Unity or Truth?

Many see the conflict currently raging in The United Methodist Church as a contest between unity and truth. Is it more important to follow what we believe to be the truth or to stay united as a denomination?

There are both progressives and conservatives fighting on the basis of allegiance to the truth. Many conservatives believe that the Bible clearly teaches an understanding of human sexuality that reserves sexual expression for the context of marriage between one man and one woman. That is the truth, as we see it — God’s unchanging will for human flourishing. And we believe in standing firm for that truth. We believe the church should teach that truth and advocate for it in the culture. We believe the denomination should clearly state that truth and not waffle or waver. And if worst came to worst and the denomination refused to maintain the truth, we would find ourselves compelled to depart for another church whose beliefs lined up with what we believe the Bible teaches.

Many progressives believe that the Bible teaches a different truth — or at least that the Bible doesn’t prohibit a different truth. They believe that sexual expression can be found to be equally holy and fulfilling between persons of the same gender as of those of an opposite gender. They believe that denying the possibility of sexual relationships to same-sex couples is a violation of how God created them. As such, the church must be encouraged or forced to change its teaching to allow for maximum self-realization for persons with same-sex attractions, as well as those with opposite-sex attractions. Progressives believe in standing firm for this truth. They advocate for it strenuously. They stage demonstrations and other forms of protest. And in the final analysis, if the church’s rules contradict the truth as they see it, they are willing to violate the church’s rules, sacrificing unity in order to abide by the truth as they see it.

Both groups value truth above unity. Where living in unity as a church would compromise their understanding of the truth, both groups say No Compromise.

There are others who value unity of the church above a commitment to a certain understanding of the truth — at least with regard to the church’s teaching about sexuality. Some believe that the only way to resolve the difference of opinion over sexuality is for the church to continue arguing and discussing the merits of the various understandings of truth. Eventually, they believe, the real truth will become evident. Until that time comes, they believe the church must stay together in order to have the greatest impact on the world in which we live.

Some in the unity group believe that homosexual relationships are permitted by Scripture, but they are willing to wait until the majority of the church becomes convinced of that fact. They are willing to put up with contradictory opinions existing in the same church with the hope that conservatives will eventually see the light and come over to their perspective. They remember how conservatives used to be against divorced clergy, but now seem willing to permit it. In the same way, they hope conservative opinion will “evolve” to supporting same-sex relationships.

Persons in the unity group maintain that the biggest impact our church can have on our society is to show that it is possible to live together and work together, even with drastically different understandings of the truth. I would maintain that our impact would be dramatically weakened by the fact that we cannot agree on what we are promoting. As Paul said, “Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” (I Corinthians 14:7-8).

It seems like the “local option” proposal would be perfectly positioned for the unity group. Allow everyone to act in keeping with his or her conscience, and we can all live together in one church. What could be more reasonable than that?

This approach, however, fails to reckon with those who place truth above unity. While unity may be an important value for these groups, truth is an even higher value. Conservatives will be unable to compromise with the truth in order to allow parts of the church to support what we believe is contrary to God’s will as taught in Scripture. And progressives will be unable to compromise with the truth in order to allow parts of the church to engage in what they believe is sinful discrimination against persons. (You can read a well-written explanation of this progressive point of view on this blog by Rev. Charlie Parker here.)

If the local option were to be enacted, there would be an exodus of conservatives from the church, and the progressives would redouble their advocacy efforts to convince everyone to buy into their understanding. That ongoing advocacy pressure would continue to drive out conservatives, until the church would have only progressives left in it. At that point, it would be easy for the church to mandate that everyone must support and affirm same-sex relationships.

In its quest for unity through the local option, the church would in fact ensure the division of the church through the departure of conservatives. That would indeed bring about unity through the “purification” of the church in eliminating the conservative viewpoint. This has already happened in some annual conferences in the Western Jurisdiction, where conservatives have been marginalized to the point that their voices are inconsequential.

One way or another, any resolution to the conflict in the church will entail some form of separation. The only questions to be resolved are: 1) How will that separation take place? and 2) Will there be any remaining relationship or connection between those who have separated?

Under the first two sketches that have been offered by the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops, the separation would take place by those who could no longer live with the policies and practices of the church deciding to leave in a piecemeal, disorganized fashion. Neither sketch envisions a continuing relationship between those who leave and the church they have left behind.

The third sketch, a multi-branch proposal, envisions an orderly choice by annual conferences, local congregations, and bishops/clergy as to what part of the church they want to belong to. On matters of sexuality, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ persons, there would be separation between the branches. But this sketch envisions an ongoing relationship and shared participation between the branches to enable ministries that all agree on to continue.

The Christian Church has adapted and survived and thrived despite innumerable splits, divisions, and schisms over the last 2,000 years. God’s Church is not dependent upon us necessarily getting it right. There will always be believers who will unite together to worship the one, true God and to live out the ministry of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. As we work toward a way forward, my hope is that we can find a way that does the least damage to the church and its ministry, and to the people who make up the church. In the end, our understanding of the truth will become the most important determining factor about where we individually end up.

Please lift up the Commission on a Way Forward in your prayers this week, as they meet today through Saturday.

Mennonites Divide Over Sexuality

The Lancaster Mennonite Conference, largest of the Mennonite Church’s 25 conferences, has ended its 46-year affiliation with America’s top Anabaptist denomination. According to stories in Christianity Today and Mennonite World Review, this decision was more than two years in the making.

In 2015 the Lancaster Conference’s churches were encouraged to enter into a time of discernment about whether or not to remain with the Mennonite Church. About ten percent of the conference’s 179 churches engaged in an extended discernment process, with eight of the 17 churches deciding to remain within the Mennonite Church. Those congregations joined the nearby Atlantic Coast Conference.

At the same time, about 29 congregations from outside the Lancaster Conference joined the conference, from as far away as Oregon and Hawaii. The congregations leaving the Mennonite Church represent about one-sixth of the denomination’s membership.

