Understanding Incompatibilists

The Council of Bishops is currently meeting to decide what proposal(s) to submit to the 2019 General Conference to resolve the conflict in our church. Will they understand and accommodate the interests and convictions of incompatibilists in their proposal(s)? The following is excerpted and adapted from my chapter in the book, Holy Contradictions, edited by Brian K. Milford and recently released by Abingdon.

For more than 2,000 years there has been a unified global vision for Christian marriage and human sexuality. In every culture, on every continent, and in every language around the globe, Christianity’s teaching has always promoted the exclusive belief that one man and one woman in lifelong marriage optimizes human flourishing within society. It is a foundational belief shared in common within Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. United Methodism has always taught that the anchor for intimate relationships for clergy and laity should be fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.

After two millennia, a contrary teaching has been introduced within segments of North American and European mainline denominations. It proposes that contemporary same-sex marriage and intimacy is not the same thing as that prohibited by certain biblical passages. It proposes that mutual, loving same-sex relationships can and should exist today – and should be blessed by the worldwide United Methodist Church. From the viewpoint of progressives, contemporary scientific understandings about the origins of sexual orientation make it likely that same-sex attraction is an inborn characteristic. Therefore, they believe same-sex relations can be holy and good if engaged in within the parameters of faithfulness and mutuality. Accordingly, they believe, the church ought to condone same-sex relationships, perform same-sex marriages, and ordain non-celibate lesbians and gays into ministry.

These two positions tend to be mutually exclusive. The differences between them are stark and irreconcilable. Underlying the two positions are often different views about biblical authority and inspiration, different definitions of holiness, and different understandings of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Thus, it is nearly impossible for many people holding the two different positions to share a common mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world. For one, transforming the world means working for the full equality, acceptance, and affirmation of LGBTQ persons and their relationships and their full inclusion in the church. For the other, transforming the world means promoting traditional views of marriage and sexuality, as well as offering support and transformative healing to LGBTQ persons. The two are working at cross purposes and in opposition to each other!

The document “In Search of Unity,” published in 1998 as the report of a theological dialog about the tensions in The United Methodist Church, presents an analysis first articulated by now retired Bishop Judith Craig. The church is not only divided between those who have a traditional understanding of marriage as between one man and one woman, versus those who have a more progressive understanding of marriage as able to be between any two persons, regardless ofgender. The church is also divided between those who can live with a variety of opinions and practices of ministry around LGBTQ persons (“compatibilists”), versus those who believe that the church’s position is of essential importance and cannot live in a church where the other viewpoint is promoted and practiced (“incompatibilists”).

Progressive Incompatibilists

Progressive incompatibilists “believe that the exclusion of anyone from the full life of the church is completely unacceptable because it is contradictory to the gospel. For them, homosexual persons, practicing or not, are persons of sacred worth living according to the gifts and evidences of God’s grace given to them. To deny such persons a full place in the church is a violation of the holiness and catholicity of the church. For these incompatibilists, to continue to participate in such an exclusive and oppressive organization only serves to legitimate the incomplete worshipping community and perpetuate the sin of exclusion. Commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ requires active resistance and the commitment to stand prophetically against the injustices perpetuated by the institution” (In Search of Unity, p. 8).

It is the progressive incompatibilist approach that has caused clergy (including one retired bishop) to perform same-sex weddings, contrary to our Book of Discipline, sometimes as a public protest event. This approach has prompted seven annual conferences and two jurisdictions to pass resolutions of non-conformity with the Book of Discipline. It has resulted in annual conference boards of ordained ministry recommending for ordination persons whom they knew to be practicing homosexuals. And it has led to the Western Jurisdiction electing and consecrating the Rev. Karen Oliveto, a married lesbian, as a United Methodist bishop.

The actions of progressive incompatibilists are an expression of their quest for justice and the rights of LGBTQ persons within the context of our church. They see this quest as informed and commanded by Scripture and the teachings of Jesus. They have come to the place where they cannot live in a denomination that does not marry or ordain gays and lesbians. So they have taken matters into their own hands and created a de facto reality in many annual conferences that is contrary to the position of The United Methodist Church.

