the apostle Paul, who also lived a single, celibate life

The evangelical critique responds, “The notion that sexual ethics can be an area of legitimate disagreement within the Church is one that needs to be challenged. For Paul, as for all the early Christians, the call to holiness involves the call to sexual purity. Indeed, ‘sexual immorality’ – sex outside the bond of marriage – is consistently included within the lists of sins from which Christians need to flee.”

The critique echoes the same objections that Good News leveled against the One Church Plan. “Even if they would not be required to marry same-sex couples, Methodist ministers will be asked to commit to a new teaching on marriage that contradicts their convictions. Many will find it impossible to do so. Methodist local preachers and other lay people will also find it difficult to teach the biblical view of marriage, and their desire to appoint ministers who continue to hold the traditional view could be dismissed as homophobic. The Church would adopt a teaching on marriage that many would deem is unfaithful.”

The critique continues, “If the Methodist Church adopts a centrally authorised liturgy that offers marriage to same-sex couples or affirms God’s blessing on cohabiting partners, then it is difficult to deny that this is what the Church believes and affirms. Even if individual members dissent from using this liturgy, they will be part of a church that has significantly changed its teaching on sexuality and relationships, and ultimately on holiness. A ‘mixed economy’ model will not work. The Church is not called to accommodate two different approaches to holiness in its midst, but must rather remain faithful to the biblical teaching on marriage.”

“Far from offering a way forward for the Church, God In Love Unites Us threatens to separate Methodism from its biblical foundations. The report fails to help Methodists live more faithfully before God, and hinders the calling of the Church to ‘spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.'”

The critique concludes, “Any move away from the [current church teaching] will deliberately fracture the unity of the Church and place a number of those who have entered, in good faith, into a covenant relationship with the Church in an untenable position. It is inevitable that changes within society will pose new questions which the Church must seek to answer. However, rather than changing its teaching to fit those developments, the task of the Church is to interpret the developments in the light of its historic, biblical teaching, and thus preserve its unity.”

Our British Methodist cousins are engaged in the same struggle in which we United Methodists are currently involved. The changes proposed by their conference are even more far-reaching than those proposed in our church. We continue to pray for our British cousins as they work through the next year of discernment. We encourage them to know they are not alone in wrestling with these difficult issues. It remains to be seen how the Brits will move forward, but they may find themselves with the same fracturing we are currently experiencing.

Our trust is in God, and our hope and prayer is that out of the fracturing will come more robust and effective expressions of global Methodism.

 

 

 

The Consent of the Governed

It is a concept entrenched in modern Western culture that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed” (Declaration of Independence, United States). To be governed without our consent is the definition of what the Declaration calls tyranny, or in modern terms we would call dictatorship (by either an individual or a powerful group).

While the church is a completely unique entity compared to a national government, this understanding applies to our denomination, as well. Clergy voluntarily assent to submit to the government of the church by taking vows of ordination. Laity voluntarily submit to the government of the church by affirming the vows of baptism and church membership.

It has become strikingly evident over the past several months that a significant part of The United Methodist Church no longer gives its consent to be governed by the church, despite those vows. German and Scandinavian church leaders have declared they will investigate becoming autonomous churches rather than submit to the decisions of the St. Louis General Conference. Several bishops in the U.S. have announced that they will ignore what the General Conference enacted and operate their annual conferences as if the One Church Plan had passed. Up to a half-dozen practicing homosexuals have been ordained or commissioned in U.S. annual conferences in defiance of the longstanding prohibition in our Book of Discipline. Over a dozen U.S. annual conferences have passed resolutions rejecting the decisions made by the St. Louis General Conference.

Influential mega-church pastor, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, has stated, “We are going to live and be the kind of church we want to be, regardless what the denominational rules says [sic].” How exactly does that play out when thousands of local United Methodist congregations say the exact same thing, withholding apportionments and resisting pastoral appointments?

How can The United Methodist Church continue without the consent of its bishops, annual conferences, clergy, and members?

In the colonial era, the writers of the Declaration of Independence stated that, when a form of government no longer has the consent of the governed or becomes destructive to the purposes for which that government was established, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” That was the justification for the American Revolution.

This spring, in response to the General Conference decisions, the moderate and progressive wings of the church in the U.S. and parts of Europe have decided to revolt against the government of the church and to establish a different foundation on principles amenable to the majority of church members in those parts of the church. We see this in the examples of disobedience cited above and calls to “resist.” In addition, those favoring same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing LGBT persons are determined to reverse the outcome of St. Louis through the perfectly acceptable means of electing more progressive General Conference delegates in some annual conferences.