The split was sparked by the licensing for ministry of Theda Good, a lesbian pastor in a committed relationship, by the Mountain States Mennonite Conference in 2014. That licensing was not recognized by the national Mennonite Church, but neither was the Mountain States Conference disciplined by the national church. The Mennonite Confession of Faith says that marriage is “a covenant between one man and one woman for life.”

In response, conservative Mennonites set up a new network called Evana to promote traditional values and spiritual renewal. At the time, they hoped 100 churches would join the movement. Two years later, nearly 180 congregations have decided to withdraw.

Mennonite church polity is different from United Methodist polity, in that it is congregational in government and there is no denominational trust clause holding the property with the denomination. So it was relatively easy for churches to withdraw, once they had made that decision.

Some have pointed to the Mennonite Church as a denomination that was not consumed with battles over same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing LGBTQ persons. But just like the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and United Church of Christ, the Mennonites have experienced division, as well.

It is interesting to note the parallels with United Methodism. For over 25 years, there have been isolated examples of UM annual conferences that ordained openly homosexual persons to ministry. Sometimes, those ordinations were overturned by the church’s judicial process. More times than not, there was no discipline for the wayward annual conference, and the ordination was allowed to stand. Since 2012 the emphasis has been on clergy performing same-sex marriages or unions. A few resulted in the clergy being disciplined (none severely), but in most cases the offense was either ignored or celebrated by the annual conferences involved. The disobedience of our church order reached a culmination in 2016 with the election of a married lesbian clergy, Karen Oliveto, as bishop in the Western Jurisdiction.

In addition to the long-standing renewal groups (Good News, Confessing Movement, UMAction), evangelical United Methodists in 2016 formed a new network (the Wesleyan Covenant Association) designed to promote traditional values and spiritual renewal.

The Mennonite experience also shows what might happen as a result of the proposals coming from the Council of Bishops and the Commission on a Way Forward. Some of those proposals involve expanded jurisdictions or branches with more fluid geographical boundaries, which would allow evangelical congregations from across the country to band together in a common framework of ministry. Other proposals envision parts of The United Methodist Church departing from the denomination and forming new independent bodies to promote ministry from a particular perspective. We know these approaches are indeed possible because they have been done by other denominations, most recently now by the Mennonites.

The Mennonite experience illustrates once again that organizational church unity is threatened by the widely divergent perspectives on homosexuality. There are many United Methodists who value organizational unity more than theological agreement. But there is a significant number of United Methodists for whom a certain level of theological agreement is a necessary precondition for organizational unity. For those United Methodists, the disagreement over marriage and sexuality, as well as the denomination’s inability to enforce its standards, have made organizational unity nearly impossible to sustain.

 

Delegate Number Set for 2020 General Conference

While we are preparing for the 2019 special called General Conference in St. Louis, it is important to remember that United Methodism will hold its regular General Conference in 2020, just 15 months later.

Just released publicly is the number of delegates assigned to each of the jurisdictions in the U.S. and central conferences outside the U.S. For the first time, these numbers are based on annual conference journals, with relatively accurate figures of lay and clergy members in each conference.

The Commission on the General Conference reported, “An audit of the journal library at the beginning of the year revealed that 30 annual conferences had never submitted a journal, and the most recent journals for 39 annual conferences were dated 2012 or earlier, with one dating back as far as 1961.” These journals have now been brought up to date with the current submission.

The impact of the revised numbers and the ongoing shift in membership from the United States to Africa, however, is minimal. The new numbers resulted in the loss of 22 delegates from the U.S. jurisdictions and the gain of 18 delegates in Africa and 2 delegates in the Philippines. (The total number of delegates went down by two.) This represents a shift of only 2 percent of the delegates.

When it comes to voting on issues at General Conference, traditionalists have held a slim majority of about 54 percent. Depending upon how the delegate elections turn out in each annual conference, and because of the increase in central conference delegates, traditionalists may see their majority increase by one or two percentage points. This will not dramatically affect the outcome of votes taken at General Conference. And due to the more liberal shift in U.S. culture and the number of evangelicals leaving United Methodism, it is conceivable that traditionalists might lose strength in the U.S. delegate elections, resulting in no change at all in their majority.

From my perspective, these new numbers mean that we cannot rely upon the General Conference to enact a sweeping conservative agenda. If neither the 2012 nor 2016 General Conferences could resolve our church’s crisis by restoring accountability and compliance with the Book of Discipline, it is unlikely that the 2020 General Conference will do so, given that the majority will remain close to the same level.

That is why the special 2019 General Conference is so important in adopting a proposal that will end the conflict in our church and allow us to refocus on ministry and mission. Good News will keep you updated on the proposals for that conference as they become available. 

We Need Your Partnership

As Good News prepares for not one, but two General Conferences in the next three years, we need your partnership and support. You rely upon Good News to provide comprehensive news and analysis about the threats to our church’s unity and mission. Our magazine and website also lift up numerous examples of fruitful ministry by United Methodists and others around the globe. We are your voice for biblical orthodoxy within United Methodism, opposing efforts to water down the Gospel and compromise with secular cultural values.

We encourage you to consider a generous year-end gift. Believe me, our staff is well aware that 2017 was a very challenging year for many large areas of the United States. We have been amazed and gratified at the Christian generosity displayed to those whose lives were flipped upside down by hurricanes or forest fires. We are grateful that so many of you remembered your commitment to this ministry. Good News depends on your prayers and financial support. If you are able, we hope you will become a monthly supporter of Good News through a recurring gift from your bank account or credit card.

You can give today through our website at www.goodnewsmag.org/makeagift, where you can make a one-time gift or set up a recurring donation. You can also call our office at 800-487-7784 to speak to a live person. You will receive our latest Compass mailing next week, which will also enable you to respond with a gift through the mail.

 Thank you for your generous and prayerful support for the important work that Good News does in leading United Methodists to a faithful future!

UMW Decline Continues

The latest statistics on United Methodist Women’s membership for 2016 reveal a steady slide in local UMW participation. These numbers are reported by the General Council on Finance and Administration and are based on the yearly information that all local churches are required to submit.