Traditional Incompatibilists

Traditional incompatibilists, on the other hand, believe “for the United Methodist Church to accept homosexual practices either officially in its courts or unofficially by condoning widespread practice would be to forfeit its designation as ‘a body of faithful people where the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance.’ For these incompatibilists their stance is a matter of conscience as formed by Scripture and the doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church. Furthermore, most incompatibilists on the more conservative side believe that the classical teaching of the Christian tradition is a much-needed word of healing. It is a precious medicine that the Holy Spirit can use to transform and redeem all our sexual sins and wounds. Hence they cannot but proclaim and implement the full liberty from all sin promised in the gospel and warranted by the Lordship of Jesus Christ” (In Search of Unity, p. 8).

Traditional incompatibilists believe the church has unofficially changed its position by its inability to hold accountable those who have violated the teachings and requirements of the church. This has prompted a number of large congregations to leave The United Methodist Church and is causing thousands of individuals to leave their local congregations or withhold financial support for the church.

Implications

Currently, many if not most progressive incompatibilists seem willing to live in a denomination that allows, but does not require, same-sex weddings and ordination of practicing LGBTQ persons. The shared support of progressive incompatibilists and compatibilists of every stripe has given rise to compatibilist approaches, from the Hamilton-Slaughter “agree to disagree” to the “local option” to the “Third Way” from the Connectional Table and now to the “One Church Model” from the Commission on a Way Forward. All have in common the creation of a compatibilist denomination that allows different forms of beliefs and ministries to function within one organization.

This compatibilist approach, however, ignores the interests of traditional incompatibilists, who cannot live in a denomination where what they see as disobedience to the clear teaching of Scripture is allowed. U.S. traditional incompatibilists and those from the central conferences outside the U.S.-notably in Africa and much of the Philippines and Eastern Europe-constitute a majority of the church as reflected in the delegation at General Conference.

Any attempt to engage in mutually respectful ways of living in the Wesleyan tradition amid the current crisis must reckon with the conflicting interests reflected in the incompatibilist groups. Progressive incompatibilists need to have a Wesleyan denomination that allows same-sex marriage and ordination of practicing homosexuals. They will keep fighting until they get one. The only way to stop the conflict is to give them their own denomination, whether it is by evicting them from the current United Methodist Church or by some form of negotiated separation.

Traditional incompatibilists need to have a Wesleyan denomination that disallows same-sex marriage and ordination of practicing homosexuals in order to remain true to their understanding of Scripture. Traditionalists hold the majority at General Conference. So the only way for progressives to change the position of the church is to evict traditionalists or have some form of negotiated separation.

Can traditional and progressive incompatibilists live together in the same church body? Ultimately, I believe the answer is “no.” As the bishops meet this week and issue their proposal, will they take seriously the needs and convictions of incompatibilists?

This article is taken from  Holy Contradictions   (Abingdon Press, 2018), a collection of essays representing diverse responses on how United Methodists can live in the Wesleyan tradition in times of disagreement. The seventeen contributors include among others Tracy S. Malone, Scott T. Kisker, Rob Fuquay, Audrey Warren, and Philip Wogaman. It can be purchased HERE

New Social Principles: A First Look

The 2012 General Conference commissioned the Board of Church and Society to do a total rewrite of the United Methodist Social Principles. The project is moving toward completion with the publication of the first draft of the proposed new principles.

The aims in drafting the new principles were to make them:

  • More succinct
  • More theologically grounded
  • More globally relevant

Since their introduction in 1972, the Social Principles have been added to and elaborated on. It has grown from 42 paragraphs in 1980 to 76 paragraphs in 2016. In 1980, the Social Principles took up 18 pages in the Discipline, and in 2016 they took up 40 pages using smaller type! And there is no disputing that the perspective on social issues is extremely U.S. centric and often not applicable to countries in other parts of the world where 40 percent of United Methodists live.

In general, the new Social Principles accomplish the goals set for them. They are more succinct, scaling back to 60 paragraphs instead of 76 and substantially shortening some of the paragraphs. However, they were only able to pare back from 2016’s 15,000 words to now 14,000 words, with two paragraphs left to add. At first read, it still seems like there are some areas of overlap and duplication that could be consolidated, and there could be further shortening to reduce the overall length.