Yet were the progressive/moderate coalition able to undo what General Conference decided, either explicitly or implicitly allowing same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination, the traditional wing of the church in the U.S., Africa, the Philippines, and parts of Europe would no longer be able to grant the church their consent to be governed by a policy that they see as a direct contradiction of Scripture. The current situation would simply be reversed, with a different group withholding consent.

Even if the 2020 General Conference continues to affirm the traditional definition of marriage and sexual ethics, progressives have stated they will refuse to abide by the church’s policies. Based on apparent success in electing progressive and moderate delegates to the Jurisdictional Conferences, they believe they will have the votes to elect at least a dozen bishops who will refuse to enforce the church’s standards and will carry on the revolution.

Our church is now unquestionably in a constitutional crisis, where our ecclesiastical framework appears to be unable to resolve the conflict. We have two irreconcilable positions, and one faction is willfully choosing to violate the constitutionally established processes of the church. “Resist” is the mantra of the moment, but this will lead to long-term ecclesiastical paralysis, loss of legitimacy, and eventual collapse.

We have one part of the church government (some bishops and annual conferences) choosing to willfully violate church law established by another part of the church government (General Conference) operating under its constitutional authority. This after the law was affirmed by a third part of church government (Judicial Council). So we have different parts of church government operating against each other. What makes this a crisis is that there appears to be no mechanism for resolving the dispute, since some no longer accept the authority of General Conference and see it as “illegitimate.”

There is a safety valve for the church to deal with irreconcilable conflict, in that the church is a voluntary association of like-minded people. When people are no longer of like mind, they can choose not to associate (or can disassociate). Many tens of thousands of United Methodist lay members have chosen over the past 25 years to disassociate from a church they no longer agree with. Many have left because the church has become too progressive, while others have left because the church has remained committed to a traditional reading of Scripture.

Since the current church government has lost the consent of a large group in the church, it cannot continue the way it is. One group will not consent to a church government that does not allow same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination. Another group will not consent to a church government that does allow those things. So that means at least two new church governments will need to be established – one for progressives and one for conservatives. Whether either group will need to split into more factions is yet to be determined.

It is difficult for many to accept that we have reached this point. However, by their actions and statements, many progressives and moderates have established that they can no longer bear with the traditional position that has been consistently affirmed by our General Conference for 47 years. They are unwilling to allow the church to insist that its bishops and clergy function according to the General Conference’s reading of Scripture and under the General Conference’s authority.

There is no way to force people to accept a church government that they cannot in good conscience support. Nor would it be at all desirable to do so. Therefore, we must accept the fact that a separation must occur in our church. That separation can be done amicably or it can be done contentiously. One way or another, however, it must happen. We can no longer think that unity under a single church government is possible.

 

 

Traditionalists Secure General Conference Majority

General Conference 2020 will take place at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Photo courtesy of Meet Minneapolis.

With nearly all the annual conferences in the U.S. having voted, it appears that a sufficient number of traditional-minded delegates have been elected to assure a narrow but clear traditionalist majority at the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis. These delegates will be able to prevent the overturning of parts of the Traditional Plan that were enacted in St. Louis, will seek to enact revised versions of the parts of the Traditional Plan that were not enacted or ruled unconstitutional, and will press forward with other reforms to position The United Methodist Church as a more vital church capable of fruitful and growing ministry in this 21st century.

One of the goals of caucus groups such as Uniting Methodists, Mainstream UMC, UMC Next, and other moderate and progressive groups was to elect enough moderate and progressive delegates to the 2020 General Conference to reverse the decisions made in St. Louis to begin implementing the Traditional Plan. At this point in the annual conference election cycle, our analysis concludes they have failed to achieve that goal.

Enough U.S. traditionalist delegates have been elected that, together with conservative delegates from Africa, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe, the traditional position should have the majority in Minneapolis. Four of the 55 annual conferences have yet to finish their meetings. Two of them (Virginia and Western North Carolina) have the potential to elect additional conservative delegates. At this point, 432 of the 482 U.S. delegates to General Conference have been elected.