Over the last nine years, The United Methodist Church has lost an average of 249 congregations per year. (Interestingly, the peak loss years occur in the year after General Conference.) At the same time, UMW has lost an average of 543 congregations per year that no longer have an active UMW unit – twice as fast a decline. Currently, less than half of the nearly 32,000 United Methodist congregations actually have an active UMW unit. This is despite the requirement in the Book of Discipline that every local church shall have a unit of UMW.

This is a flashing neon sign that something is terribly wrong.

UMW membership is declining at the rate of 4.6 percent per year. That means there are more than 25,000 fewer UMW members each year. In many cases, this is due to the death of members and their not being replaced by new, younger members. In some cases, the loss of members (and the failure to attract new ones) is due to disenchantment with the liberal social policy agenda and progressive theology that the national UMW tends to promote.

UMW is losing members at five times the rate that the general church is losing female members. At the end of 2016, it had lost more than 200,000 members — nearly one-third of its membership — since 2008. At the current rate, UMW would disappear by the year 2034.

 These startling statistics are of vital importance because they represent actual women in the pews who are having their spiritual needs unmet – or are finding vibrant ministry elsewhere.

The most important issue is to foster women’s ministries that enable women to come to know Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior and to grow in their faith. For example, the Renew Network is Good News’ program for encouraging and equipping United Methodists to revitalize women’s ministries in their local churches. You can find devotional, teaching, and Bible study resources on the Renew website.

As for the UMW, the decline in membership has not affected its financial security. This is so because only about 55 percent of UMW income comes from direct member giving. The rest comes from income off of investments, publications, and facility rental income. In addition, UMW has benefited from the sale of sizable properties, gaining over $14 million in 2015 and $34 million in 2016. This contributes to a sizable reserve of over $90 million, which enables UMW to spend more than it takes in each year. Each year in recent history, UMW has run a deficit. In 2015 it spent $9 million more than it took in. In 2016, the deficit was $7.4 million.

It almost appears that the finances of the Women’s Division will outlast its membership if the stock market remains robust.

Although the UMW program lacks appeal to younger women and the future looks to be in jeopardy, the financial surplus cushions UMW from having to take a hard look at its approach, meaning that the organization is not yet ready to make the drastic changes needed to recover its vitality.

I once served as pastor of a small church with a healthy endowment. That endowment enabled the church members to disregard the decline in their church until membership reached about 25 people. At that point, the endowment was not enough to sustain the church’s operation, and the church eventually closed. Tragically, that church waited too long to deal with their membership decline. By the time they were ready, it was too late, and the decline could not be reversed. One hopes that UMW leaders are not lulled into a false sense of confidence, and that they will soon be ready to reevaluate and change the programs and practices that have led to this decline — before it is too late.

A Christian Response to Sexual Harassment

It has been alarming to read and hear the steady drumbeat of new allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior by leaders and other powerful men in our country. A small ripple has become a tidal wave of reports, swamping even the most powerful who have withstood a winked-at reputation for decades.

What is new at this time is the spotlight being put on women’s stories of abusive behavior. It is one thing to read the statistic that more than 40 percent of American women report having experienced sexual harassment. It is another thing to hear the stories of some of the behavior that women have had to endure.

As a married father of three daughters, these stories are beyond disgusting. As a Christian, they are morally reprehensible. I find it difficult to conceive how some men could act this way, although I know in my head that such behavior has existed since the dawn of time.

We can and should make sure that laws and policies protect women and men from abusive behavior. We can and should provide clear avenues for victims to find redress for the abuses committed against them. But laws alone cannot solve a problem of the human heart. Only Christ can.

God is in the transformation business. He wants to transform our lives into the likeness of Jesus Christ. And he wants to transform our culture through the leavening power of the Holy Spirit expressed in the lives of believers who permeate society like yeast in dough. That transformation is an inner change wrought by the Holy Spirit, as we cooperate and live into the change he is working in us.

There are several images in Scripture that can help us welcome God’s transformation into this area of our lives.

One image has to do with treating women with respect. The Apostle Peter says some pretty revolutionary things in I Peter 3:7, when he commands husbands to “be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect.” Although specifically addressed to husbands and wives, the points apply to all male-female relationships. Peter wants us to act with consideration and respect. None of the stories of sexual harassment that I have read betray any sense of the perpetrator acting with consideration or respect.

Women are given a status equal to men by the use of the terms “partner” and “heirs with you of the gracious gift of life.” In God’s eyes, women and men are of equal value and worth. We can demonstrate that with numerous examples from the way that Jesus treated women. As such, women are entitled to consideration and respect. Women are not things to be used to satisfy men’s desires, but equally powerful human beings with equal stature and equal moral agency.

In the above cited passage, Peter uses the term “weaker partner” to describe wives. Of course, this is not the kind of phrase one uses in modern day public discourse, but it was a common understanding during biblical days. Throughout history, all kinds of wrong-headed applications have been made from this passage. In fact, scientists have extended great efforts to prove that women are stronger than men in many ways (albeit perhaps not in terms of brute strength). But I think that misses the point. 

In Peter’s time, women were in need of protection. Culturally and economically, women were for the most part unable to function as independent people. It was the man’s role to care for and protect women. This role fell naturally to the father and then to the husband, but it was also assumed by the church in the case of widows. I have become much more aware how dangerous it might be to be a woman in our society, based on how pervasive and widespread are the instances of sexual harassment and even rape.

Women today still need our protection. They do not need the stifling kind of controlling “protection” by a male authority figure. They need all of us to watch out for each other, offering strength and encouragement and help in time of need. In short, they need consideration and respect. And in the words of that new ubiquitous saying, “If you see something, say something.” We need to speak up for each other and call out behavior that is inappropriate.

These concepts of equal status and worth and the need for consideration and respect for women in particular were revolutionary in Bible times. Women were not generally regarded in this way. Over time, the Christian gospel changed society, but the transformation has not been complete. There is still work to do.

Another image from Scripture is found in the Golden Rule, to treat others in the way that we would like to be treated. We have to take the time and effort to imagine what it would be like to be in the shoes of the other person and treat them in a way that we would want to be treated. I cannot believe that any of the perpetrators would want to be treated in the way they are treating their victims.