There has been an effort to incorporate more Scripture references into the principles and to set a theological context for many of the topics, which is helpful. Unfortunately, the effort to provide Scriptural background sometimes results in the twisting or misapplication of a given passage. For example, the section on military service uses Jesus’ exclamation from Luke 19:42, “If you had recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” as an argument for peacemaking. In fact, Jesus is talking here mainly about peace with God through accepting Jesus as the Messiah, rather than human efforts at resolving conflict in non-military ways.

The attempt to make the Social Principles more globally relevant has resulted in far less specificity in the principles. Rather than addressing specific concrete dilemmas, they speak in broad generalities. This does enable the principles to translate better into a variety of global contexts. On the other hand, they tend to be much blander and not as helpful in addressing the real ethical and moral issues underlying the statement.

Many of the principles tend to address the topic in a more superficial way without wrestling with the competing values that often are the source of controversy. For example, the principles on migration, immigration, and refugees extol the value of welcoming the stranger and providing radical hospitality, but fail to mention the need to preserve national boundaries and protect a nation’s citizens. All these values are important and supported in Scripture, and the difficult moral reasoning is seeking how to balance them.

Distressingly, some of the more controversial areas saw a decided swing toward a more progressive approach. This is especially true in the principle on abortion, where all the nuanced language added in the last 20 years has been jettisoned in favor of the eerily unqualified statement, “We support legal access to abortion.” There is no examination of any parameters to legal abortion or any hint that abortion should be restricted in any way or that abortion is the tragic loss of a life. It is treated as a neutral decision, and the focus of the principle is on preventing unintended pregnancy.

Similarly, the principle on marriage and divorce fails to set forth any kind of theological understanding of marriage, other than to say it is one form of human relationship in which we ought to treat one another with humility, gentleness, patience, and love. Marriage is not defined, skirting the challenges of polygamy or same-sex marriage. Much more space is given to situations when marriage has gone wrong (abuse, exploitation, divorce, child marriage) than in setting forth what can be done to strengthen marriages or why marriage is important.

On the other hand, the principle on “Military Service” is well balanced, affirming both the pacifist perspective and the “just war” perspective (although it is not named such in the principle). The parallel principles on “War and Peace” and “Peacebuilding” emphasize peacemaking without acknowledging situations where armed conflict may be unavoidable. This is one instance where combining the three principles could yield a more balanced and comprehensive understanding of the issues involved.

The hot-button paragraphs on “Human Sexuality” and “Rights of Persons of All Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities” were not included, pending the 2019 General Conference’s decisions on these issues. However, the principle on “Gender Equality” implies the acceptance of multiple genders beyond male and female and plainly states, “Discrimination based on gender identity is a sin.” This is obviously beyond where many United Methodists are prepared to go.

The Board of Church and Society is looking for feedback on this initial draft of the Social Principles. Comments can be entered on this web link. I would encourage you to read the proposed principles and give your feedback to help influence the second draft. The final product will come to the 2020 General Conference for approval. As they stand now, there is a lot of room for improvement.

 

Bishops Request Judicial Council Decision

The Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church is asking the JudicialCouncil for a declaratory decision on what petitions can be submitted to the denomination’s Special Session of General Conference called for February 2019. The Council of Bishops announced their request in a statement issued this week.

“The intent is to resolve the question of whether additional petitions, beyond the report of the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops, can be submitted to the Special 2019 General Conference prior to the convening of the Special General Conference,” said Bishop Bruce R. Ough, president of the Council of Bishops.

A faction of the Council of Bishops is arguing that the special called General Conference ought to only consider whatever the bishops propose as a way forward for the church in resolving disagreements over our understanding of marriage and same-sex practices. There is a powerful push to adopt the “Uniting Model” that would allow annual conferences to decide whether or not to ordain practicing homosexuals and clergy to decide whether or not to marry same-sex couples. A heavy-handed attempt by some bishops to prevent consideration of other options does not speak well of their leadership, but may indicate a level of panic, striving at any cost to keep the church “united.”