Some annual conferences gained traditionalist delegates, while others lost traditionalists. At this point, the traditionalist delegate count is down 15 percent from the St. Louis General Conference. That still leaves enough traditionalist U.S. delegates to assure a majority. This calculation is based on the reporting of reliable analysts in each annual conference. It also takes into account the possibility of up to 10 percent of the central conference delegates being unable to participate due to inability to obtain a visa. Should all the central conference delegates be able to attend General Conference, the traditionalist margin would be even larger.

Both sides of the debate organized to promote like-minded candidates for election as delegates. Lists of candidates were recommended and shared via email, text, message group, and old-fashioned paper. People on both sides solicited support via phone calls, emails, and personal conversations. The unprecedented level of organization fostered a much more overtly political flavor to the elections. What in the past had been mostly hidden in behind-the-scenes maneuvering became publicly transparent, as groups worked to get their candidates elected.

It became clear in the elections that most moderate clergy voted with the progressives and against the Traditional Plan approach to the definition of marriage and sexuality. As noted in a previous Perspective, all of the loss of traditionalist delegates fell on the clergy side.

We have heard anecdotally that a substantial number of the delegates elected were not part of the 2016-2019 delegation. If true, this shift may bring a number of inexperienced delegates into the process. If it results in fresh ideas and new resolve to end the conflict in our church, it could provide momentum toward a resolution. However, it is also possible that inexperience could handicap the delegates’ ability to accomplish what they want. Future analysis should give us greater insight into this dynamic.

Another lesson from the elections is that our “winner-take-all” system of democracy does not give adequate representation to minority viewpoints. If the majority vote together as a block, they can elect 100 percent of the delegates, even if as many as 49 percent of the annual conference holds a different view. Fully one-half of the annual conferences that have voted elected a delegation that is either all-traditional or all-progressive/moderate. Since most of these one-sided conferences elected a progressive/moderate slate, it means that many evangelicals will not be represented at General Conference. In the same way, the annual conferences voting an all-traditionalist slate will leave moderates and progressives in those few annual conferences unrepresented. One wonders if a more proportional representation from the annual conferences (similar to the parliamentary system of government) might have led to even greater evangelical representation.

While there are sometimes benefits to a “winner-take-all” system in terms of helping the body reach a clearer decision, it comes at the expense of leaving groups of people unrepresented. The end result is probably a more polarized delegation and one less inclined to compromise in general. One hopes that the 2020 delegation will be willing to compromise on non-essential issues in order to reach a definitive solution to our conflict.

Now that the election results are becoming clear, it seems apparent that U.S. moderates and progressives will be unable to reverse the decision by the global United Methodist Church in St. Louis to maintain the biblical definition of marriage as one man and one woman, continue to prohibit same-sex weddings, and increase accountability to the covenant freely promised by all of our church’s clergy. That fact should give pause to those unwilling to live by that decision. Rather than continue a fruitless battle, delegates from all perspectives should coalesce around a negotiated plan that will provide space between the groups and multiply the options for Wesleyan Methodist ministry. Such an approach is the healthiest and most Christ-like way forward for our church.

 

 

What Loving LGBTQ Ministry Could Look Like

At the St. Louis General Conference and since, conservatives have often been accused of being hateful, bigoted, and punitive toward LGBTQ persons. We frequently hear quoted “Do no harm!” and “Love your neighbor!” These statements are aimed at the traditional view that marriage is between one man and one woman and that the practice of homosexuality (as well as any other sexual relationship outside marriage) is contrary to God’s will.

The statements imply that the traditional view is unloving, but that is because we have different understandings of what love looks like. Perhaps it would be helpful to flesh out how traditionalists might engage in loving ministry with LGBTQ persons. (Obviously, in a blog post I will only be able to hit the high spots, rather than delving into the details of each person’s situation.)

From a traditional perspective, love seeks the best for the other person. The problem becomes discerning what the “best” is. We know that we have trouble understanding what is best for ourselves. In the same way, it is also risky to accept another person’s discernment about what is best for them as always being right. The way out of this dilemma is to trust that God knows and has revealed what is best for us. The Bible teaches us the way of righteousness and holiness, leading to living at our best. As Psalm 19 explains, the precepts of the Lord are “more precious than gold” and “sweeter than honey.” “By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is much reward” (Psalm 19:11).

Loving God and seeking God’s ways (not our own) is the first and greatest commandment for a reason. We too often impose our human judgment in replacement of what God has revealed to us.