I realize that the predominant motif of sexual harassment or abuse is an issue of power, with a more powerful person (in the world’s eyes) taking advantage of a less powerful one. But I cannot help but wonder if some of the seeming epidemic of sexual abuse is the result of our society having lost a healthy understanding of the purpose of sex. Through the widespread use of birth control, we have fairly effectively separated sex from procreation (which can be a very good thing, but it can also have negative consequences). And in more recent years, changing mores have separated sex from marriage. It is no longer discouraged to live together without being married, and in many instances it is assumed that people should do that. In the attitudes of many, sex has become a recreational activity between consenting adults on par with going to see a great movie or going for a bike ride.

This trivialization of sex has deprived it of the sacred mystery that God intended it to have, serving as part of the glue to hold a lifetime relationship together and symbolizing the uniting of two persons into one intimate relationship. It is no coincidence that the Old Testament euphemism for sexual relations was “to know” a person. Sex is meant to point to the most intimate and knowing of human relationships, and to point toward the ultimate knowing relationship between a person and God. Paul looks forward to a time when “I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12). Yet today it is considered normal to hop into bed with a person after the first or second date, when you hardly know the other person’s name!

Part of the antidote to sexual harassment and abuse is to recover God’s purpose and understanding behind sex. When we come to terms with the deep and sacred meaning God intended for a sexual relationship, we will treat sexuality with the seriousness and deference that it deserves.

The bottom line is that this whole area of sexual harassment and abuse is an area where Christians should be leading in a counter-cultural direction, yes in our teaching, but supremely by the way we live and treat others. Where we have failed to live up to God’s ideal, it is disappointing, and we must resolve to live in ongoing repentance and transformation. The good news is that forgiveness and transformation is available to even the most sin-hardened among us. All we need to do is turn and ask. 

Although painful in the process, God’s healing is available to victims of sexual harassment and abuse, as well. The Church is positioned to offer the affirmation of women’s worth and equality, as well as the ministry of the Holy Spirit in bringing restoration and healing to those who have suffered. Part of our responsibility is to make it safe to talk about experiences of abuse in a church context in order to open the door to that healing and affirmation. In the Church, we tend to be afraid to talk about sex and power. By the grace of God, we need to overcome that fear.

I would recommend the website www.umsexualethics.org as a resource for dealing with sexual misconduct by ministers in The United Methodist Church. This website is put together by the Commission on the Status and Role of Women and features much helpful guidance about how to report sexual harassment or misconduct. It outlines the reporting process and what to expect from the process. It explains who to report the misconduct to and how to find that person’s contact information. In my experience, reports of sexual harassment or misconduct are taken very seriously by our denominational leaders.

Two Roads Diverged

With apologies to Robert Frost, one of my favorite poets, he describes the current situation in The United Methodist Church in his poem, The Road Not Taken: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” Two roads are diverging within United Methodism today, and we can see the impact of that divergence in the “sketches” offered by the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops (COB) as described in a recent UM News Service article.

Sketch #1 is described by the COB as it “affirms the current Book of Discipline language and places a high value on accountability.” This approach is the most popular among evangelical and traditionalist United Methodists. It would require major efforts at accountability, including church trials and the “voting out” of bishops and annual conferences from United Methodism in order to be effective.

Sketch #2 is described by the COB as it “removes restrictive language and places a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.” This model is the most popular among so-called “centrist” or moderate United Methodists. It would neither affirm nor prohibit same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ persons. The decision would be left up to individual pastors and annual conferences. This plan has been floated before and did not find success at General Conference.

Sketch #3 is described by the COB as “grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services and one COB, while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice.” This model would dispense with the current five geographical jurisdictions and replace them with three branches, each with a defining theology and moral stance. This option is the most complex and the most difficult to adopt, since it would require constitutional amendments.

It should be noted that the COB descriptions do not indicate how the central conferences outside the United States are accounted for in each of the models. It will be important that whatever proposal adopted by the General Conference considers fully and fairly its impact on the central conferences, so as not to harm them.

Divergent Theological Roads

These proposals suggest that there are two theological roads that are diverging in The United Methodist Church. One road believes that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and that God is not glorified by this practice. Out of that theology flows the prohibition of same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ persons. At a deeper level, this theology is based on an understanding of Scripture that gives the Bible primacy in determining what we believe and how we are to live. It values continuity with the historic Christian understanding of Scripture. Holders of this viewpoint are often called evangelicals, traditionalists, or orthodox.

A second road believes that God creates persons with a variety of sexual orientations and gender identities, and that God is glorified by persons who understand and live out of their authentic orientation and identity. Out of that theology flows the affirmation of same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ persons. At a deeper level, this theology is based on an understanding of God’s revelation as continuing over time, based on but sometimes superseding the witness of Scripture. It values the incorporation of new insights and new understandings from science and philosophy that can reinterpret or even render obsolete the teachings of Scripture. Holders of this viewpoint are often called progressives.

These theological roads lead in different directions. They truly diverge. The models make room for that divergence with the “gracious exit” path that is provided with all three. Under Sketch #1, followers of the second theological road will need to depart from the UM Church, either willingly or unwillingly. Under Sketch #2, many followers of the first theological road will need to depart by reason of conscience. And the exit path is available to both groups under Sketch #3, if they find they cannot live with that model.

Strategic Roads

These proposals also suggest that there are two strategic roads that can be taken. A choice will need to be made between separation from and separation within. Both Sketches #1 and #2 envision the creation of a fairly univocal and united Methodism, from which those who cannot live with it will need to depart. In the case of Sketch #1, it is clear that progressives will need to depart and form their own separate church. Many progressives have said that they will not willingly depart. Their goal is not to form a separate denomination, but to change The United Methodist Church to an affirming view of LGBTQ practices. Progressives would need to be forced out, which would require years of accountability actions, trials, and discipline. It would have to overcome the reluctance of our current bishops to enforce the Discipline. This model would not end the fighting within our denomination and therefore would face a very difficult challenge in succeeding, even if adopted.