We applaud the Council of Bishops for requesting this decision in order to bring certainty to the process. Based on previous Judicial Council decisions, the Judicial Council should allow other relevant proposals to be submitted to General Conference. (Even if Judicial Council rules they cannot be submitted as part of the regular process, there is nothing preventing other proposals from being introduced on the floor of General Conference as a substitute for the bishops’ proposal.) Allowing proposals to be submitted as part of the regular process is critical to enable those alternative proposals to be properly evaluated prior to being considered by General Conference.

The General Conference delegates ought to be allowed to consider any and all proposals for a faithful way forward for our church. It is their decision that will determine the future course we take, after all. The work of the Commission on a Way Forward and the proposal(s) submitted by the bishops are important, but they do not define the final outcome. Only the General Conference can speak for the whole church in determining how we will proceed.

Baltimore-Washington Defies Judicial Council

In response to six different annual conference boards of ordained ministry voting in 2016 not to comply with the Book of Discipline’s qualifications for ministry in evaluating candidates, the Judicial Council ruled that “The Board’s examination must include all paragraphs relevant to election of pastoral ministry, including those provisions set forth in paragraphs that deal with issues of race, gender, sexuality, integrity, indebtedness, etc. ¶¶ 304.2, 305, 306, 310.” In other words, the board of ordained ministry cannot ignore requirements it disagrees with.

The Judicial Council further ruled, “The Board can only legally recommend to the Clergy Session a candidate for whom they have conducted a thorough examination and who has met the disciplinary standards for fitness.”

Now, one of those six original non-compliant annual conference boards has voted to adopt a policy that intentionally disobeys not only the Book of Discipline, but the Judicial Council ruling. Rather than await the outcome of the 2019 special called General Conference, Baltimore-Washington is conducting itself as a break-off annual conference from the rest of the global United Methodist Church.

In a statement issued last week, the board announced that it had adopted the policy recommendation last October and used it to evaluate its current crop of candidates for ministry.

The policy states, “We will not consider or evaluate sexual orientation or gender identity nor see them to be sufficient reasons to deny a candidate’s ability to live up to our United Methodist standards. We will utilize our denomination’s expectation of faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness within our examination and expect not only high moral standards but also a strong sense of self-awareness about one’s relational life.” (One wonders what exactly those “high moral standards” are, if Baltimore-Washington no longer operates by the moral standards set by General Conference in obedience to Scripture.)

Despite the fact that Baltimore-Washington has jettisoned the denomination’s ordination standards, it is noteworthy that the board still wants to maintain the standard of “faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness.” However, since same-sex marriage is now legal in the United States, the refusal to consider sexual orientation or gender identity means that persons in a same-sex marriage would be eligible for ordained ministry in the board’s eyes. Transgender candidates would also be welcome under these standards. Given the Judicial Council rulings, this policy calls into question whether any of the candidates recommended by the board at the upcoming annual conference can legally be considered or voted on.

The board acknowledges that it is knowingly violating the provisions of the Discipline and the Judicial Council rulings. Their statement reads, “We write in response to these rulings’ specific mandate to not ignore in the inquiry a candidate’s self-disclosure of sexual orientation. We respectfully disagree with these rulings, acknowledging that the following policy is not compliant with the Book of Discipline.”

This action points once again to the primary problem that is causing the crisis within United Methodism today. That problem is the unwillingness of members, clergy, and bishops to live within the boundaries set by General Conference for the whole church. This intentional defiance has torn the covenant that binds United Methodists together and generates mistrust and cynicism toward the institutional church.

The Rev. Amy McCullough, who co-chaired the board task force that developed the policy, is quoted as saying, “My hope is that this feels respectful. We all want the best for this Church that we love.” However, this policy does feel disrespectful. It disrespects the collegial work of the General Conference, the only body that has the authority to speak for the whole United Methodist Church. And it disrespects the clear and reasonable decisions of the Judicial Council in upholding what the Discipline requires. It also disrespects all of us who took vows to live by our Discipline and have been faithful to those vows, even when we disagree with some of its requirements.