To love lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning/queer persons as our neighbor means to treat each one with love, respect, and kindness as a fellow human being created in the image of God. Therefore, there is no room for insults, put-downs, joking comments at their expense, foul language directed at them, or violence of any kind. On a human level, LGBTQ persons should be treated as we ourselves would like to be treated (Matthew 7:12). There are no exceptions to the Golden Rule.

As Christians and out of love for others, we are compelled to share the love of Christ with our friends and neighbors so that they may come to know him as Savior and Lord of their lives. That includes our LGBTQ friends and neighbors. We will never help move a person closer to Jesus by harshly condemning them, insulting them, or mistreating them in any way. Rather, in a winsome and invitational way, we seek to introduce people to Jesus because we know and love him ourselves. We know that apart from him — gay, straight, or questioning — we are all lost and separated from God, so we seek to bring others closer to God. “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (II Corinthians 5:20).

In our conversations, we should not insist that gay people become straight before they can come to God, just as we do not insist that others of us have our lives all together in order to come to God. Rather, we come as we are, with only “the desire to flee the wrath to come,” as John Wesley put it. As we respond to God’s grace expressed in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, we begin to change from the inside out. We journey with Christ toward becoming the person he created us to be.

To love LGBTQ persons is to fully embrace and support them in their journey of discipleship. None of us is meant to walk that journey alone. We are assigned the task of “watching over one another in love,” as Wesley put it. We stand not in judgment over one another, but as fellow pilgrims traveling toward the common destination of becoming perfect in God’s love. For many lesbians and gays, it will mean a life of celibacy, meaning that we the church will need to help form that supportive community and provide a family relationship as the embodiment of God’s love.

To love LGBTQ persons is to teach clearly, lovingly, and sensitively what God requires of us — gay, straight, or questioning — in all aspects of life. In this era of “designer religion” where we are each tempted to create our own belief system, it is imperative that we begin to learn and understand the truth from God’s perspective. We do so in humility, knowing that none of us can perfectly understand that truth, nor do we always live up to what we know. Instead, we seek together to grow in our understanding of the truth, faithful to God’s self-revelation in Scripture and guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

God’s intent for the exercise of his good gift of human sexuality has become clear in Scripture, as interpreted and understood by over 1,200 years of Jewish history and the additional 2,000 years of the Christian church. Some who propose to change the definition of marriage to include persons of the same gender may not fully appreciate what it means to say that every single biblical scholar of the church, bishop, and defender of the faith for 2,000 years has been wrong in their understanding of God’s word. The heavy weight of that much accumulated wisdom and piety is not to be lightly cast aside by a majority vote of a General Conference.

It is not my task here to argue the biblical case for one man-one woman marriage. I would refer the reader to Richard Hays’ masterful chapter in his volume, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (chapter 16). Ambitious scholars desiring a more thorough examination of the biblical and cultural evidence may turn to The Bible and Homosexual Practice by Robert Gagnon.

To love LGBTQ persons is to not set ourselves above them, as if we were somehow superior. Rather, it is to acknowledge that we, too, stand in need of God’s grace, forgiveness, and transformation. No one’s sin is worse than another’s. Heterosexuals, no less than LGBTQ persons, need to learn God’s ways and discipline ourselves to keep them by the power of the Holy Spirit working in us.

We may never lose the attraction toward sin, whether it is greed, same-sex desires, the desire for that next drink, or whatever it might be. The gay person may never completely lose same-sex attractions. The alcoholic may never be able to safely take a drink. The greedy person may always want more than they have. But by the grace of God, the desire can weaken and lessen, until it has no more control over us. We can have the ability to say “no” to sin, despite whatever temptations we face.

On the other hand, some do experience deliverance from sin and a restoration to wholeness that allows them to no longer be tempted by sin. Some lesbians and gays have been healed and delivered to the point where they can enter into healthy opposite-sex marriages. We must not foreclose on God’s ability to supernaturally work in our lives.

We may never become “perfect in love” or without sin until we get to heaven. But we keep “attending upon all the ordinances of God” – those means of grace that strengthen our faith. We keep “consider[ing] how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, … but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

The ministry of love for all people, including LGBTQ persons, is the ministry of transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit through a supportive Christian community. All of us are in equal need of that transformation, gay or straight. God will do what he promises, no matter what challenges we face in life, as we respond to the leading of his Holy Spirit. “And we all … are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (II Corinthians 3:18).

 

 

 

Progress Report on Annual Conference Actions

We are halfway through the U.S. annual conference season. Annual conferences represent local churches and clergy in regional areas of the country. There are currently 55 annual conferences in the U.S. As of Friday, 29 of those annual conferences have met.