Sketch #2 is a bit more subtle. On the surface, it purports to create a space where each person can act according to his/her own conscience and beliefs. However, this model is inherently unstable. It is impossible for a church to hold two contradictory theological positions at the same time for long. Many evangelicals will choose to depart from the denomination because they cannot in good conscience be part of a church that permits practices that they believe go against Scripture. Many progressives will not rest until LGBTQ persons are fully affirmed everywhere in the denomination. They cannot long tolerate a situation where parts of the church are allowed to discriminate (in their view) against LGBTQ persons. So the pressure to affirm LGBTQ practices will continue, which pressure will in turn drive more evangelicals to depart from the denomination. The whole “centrist” approach appears to be a strategy to hold as much of the church together as possible while people either die or change their minds to embrace a progressive understanding.

Sketch #3 takes a different route. Rather than the separation from that will result from following models #1 or #2, Model #3 provides for separation within the denomination. A space would be created for each theological perspective–one that affirms LGBTQ practices and one that does not. A third space would allow such practices, but not require them. The individual spaces or branches would be the primary place where theology and ministry would be worked out and applied. Accountability would be maintained in each branch according to that branch’s understanding. Each branch would have to have the ability to determine its level of participation in any shared general agencies of the church. Each branch would have to have the ability to set its own standards and qualifications for clergy. Each branch would have to be able to elect its own bishops. And each branch would have to be financially self-supporting, such that funding is not going to support a branch that is in disagreement with the branch providing the funding. (Some have called this provision a “financial firewall.”)

For those thinking outside the box, this third model may hold the greatest potential for keeping the most people and congregations in The United Methodist Church. However, it is also the most difficult to adopt and implement. It would require numerous constitutional amendments, which takes a 2/3 vote at General Conference and a 2/3 vote of all annual conference members. There would need to be a several-year transition period of implementation, as annual conferences and congregations, as well as bishops and individual clergy, make their choices about which branch to affiliate with. If quick and easy are the requirements for a solution, then Sketch #2 is probably the best option. If one is looking at a way to keep the most people united, then Sketch #3 could fill the bill.

So there are forks in the road ahead: We will need to decide which theological road to follow. Will we affirm LGBTQ practices or not? And we will need to decide which strategic road to follow. Will we go for separation from or separation within? As in Frost’s poem, the road we choose, both individually and collectively, will make all the difference.

For further analysis of the three models in sketch form, I recommend blogs by David Watson and Joel Watts. Obviously, we need to have a lot more details about each of the options in order to fully understand and respond to them. Much more will need to be said about them, examining both the positives and the negatives of each. But we now have enough of an idea that we can begin to think about the possibilities inherent in each approach.

Judicial Council Maintains Status Quo on Church Law

The Judicial Council. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

The latest rulings by the Judicial Council illustrate that the impasse in our denomination over theological disagreements and the question of LGBTQ inclusion cannot be resolved by the church legal process.

Church’s Teaching Still Constitutional

In the most blatant challenge to The United Methodist Church’s teaching that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” the Judicial Council declined to rule. That leaves the church’s teaching intact.

Both the Denmark and California-Pacific Annual Conferences had requested declaratory decisions on whether the church’s teaching violates the First Restrictive Rule in our church constitution. That rule states that “The General Conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion or establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine” (Discipline ¶ 17). The conferences argued that the church’s teaching on the incompatibility of homosexual practice is a new doctrinal standard, and that it needed a two-thirds vote of the General Conference and a three-fourths majority vote of all the members of the annual conferences in order to adopt such a new standard.

Good News argued in a brief submitted to the Judicial Council that the church’s teaching was not a doctrinal standard on par with the Articles of Religion or Confession of Faith, but simply a moral teaching of the church. Further, we argued that, even if it were a new doctrinal standard, it was not “contrary to our present and existing standards of doctrine” and therefore permissible. 

The Judicial Council, however, did not even rule on the issue. It decided that there was no direct connection between the question of the constitutionality of the church’s teaching and the work of the annual conferences. According to ¶ 2610.2j, a request for a declaratory decision coming from an annual conference “must relate to annual conferences or the work therein.” “Our longstanding jurisprudence has interpreted ¶ 2610 to mean that a request for a declaratory decision that comes from an annual conference must be germane to the regular business, consideration, or discussion of the annual conference and must have a direct and tangible effect on the work of the annual conference session.” There was also confusion in the California-Pacific Annual Conference minutes that did not show the motion for declaratory decision received a majority vote.

The bottom line is that the church’s teaching that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” is still valid under our church constitution. Using the legal process to challenge its constitutionality will not work. The issue can only be settled by action of General Conference.

Complaint Against Lesbian Pastor Cannot Be Reactivated

Book of Discipline

The Book of Discipline. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

In June 2016, the Rev. Anna Blaedel announced during a plenary session of the Iowa Annual Conference that she is a self-avowed practicing homosexual. Such a statement brought her standing into question, since a self-avowed practicing homosexual may not be ordained or appointed as clergy (Discipline ¶ 304.3). A complaint was filed against Blaedel and there was no just resolution of that complaint, but Bishop Julius Trimble (who was the bishop of Iowa at the time) dismissed the complaint without putting Blaedel on trial. 

At the 2017 session of the Iowa Annual Conference, a question of law was asked as to whether the dismissal of the complaint by Bishop Trimble was proper under the Discipline and whether the complaint could be reopened in order to start a trial process.

The Judicial Council ruled that, once a complaint has been resolved, whether by a trial, a just resolution, or by being dismissed, it cannot be reopened. A new complaint would have to be filed if the violation were repeated. In this case, the Judicial Council said, there would have to be evidence that Blaedel once again publicly claimed to be a self-avowed practicing homosexual after the dismissal of the previous complaint on September 1, 2016.

In a little-noted passage in the decision, the Judicial Council said, “Clearly if the record in this case alleged a self-avowing statement since that date, the current bishop would have a duty to initiate proceedings under Discipline ¶362 in accordance with JCD 920 and 1341.” In an article posted by Reconciling Ministries Network in response to the decision last week, “Rev. Anna Blaedel reflected on the ruling by saying, ‘I am relieved to have this dehumanizing, disempowering process resolved, for now. However, I proudly remain a ‘self-avowed, practicing homosexual.’ I delight in my queerness, and my relationship with my beloved. I lament the use of loopholes to hide any aspect of queer life and love.'”