A church that fails to live by its covenants is no longer an authentic church. It has become factions that live by their own lights and disregard the health of the whole body for the sake of advancing their views.

It has become painfully obvious since 2016 that those promoting the affirmation of LGBT practices are not willing to live together in a church that disallows those practices. Rather than take the route of integrity and withdraw from a church they cannot adhere to, they tear apart the unity of the church by their continuing and escalating disobedience.

The only faithful way forward is some form of separation that acknowledges that reality and allows the different factions to go their own way. We gain nothing by continuing to try to hold together members and congregations that cannot live in the same church by the same understandings of faith and moral teachings. In their zeal to force the church to change, many progressives have instead sealed the fate of The United Methodist Church to no longer be a “united” body, but destined for separation.

Northwest United Methodist Defiance

Rev. Kathleen Weber, PNW Conference

United Methodists in the Greater Northwest Area, under the leadership of Bishop Elaine J.W. Stanovsky, have again decided to disregard the letter and spirit of United Methodist Church teachings. Indeed, it seems Stanovsky has gone out of her way to poke the eye of any vestige of church unity during this time of prayer and discernment about a faithful way forward for our denomination.

On February 19, Stanovsky announced the appointment of the Rev. Kathleen Weber to serve as the District Superintendent for the Crest to Coast Missional District in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference. Weber is a second generation United Methodist pastor, a graduate of Candler School of Theology, and has been under appointment since 2005. Oh, and by the way, she is married to Dr. Danae Dotolo.

The fact that an openly married lesbian is serving as a pastor in The United Methodist Church in the state of Washington is not surprising, but it is disheartening. The Pacific Northwest Annual Conference is one of those conferences that stated it would ignore the issue of sexual orientation or practice in considering candidates for ministry, and that it would not conform to the requirements of the Book of Discipline regarding marriage and sexuality. It appears that, despite the Judicial Council declaring such actions by annual conferences to be illegal under the Discipline, Bishop Stanovsky and conference leaders continue to ignore the parts of the Discipline that they disagree with.

Even more disheartening during this time of discernment, however, is that the bishop would appoint a married lesbian as a district superintendent. This raising of the profile of Weber is an overt defiance of United Methodist standards and a callous disregard for the attempt by the Commission on a Way Forward to find a fair and faithful way for our church to resolve its impasse over these matters. It certainly makes it more difficult to come to a positive and unifying resolution of our disagreements.

Bishop Elaine Stanovsky

But Stanovsky was not finished. On February 22, she announced that the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference (which she also serves) is hiring a half-time LGBTQ+ Advocacy Coordinator for the conference. The Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell is a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor and was an Assistant Professor of Christian Nurture at Duke Divinity School. He and his partner, Dean, have been together for 22 years and have two adult children.

In deference to the fact that the Book of Discipline forbids the spending of church funds “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality” (¶ 613.19), funding for this position is being received from The Collins Foundation, a family foundation located in Portland, Oregon, dedicated to “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Many of the activities to be supported by Webb-Mitchell are conducted in partnership with the Love Your Neighbor Coalition, the group that has been promoting at General Conference a change in the United Methodist teachings in order to allow same-sex weddings and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. (This is in addition to the extravagant funding that pro-gay General Conference efforts have received from wealthy non-United Methodist foundations such as the Arcus Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.)

These two announcements, within days of each other, constitute a double-barreled assault on the church’s standards and further diminish prospects of an amicable resolution of the current impasse in our church. Along with the continued service of married lesbian Bishop Karen Oliveto in the Mountain Sky Area (despite the Judicial Council ruling her consecration illegal), this escalation in the form of the appointment of two openly gay clergy to annual conference leadership positions is an “in your face” repudiation of United Methodist polity and discipline.

As the Commission on a Way Forward conducts its eighth meeting next week and prepares to send its final report to the Council of Bishops, it has become more apparent than ever that we are two churches pretending to be one.