Several of the annual conferences have passed resolutions opposing the 2019 General Conference enactment of the Traditional Plan. Some of these have been challenged by a question of law because they commit the annual conference to not enforcing the Book of Discipline. Other resolutions are legal because they merely register an opinion. Some other annual conferences have defeated or refused to consider such resolutions opposing what the General Conference did.

In addition, Baltimore-Washington, Michigan, Northern Illinois, and North Texas have ordained or commissioned openly gay clergy. The woman ordained in North Texas is living in celibacy, so she qualifies for ordination under our standards. The two clergy in Baltimore-Washington and one in Northern Illinois are living in same-sex marriages, so they definitely do not qualify. One of the two gay persons commissioned in Michigan is living in a same-sex marriage and thus does not qualify, while the other is not and so apparently does qualify.

This effort on the part of some annual conferences to explicitly defy the Discipline is part of the “resist” campaign fostered by progressives and moderates. Because they do not agree with what the church has decided, they are refusing to go along with it.

The “resist” effort is best summarized by a statement made by the Rev. Adam Hamilton, convener of the UMCNext Conference, at the close of that conference. “We are going to live and be the kind of church we want to be, regardless what the denominational rules says [sic].” A number of U.S. bishops have publicly stated that they are going to run their annual conferences as if the One Church Plan had passed, regardless of what General Conference actually enacted. Such an approach demonstrates even more vividly the division that exists in our denomination. The divide has been deepened and moderates have generally moved in the direction of the progressives.

Nowhere has this shift been illustrated more than in the election of delegates to General Conference. Part of the agenda of the moderate and progressive coalition is to switch enough votes among the U.S. delegates to overturn the actions of the 2019 General Conference in 2020. The passion and anger among those opposed to the church’s position has motivated them to unprecedented efforts to elect sympathetic delegates. We have heard there has been a concerted effort to get many more retired clergy are attending annual conferences in order to vote for progressive candidates. We have also received reports of voter suppression in some annual conferences, where Licensed Local Pastors who meet the qualifications of the church Constitution have been denied the ability to vote for clergy delegates or have been required to provide extra paperwork, such as seminary transcripts.

So far in the election process, the number of conservative delegates has been reduced by about 20 percent compared to the previous delegation. It is not yet enough to switch the results of General Conference, but the progressive and moderate coalition is making progress toward that goal. In the end, the conservative delegation would need to lose about a third of its strength to give the progressives and moderates a realistic opportunity to reverse the outcome of St. Louis.

Interestingly, all of the traditional delegate losses have come among clergy. Overall, traditional lay delegates have actually gained slightly in numbers. This result points to the fact that the clergy and the laity in our denomination are generally headed in different directions.

In the delegation in St. Louis, 46 percent of the traditional delegates were clergy. So far in the 2020 delegation, only 30 percent are clergy.

There are several possible reasons why the clergy vote has shifted dramatically to the left.

A Northern Illinois Conference ordained two deacons and seven elders, including an openly transgender deacon. Four were commissioned as provisional deacons, including two openly LGBTQ candidates. Video image from Northern Illinois Conference livestream.

Most obviously, many moderate clergy who in the past would have been “swing” voters, voting for both progressive and conservative candidates, have decided to cast their lot entirely with the progressives. This illustrates that there is no “middle” or “center” in the church anymore (if there ever was). All United Methodists are committed to the belief that all individuals are persons of “sacred worth.” There can be no compromise about that tenet.

At the same time, we have argued for a long time that one either supports the practice of homosexuality or one does not. There is no compromise or middle ground between those two positions. One either favors same-sex marriage in the church or one does not. One either approves of ordaining practicing gays and lesbians as clergy or one does not. The decisions in St. Louis have sharpened the question for many who previously were trying to sit on the fence, and they have generally come down on the side of supporting the practice of homosexuality. One working definition of a “moderate” that has been floating around is that a moderate is a progressive who wants the change in the church to go slower.

In the clergy shift, we also see the influence of our United Methodist seminaries, nearly all of whom explicitly support the ordination of practicing gays and lesbians as clergy. Many UM seminary presidents and deans signed statements before and after the special General Conference calling on the church to change its position. Many faculty at these institutions come from a progressive viewpoint-some very forcefully so. Many of our UM seminaries are taking steps to explicitly welcome and encourage LGBTQ persons to attend. Many UM seminaries emphasize social justice coursework and deemphasize biblical study. For many of them, the study of the Greek and Hebrew languages in which the Bible was written is optional. This approach to theology and the advocacy for LGBTQ equality deeply influences students at a formative time in their lives, leading to a clergy that is substantially more liberal than the laity who make up the people in the pews.