Thus, Blaedel is renewing her self-avowal, making her once again subject to a complaint. According to the Judicial Council decision, new Iowa Bishop Laurie Haller “would have a duty to initiate proceedings.” At the very least, someone could file a new complaint against Blaedel for her ongoing violation of the standards for ordained ministry.

Lesbian Candidate for Ministry May Not Be Approved

The Judicial Council ruled that an annual conference board of ordained ministry was not obligated to recommend for commissioning as a provisional member a person that they believed did not meet the qualifications for ordained ministry. The case involved Tara Morrow, who had been turned down for commissioning in 2016 in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference due to the fact that she disclosed to the board that she is a lesbian married to another woman.

When the board declined to recommend her for commissioning in 2017, even though she initially received the required three-fourths vote of approval by the board, their failure to do so was challenged by a question of law. Heightening the controversy, the Rev. J. Phillip Wogaman surrendered his clergy credentials in protest on the eve of celebrating 60 years of ordained ministry service.

The Judicial Council asserted that the board was within its rights to rescind its recommendation of Morrow in light of Judicial Council decisions issued in May. “Decisions 1341, 1343 and 1344 prevent a Board of Ordained Ministry from ignoring statements of self-disclosure about any action that violates any portion of church law as is the case of the candidate who acknowledged that she is a lesbian and married to another woman. In JCD 1344 the Judicial Council stated that it is the duty of the Board to conduct a careful and thorough examination and investigation, not only in terms of depth but also breadth of scope to ensure that disciplinary standards are met.”

Again, the attempted exploitation of presumed legal loopholes cannot overturn the settled will of the General Conference in establishing qualifications for ministry. 

How to Deal with Parliamentary Rulings

Two other decisions related to resolutions that were declared “out of order” by a bishop. In Western Pennsylvania, a resolution requiring the annual conference to conform to the Book of Discipline on matters of ordination and same-sex marriage was declared out of order by Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi and thus not able to be voted on. In South Carolina, a petition to form a task force to study the possibility of the annual conference disaffiliating from The United Methodist Church was also declared out of order by Bishop L. Jonathan Holston.

The Judicial Council ruled correctly in both cases that it has no jurisdiction to rule on parliamentary questions. A decision by a bishop to declare a particular proposal out of order is a parliamentary decision, and therefore not subject to Judicial Council review. 

It is important that annual conference members understand how to handle a parliamentary ruling with which they disagree. The proper response is to appeal the ruling of “out of order” to the “house.” That means that the whole annual conference gets to vote on whether they agree with the bishop’s decision to call something out of order. The annual conference can vote to overrule the bishop, which enables the conference to consider the matter that was ruled out of order. Or the annual conference can vote to sustain the bishop’s ruling that the item is out of order, which ends consideration of that item. Either way, the bishop’s rationale for ruling it out of order would be placed on the record.

If the annual conference votes to sustain the bishop’s ruling of “out of order,” the matter could then be the subject of a question of law that would eventually go to the Judicial Council. Because the annual conference took an action (to sustain the bishop’s ruling), the question of law is no longer about a parliamentary decision, but about the action of the annual conference. A question of law must be about an action taken or proposed to be taken by the annual conference. Thus, this is the way to get that issue before the Judicial Council.

The Way Forward

All of the above cases illustrate that the legal processes of The United Methodist Church cannot resolve the impasse in our church over theology and the moral teachings of the church regarding the extent of LGBTQ inclusion. We are currently in a state of schism, where some parts of the church are following the Book of Discipline and other parts are not conforming. The General Conference is the only body that can resolve the dispute. Our prayer is that the proposals of the Commission on a Way Forward, as submitted by the Council of Bishops, will enable the special session of the General Conference in 2019 to take definitive action to resolve this crisis. The future of our church depends upon it.

The Place of Conscience

That old saying from our parents, “let conscience be your guide,” is foremost in the debate over ministry with LGBTQ persons. Some cannot in good conscience go against what they believe Scripture teaches about the sinfulness of same-sex practices. Others cannot in good conscience go against what they believe Scripture teaches about loving and accepting all people. Others cannot in good conscience go against the requirements of the Book of Discipline, formed as they are out of prayerful discernment by the General Conference (the only group able to speak for global United Methodism), despite the fact that those persons disagree with some of its requirements.

This conflict of consciences has led some to disobey the Book of Discipline. It has led others (laity, clergy, and even congregations) to leave The United Methodist Church. It has led to the filing of complaints, church trials, and the irregular setting aside of church law by church authorities.

What do we do when there is an apparently unresolvable conflict between the consciences of different individuals or groups? How do we resolve the resulting impasse?

One important principle is that people should not be forced to violate their consciences. John Wesley made this point in his sermon, Catholic Spirit. “No man can choose for, or prescribe to, another. But every one must follow the dictates of his own conscience, in simplicity and godly sincerity. He must be fully persuaded in his own mind and then act according to the best light he has. Nor has any creature power to constrain another to walk by his own rule. God has given no right to any of the children of men thus to lord it over the conscience of his brethren; but every man must judge for himself, as every man must give an account of himself to God.”

This principle of not violating conscience guides the work of the Commission on a Way Forward. It is seeking to develop proposals that give freedom to all to engage in ministry according to their conscience.

(It is important to note that, while we ought not to constrain another person’s conscience, that does not mean that we can allow any sincere or conscientious ministry to take place under the umbrella of United Methodism. We cannot allow a United Methodist pastor who conscientiously refuses to baptize infants, for example. It simply means that, if a person conscientiously opposes United Methodist teaching or practice, they should be allowed to find an alternative venue for ministry with dignity and grace. But while they are functioning within United Methodism, Wesley says, they ought not to “mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake” (Historical Question 19b).)