 

Big Picture Status of United Methodism – Part III (Europe/Asia)

Students from Wesley Divinity Seminary, Wesleyan University, flash smiles and signs of affirmation during a march and rally in Quezon City, Philippines. Photo by SJ Earl Canlas and Jimuel Mari.

Over the last several weeks of Perspective, I have been surveying the growth and decline of United Methodism around the globe. The statistical report is available here. The big picture is that most of Methodism around the globe is in decline, with the exception of certain regions in Africa. In Part 1, I went into more detail about Africa. Two weeks ago, I surveyed the situation in the United States.

Rounding out our big picture look at the denomination, our attention turns to Europe and Asia. Observers of membership statistics will notice a dramatic dip in the Philippines from 216,300 in 2015 to 140,235 in 2016. That represents more than one-third drop in membership.

According to sources in the Philippines, the difference does not reflect a sudden one-year decline in membership but is due in part to more rigorous attention to accuracy that began several years ago (not solely due to the change in reporting requirements instituted by the 2016 General Conference).

As it stands, the current membership of United Methodism in The Philippines is roughly equivalent to the size of the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference or Upper New York or Alabama-West Florida.

There are three episcopal areas within the Philippines Central Conference. The northern area (Baguio) consists of nine annual conferences averaging 7,200 members each, ranging in size from 2,800 to 16,750 members. This area lost 14,750 members or 20 percent of its membership. The central area (Manila) consists of 12 annual conferences averaging 5,600 members each and ranging from 966 to 14,800 members. This area lost 65,600 members or 50 percent of its membership. The southern area (Davao) consists of five annual conferences averaging 2,575 members each and ranging from 1,260 to 4,560 members. This area gained over 1,200 members for a growth of nearly 11 percent. This growth came despite being in an area beset by a violent Islamic insurgency (Mindanao).

Paradoxically, even with this loss of membership, the Philippines will gain delegates in the 2020 General Conference. They added a new annual conference for 2016 and another one in 2020, so they have gone from 48 delegates in 2012 to 52 in 2020. (Each of the 26 annual conferences is entitled to a minimum of two delegates to General Conference.) The Philippines has considered breaking off from The United Methodist Church in the past and becoming an autonomous Methodist church (similar to the Methodist churches in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and other parts of Latin America). Their future course of action will depend upon the outcome of the 2019 General Conference.

The most exciting development in Asia is the growth of mission work in Southeast Asia, currently under the supervision of the Bishop of Texas, Scott Jones. These areas have not yet formed into annual conferences, but are moving toward that point over the next several years. There are over 300 churches in Vietnam, 100 in Laos, and over 150 in Cambodia. They face obstacles in working with the government, hostility to foreigners, and in some cases even religious persecution. But these areas are growing, and most will seek to maintain a relationship with The United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Christhard Elle leads an outdoor worship service in northern Germany. Photo courtesy of World Methodist Council.

The three European regions lost about 5,500 members, or 9.3 percent of their membership. All the European and Central Asian annual conferences are tiny. The Germany episcopal area is the oldest and largest of the three European areas. It has three annual conferences ranging from 6,400 to 15,500 members. The Germany annual conferences lost 2,000 members or 6 percent of their membership. The Central and Southern Europe area has seven annual conferences, four of which are provisional and not fully able to stand on their own. They range in membership from 468 to 6,763 members, with the largest being Switzerland-France-North Africa. This area lost 2,200 members or over 14 percent of their membership. The Northern Europe and Eurasia area has ten annual conferences, five of which are provisional. They range in number from 174 to 4,237 members, with the largest being Norway. This area lost 1,300 members or 12 percent of their membership.

It is important to remember that the European and Central Asian annual conferences are subject to adverse political conditions, ranging from the armed conflict in Ukraine to religious repression in Russia and Muslim countries. The churches and conferences there are very fragile, and they are likely to be affected more severely by whatever course of action is adopted by the 2019 General Conference. They experience theological differences between more conservative areas and more liberal areas, but have been able to continue working together because of their small size and need for each other. This dynamic could change, depending upon the outcome of the 2019 General Conference.