Clergy also tend to be institutionalists. We naturally gravitate toward protecting the institution of the church, since it is our livelihood and career. Many moderates believe the best way to protect the institution is to make it more relevant to the culture in which we live. They have bought into the mistaken assumption that a progressive Gospel will attract more members than a traditional one – a false premise that has yet to materialize into reality within any of our progressive mainline sister denominations.

Furthermore, when clergy hear a consistent progressive message from their bishop and other conference leaders, who also tend to be disproportionately progressive, they bow to that pressure. After all, if “getting ahead” or receiving a good appointment depends upon upholding the “party line” of the bishop and leadership, that is the direction many clergy will go.

Ironically, in a quest for diversity, the church is becoming less diverse. We are hearing that more and more of the delegates are coming from metropolitan areas, rather than rural churches. Support for traditional theological approaches is waning. Other mainline denominations have found that growing more progressive means growing older, whiter, and smaller. That may be where the moderate and progressive wing of the church is headed.

As we argued in the lead-up to St. Louis, many moderates would be willing to tolerate the presence of evangelicals in the church, as long as the moderates and progressives get to do ministry the way they want. Now that the church is trying to get serious about seeing that clergy live by its policies, however, they are singing a different tune. Many moderates cannot be in a church that does not allow progressives to perform same-sex marriages and ordain practicing gay and lesbian clergy. So they have cast their lot with the progressives.

The result of this approach would be to jettison most of the global church and adapt United Methodism to current American culture. That is the direction being chosen by many in these important delegate elections. That is the opposite direction from where most evangelical United Methodists would like to see the church move.

Since different parts of the church are headed in different directions, it would make more sense to allow the different parts to separate and move unencumbered in the direction they believe their ministry should go. It remains to be seen whether that is the approach moderate and progressive leaders are willing to take.

 

 

Rejoinder to Rebekah Miles

The Rev. Dr. Rebekah Miles recently invited her readers to join her going down the “rabbit hole” into the “Alice in Wonderland” that is currently The United Methodist Church. The point of her post is to critique elements of the Traditional Plan and encourage her readers to worry about what it might mean if the rest of the Traditional Plan is enacted at General Conference 2020 in Minneapolis.

Although I would not use her over-the-top rhetoric, I do see truth in her short-term prognosis for United Methodism. “Conservative groups will keep pushing for legislative accountability, even if they have to go to more astonishing extremes to do so. Progressives will keep pushing the limits of that accountability through increasing ecclesial disobedience, even if they have to go to more astonishing extremes to do so. And many moderates, horrified by the draconian extremes of the So-Called-Traditional Plan, are finally ready to join them. Nobody will back down. And as far as I can tell, all of us believe we are acting according to conscience and in loyalty to the people with whom we are in ministry.”

In Miles’ mind, the solution is “to find a way either to amicable separation or a profoundly new form of unity.” She refers interested readers to her chapter in a recently published anthology. “I make a more sustained case for separation or significant restructure in my article, ‘When Brothers and Sisters Fight to the Death: Ecclesiology, Mission, and the United Methodist Church,’ in Where do We Go From Here? Honest Responses from 24 United Methodist Leaders, Kevin Slimp, ed. (Market Square Publishing, 2019)”

Although we come at this solution from opposite ends of the theological spectrum, Miles and I ultimately arrive at the same place. The only healthy way forward for The United Methodist Church is some form of separation. (So far, proposals to resurrect the Connectional Conference Plan or some other “significant restructure” into a “new form of unity” have failed to attract concrete ideas or substantial support.) I think we would both agree that finding our way to that reality in an amicable way that is generous of spirit would be a significant witness to our faith in Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit.

So far, so good. Where I part ways with Miles is over her caustic characterization of the Traditional Plan as containing “draconian extremes” that “horrify” many moderates.

The way Miles describes the Traditional Plan, it sounds like the provisions of the Traditional Plan were dreamed up by some mad church scientist having a nightmare. Unfortunately, such a description ignores the context and history of our church and how we got to this point. As a colleague portrayed it to me, this would be similar to being late to attend a play. Walking in during intermission and starting the story with the second act of the play, one would have missed the first act. The reason why the characters are acting the way they are would make no sense because the foundations for their actions in the first act were missed.