A second important principle is that conscience is not the supreme moral authority. We cannot always trust our conscience because it has been corrupted by human sinfulness. Our conscience is sometimes confused or overpowered by our feelings and desires, by our faulty reasoning, or by an unwillingness to do what we know to be right. Paul speaks about persons “whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron” (I Timothy 4:1-2). Persistent disregard of what we know to be right and instead doing wrong can have the effect of searing the conscience and making it ineffective.

Key to understanding the role of conscience is to realize that it is a secondary authority, and it must always be accountable ultimately to God and God’s Word. It is God through his Word who over time can form our conscience and enable us to discern and resist the ungodly influences that hurt our ability to follow a right conscience. It is God through his Word who can correct our consciences when our judgment is faulty.

Wesley acknowledged this principle in the quote above when he says, “every man must judge for himself, as every man must give an account of himself to God.” Our consciences, too, are accountable to God. Our consciences are correct and to be followed only in so far as they coincide with the will of God.

At this 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses on the Wittenburg cathedral door, we can learn from his understanding of the role of conscience. When he appeared in an ecclesiastical trial before the Diet of Worms, he based his position not solely on conscience, but on conscience as subject to God’s Word. Here is his famous statement:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise; here I stand. May God help me.

As the Rev. Dr. John L. Thompson points out in an article published in Theology Matters, “Luther’s declaration wasnot intended … as a defense of his conscience per se, much less a bold claim on behalf of worldly freedom or individualism. On the contrary, Luther was defending the utter priority of the Word of God not only as a guide for what Luther taught and wrote, but also–first and foremost–as the only possible way to know that he, Luther, still confessedly a sinner, was loved and saved by God.” (Thompson’s article on page 9 is an excellent brief overview of a theology of conscience.)

Our current culture exalts the autonomous individual as the sole and final judge of truth and reality. In contrast, Christianity recognizes the fallibility of our consciences and insists that the final moral authority is God alone, as revealed through God’s Word. With the writer to the Hebrews, we must grow in maturity as those “who by constant use [of the teachings of God’s Word] have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14).

Blatantly Disregarding Truth

For United Methodists concerned about the future of our denomination, the current crisis revolves around a critical lack of accountability. For 45 years we have been part of a church where people have a variety of thoughts and opinions about theology and ethics, including whether same-sex marriage or the ordination of LGBT persons is contrary to God’s will. We are willing (even if not always eager) to continue having discussions with people whose viewpoint is different from ours.

But what really spurs distrust and disillusionment with our denomination’s leadership is when those charged with teaching and upholding the beliefs of The United Methodist Church simply ignore that responsibility and do what is “right in their own eyes.” We believe that our doctrines and ethics are arrived at and sustained by a process of holy conferencing, culminating in the decisions of the General Conference, which meets every four years as the only body able to speak for the entire United Methodist Church. To intentionally, knowingly, and publicly disobey or disregard the teachings and requirements thus arrived at, is an affront to who we are as United Methodists.

Such disregard has just happened in the West Ohio Annual Conference, once a bastion of evangelical thought and vital ministry. A committee on investigation has just nullified the most serious charges filed against one of the conference’s clergy, the Rev. David Meredith.

Background 

Meredith was under charges because of his being married to another man, a headline-gathering wedding that took place in his former parish in Cincinnati just three days prior to the 2016 General Conference. He has made no secret of his marriage, in fact publicizing it in hopes of influencing the actions of General Conference. He further used the platform of being a candidate for bishop in 2016 to publicize his disagreement with church teachings.

Accordingly, Meredith was brought up on complaints by a number of clergy in West Ohio. The “just resolution” process was unable to bring a resolution to the complaints. So the evidence was turned over to a counsel for the church, who acts as the church’s prosecuting attorney to bring the complaints to a legal charge that can then form the basis for a trial.

The first step in the trial process is for the counsel for the church to bring the complaints before a committee on investigation, which acts like a grand jury to determine if there is enough evidence to charge the accused person. It is that committee on investigation that has just issued its findings by stripping away most of the charges against Meredith.

Charges 

Under church law, Meredith was charged with three offenses:

  1. “Immorality including but not limited to, not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage”
  2. “Practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings, including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual”
  3.  “Disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church”

Meredith never contested the fact that he is in a same-sex marriage. The marriage license is a public record, and Meredith has promoted the fact of his marriage on Facebook and through other avenues. Being in a same-sex marriage is neither being celibate in singleness nor being faithful in a heterosexual marriage, and is thus by definition immorality according to our church law.

Judicial Council decision 1341, which found that Bishop Karen Oliveto had been potentially illegally consecrated as a bishop, found that being in a same-sex marriage constitutes self-avowal of being a practicing homosexual. The decision states, “Being legally married and living in a same-sex relationship is a public declaration containing both personal and objective elements and, therefore, constitutes self-avowal under ¶ 304.3.” Meredith could deny being a self-avowed practicing homosexual by stating such, or by testifying that his marriage does not involve sexual contact. As far as I know, he has done neither.

Yet, the West Ohio Committee on Investigation has thrown out charges one and two. The committee has effectively ignored the Discipline and decided to impose its own standard of morality, essentially declaring that there is nothing wrong with a clergyperson being in a same-sex marriage or being a self-avowed practicing homosexual.

By doing so, the committee has also weakening the third charge. If the church cannot argue that Meredith is guilty of immorality or being a self-avowed practicing homosexual, on what basis can he be accused of disobedience to the order and discipline of the church? It will make for a very weak case.

Implications

Perhaps in the interest of “unity” or to further its own agenda, the committee on investigation has gutted the accountability process in this case. The only way the church has of holding its clergy accountable to the standards they promise to live up to when they are ordained is the complaint process. Complaints can hopefully be resolved in a way that brings about reformation of behavior and the redress of harm done, while protecting the innocent. This committee decision does none of these, in fact encouraging further disobedience by other clergy in West Ohio and across the church.

And when complaints cannot be resolved, the only recourse is a fair and open trial process that allows the evidence to be openly considered and a transparent judgment made, with provision for appropriate consequences. The committee’s decision short-circuits this accountability process by summarily throwing out the very basis for the complaint against Meredith, not due to a lack of evidence, but because the committee evidently disagrees with the church’s standards.

This egregious violation of the church’s law and accountability process can be appealed. Good News hopes that such an appeal would lead to a restored process that demonstrates that the church is able to hold its clergy accountable.

If an appeal fails, this committee’s decision will demonstrate that our church is no longer governable. We will no longer be governed by laws, but by people who reserve the right to undermine or ignore requirements that they disagree with. Such an outcome would demonstrate our ever-deepening schism and could only reinforce the movement toward anarchy and the reliance on raw power in our church-values that hardly comport with being disciples of Jesus Christ, let alone leading to the (positive) transformation of the world.

How “Centrist” Is Uniting Methodists?

The new group Uniting Methodists is in the process of forming to (in their words) give voice to the “broad center” of The United Methodist Church. A recent information session about the group was held at Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, led by the Revs. Adam Hamilton, Tom Berlin, and Olu Brown. More information about the group may be found on their website.

According to an article posted by the Great Plains Annual Conference, Hamilton said, “We can’t keep doing what we’re doing. Who’s going to speak up for that broad, middle in the center?”

For the last 40 years, the “broad, middle” of global United Methodism was, of course, expressed by the General Conference. For the purposes of the information session, however, the “middle” refers to the two positions in conflict within The United Methodist Church over the question of how the church is to be in ministry with LGBTQ persons. The progressive part of the church seeks to offer same-sex weddings and ordination to LGBTQ persons, while the conservative part of the church seeks to maintain the current stance in our Book of Discipline that “all persons are of sacred worth” and are loved by God, and that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The Uniting Methodists position is that there is a middle ground that would allow same-sex marriage and ordination in the church, but not require it. This would effectively allow individual pastors to make their own decision about doing weddings and individual annual conferences to decide whether or not to ordain practicing homosexuals. Their hope is to keep much of the church united around this “Third Way” or “local option” approach.

But is Uniting Methodists really a “centrist” organization?

The three leaders who gave presentations at the information session are all in favor of allowing same-sex marriage and ordination. I do not know all of the group’s leaders identified on the Uniting Methodists website, but all those I do know favor allowing same-sex marriage and ordination. Some of those leaders are outspoken advocates for LGBTQ marriage and ordination, including being part of Reconciling Ministries Network (the primary advocacy group for changing the church’s position). I am not aware of any identified evangelical leader on the Uniting Methodists team who favors keeping the church’s current position around LGBTQ ministry.

Further light is shed on the composition of Uniting Methodists by the survey taken at the informational meeting, as reported in the article. Two-thirds of the clergy and lay participants who took the survey identified themselves as progressives — those who would favor same — sex marriage and ordination. Of course, attending the informational meeting and taking the survey does not mean that one is a supporter of Uniting Methodists. Given the group’s agenda, however, one would expect more progressives than conservatives to be supporters. So if anything, the two-thirds number is low.

One must ask, then, whether Uniting Methodists is in reality a predominantly progressive group that seeks a slower transition toward a fully progressive position in The United Methodist Church, rather than an authentically centrist group that seeks to welcome both positions. The Rev. Hamilton has made no secret of the fact that he believes the church in the United States is changing on this issue, and that in 10-20 years, the church will fully accept same-sex marriage and ordination for practicing homosexuals. He illustrated that point at the informational meeting by saying that his congregation at the Church of the Resurrection – United Methodism’s largest membership – used to be about 70 percent conservative on this issue, but is now about 70 percent progressive.

Some within Uniting Methodists leadership who emphasize concerns about justice even imply an equivalence between the “exclusion” of LGBTQ persons from marriage and ordination in the church with the racism signified by the all-African-American Central Jurisdiction formed in 1939 and rightfully abolished in 1968. One hopes that the group will come to realize that it is a hurtful mistake to even imply that supporting the historic teaching of the Church about marriage and sexuality is somewhat akin to racism.

Uniting Methodists believes that the “center” of the church is a broad and numerous group that makes up 80 to 90 percent of United Methodism. Survey participants at the informational meeting believed that about 80 percent of their congregations are predominantly “compatibilists” — willing to live in a church that permits same-sex marriage and ordination, while not requiring it.

Those estimates might be correct. Nevertheless, the numbers from the survey of the audience at the informational meeting must be viewed with special attention – especially considering it was an overwhelming progressive and compatibilist audience. It goes without saying that the survey results are far from a realistic reflection of United Methodism in the U.S.

Furthermore, the participants did not represent the 45 percent of United Methodists who live outside the U.S. Those members are by and large conservative, and many would not be able to live in a denomination that allows same-sex marriage and ordination, but their viewpoint is not reflected in the Uniting Methodists survey. When people say they want to construct a solution for the 80 percent of United Methodists in the middle, they are ignoring the voices of nearly half of the church.

More interesting among the survey results is that while 65 percent of clergy present identified as progressive, they believe that only 34 percent of their congregations are predominantly progressive. (The lay estimate was 44 percent progressive.) That means that half of the progressive clergy present are currently serving congregations that are predominantly conservative. Why is there such a mismatch between pastors and congregations when it comes to theology? If there is such a mismatch in the current system, how can the church be restructured to ensure greater compatibility between clergy and congregation? If in the future there is some sort of grouping of congregations within the UM Church according to theological perspective, will progressive pastors allow their congregations to decide to belong to a different grouping than the pastor would identify with?

Uniting Methodists portrays itself as a “centrist” group that welcomes people of both progressive and conservative theological perspectives and would allow the practices of both perspectives to coincide without hindrance. There is a group within The UM Church that would respond to such a voice. Given the heavily progressive leanings of the group’s leaders and interested persons, however, that may not be an accurate portrayal. The attempt to hold together mutually contradictory theologies may only result in an uneasy truce that invites a return to conflict in the not-too-distant future.

In the final analysis, the church will need to decide: do we perform same-sex weddings or not? Do we ordain practicing homosexuals or not? Will we welcome gay bishops or not? There is not a lot of middle ground in those decisions.