Act One of the United Methodist drama is a 30-year-long story of increasing disregard for the teachings and standards of the church and for the ability of General Conference to make decisions on behalf of the whole church. This act included a number of high points such as incidents involving the “Sacramento 68,” Jimmy Creech, Greg Dell, Karen Dammen, Beth Stroud, and resolutions passed by up to a dozen annual conferences repudiating the teachings of the church on marriage and sexuality, including innovative legislative strategies aimed at circumventing church requirements. The list could go on.

The climax of Act One, however, was the series of events beginning in 2011, when hundreds of UM clergy signed statements indicating their willingness to perform same-sex weddings. Bishop Melvin Talbert twice invaded another bishop’s territory for the purpose of performing high-profile same-sex weddings, while calling for increased disobedience. Some bishops began settling complaints against clergy performing such weddings by first a 24-hour suspension, then no consequences at all, and finally even giving these clergy a platform to promote disobedience in their annual conferences. About a dozen annual conferences officially declared they would not comply with the Book of Discipline and boards of ordained ministry openly recommended self-avowed practicing homosexuals to be ordained as clergy.

This growing bishop and clergy rebellion in some parts of the U.S. led to the realization at the 2016 General Conference that the situation in our church was untenable. A group of respected leaders asked the bishops to create a commission to develop a plan for amicable separation of the denomination. Instead the Council of Bishops recommended a Commission on a Way Forward to try to keep the denomination together.

Act Two began with the work of the Commission, which resulted in three alternative “ways forward” that would preserve some amount of unity in the church. The Connectional Conference Plan was a “significant restructuring” of the church, for which Miles recognized the need. However, neither end of the theological spectrum (nor the moderate institutionalists) embraced the restructure option. This left two “winner-take-all” options.

The One Church Plan would dramatically change the church’s teachings and allow same-sex weddings and ordination, at which change conservatives indicated they would have to withdraw from the denomination. (Tellingly, many moderate institutionalists were dead-set against allowing anyone to leave and refused to consider any kind of exit path. They wanted to force unity, even at the cost of people’s consciences and the prospect of a multitude of lawsuits.)

The Traditional Plan was an attempt to restore accountability and compliance with the Book of Discipline and the decisions of the General Conference, while providing a gracious exit for those who could not live with the current standards of the church. Here again, it is important to note that many moderate institutionalists refused to allow for a gracious exit, even for themselves. Instead, they did all they could to obstruct the Traditional Plan and attempt to prevent the General Conference from making any decision at all.

The key to this narrative is that the Traditional Plan would not have been necessary at all, except that the instruments of unity – primarily some bishops and annual conferences – failed to maintain the unity of the church by enforcing the Discipline’s requirements. Over the past 30 years, it has been the escalating disobedience that has forced the General Conference to take repeated actions to close loopholes and adopt punitive measures to ensure compliance. Without such compliance, the church would experience chaos and a constitutional crisis. Ironically, that is where we are now, at the end of Act Two, in chaos and constitutional crisis.

For Dr. Miles to write as if the Traditional Plan were developed in a vacuum is unhelpful as various factions discuss the future in good faith before we arrive in Minneapolis. Her comments in this instance can be seen as both disingenuous and misleading. Nitpicking individual provisions of the Traditional Plan with scaremongering rhetoric misses the bigger picture described above.

Moderates such as Miles had a chance to help the church move into a healthier place in 2016 by either ending the disobedience or helping the church to consider a plan of separation. They did neither. Instead, they attempted to force an artificial unity on the church that is belied by the differing foundational theological commitments held by progressives and conservatives. Failing in that attempt, they are now engaging in the very same divisive and schismatic actions they have accused conservatives of contemplating over the years, but magnified ten-fold. When the shoe is on the other foot, the standards for behavior and expectations change radically.

What will Act Three hold? Will the confrontation simply escalate until the church explodes? (Think of the movie, War of the Roses.) Or will there be partners across the theological spectrum willing to work together to formulate a fair and reasonable plan of separation that allows the groups with contradictory theological commitments to walk apart, while retaining the possibility of cooperation in areas of agreement? One hopes that the public relations battle being waged by some on the left to demonize and misrepresent the Traditional Plan and its supporters does not make such cooperation impossible.