All of the parts of the UM Church outside the U.S. are striving to become more financially self-supporting. Some parts of Europe and the Philippines have contributed to the global work of the church for many years. Other parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa are just beginning to make those contributions. Many have helped to support their own bishop and annual conference expenses, while not being fully self-sufficient. Their desire is to move in that direction, which led to the 2016 General Conference assigning apportionments to the churches outside the U.S. for the first time, based on a formula that takes into account economic conditions and membership.

The move toward self-support is not an attempt to marginalize United Methodists outside the U.S. (as I have heard some people worry). Instead, it is a desire to build their capacity, so that they can fully support the work of their churches and extend that work in their own countries and around the world.

One of the gifts for me to be a member of the Commission on a Way Forward has been to learn from members from other countries and to learn about their challenges and victories. The United Methodist Church is the only mainline Protestant denomination that is a truly global church, having members who serve equally from more than 50 countries in the world. I believe that can be a real strength of our church and help us to broaden our understanding of the Christian faith. Our brothers and sisters can teach us ways to grow our faith and our churches in an adverse environment (which many of them are experiencing). Awareness of our global Methodism can strengthen our church and give us a foretaste of heaven, where there will be “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).

What the Bishops’ Meeting Means 

Social media is all abuzz in the aftermath of the Council of Bishops meeting that ended Wednesday. The special four-day meeting was called to enable further discussion of the Commission on a Way Forward report – updating and refining two of the three options it had previously presented to the bishops. In a press release [link] and news story [link], we learned further details about the way forward the bishops are envisioning.

This meeting marked the most extensive and frank discussions the bishops have ever had on the issue of the church’s ministry to and with LGBT persons. It is disturbing that such discussions really did not begin until the church was on the brink of separation in 2016. It is good that these conversations are finally taking place.

The two options currently under consideration by the bishops are:

* A One Church Contextual model that is a repackaging of the local option. Under this plan, the language around marriage and homosexuality would be removed from the Book of Discipline. Each annual conference would be able to decide whether to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. Each pastor would be able to decide whether to perform same-sex weddings or unions. Each local church would be able to decide whether to allow same-sex weddings in its sanctuary and whether to receive an openly gay pastor. Those who could not in good conscience participate in same-sex weddings or ordination would not be required to do so. Congregations that could not continue in the UM Church under this new situation would be able to exit the denomination with their property under terms not yet spelled out.

* Multi-Branch in One Church model that envisions the creation of three new branches based on theology, one progressive, one traditional, and one following the local option approach. These branches would replace the current five geographical jurisdictions and would each cover the entire United States. The current central conferences outside the U.S. could form their own branches or could join one of the three theological branches. The traditional branch would maintain the current stance prohibiting same-sex weddings and ordination, with robust accountability within that branch. Other branches could modify or remove the language prohibiting same-sex weddings and ordination in their branches. All the branches would share a few common services and agencies, and there would still be one Council of Bishops. Each annual conference would decide which branch to belong to, and only those local churches that disagreed with their annual conference’s choice would need to vote to join a different branch. Congregations that could not continue in the UM Church under this new situation would be able to exit the denomination with their property under terms not yet spelled out.

This means that the bishops are no longer considering the possible model that would have kept the language on marriage and homosexuality in the Discipline the same, with enhanced accountability to ensure that bishops and annual conferences live by the Discipline. Under this sketch, annual conferences and local churches that could not live by the current Discipline would be encouraged to exit the denomination under generous terms.

It is not surprising that the accountability model is not being considered, since more than half of the bishops favor changing the Book of Discipline’s position to allow same-sex weddings and ordination. For the bishops, the accountability model is too much like separation, and their overriding value is unity.

For the same reasons, it is not surprising that the rhetoric coming from the Council president and other bishops is weighted toward the One Church Contextual model. This fits the desire of many bishops to change the Discipline and still stay together in one church. They cannot comprehend that many evangelicals could not continue in a denomination that condones what the Bible calls sinful behavior. And they believe that somehow the local option plan can pass the special General Conference, even though it failed in the past three General Conferences.

So what does all of this mean for the way forward for our church? The short answer is: not much. Regardless of what plan or plans the bishops put forward, other plans will be on the table to be considered at the special 2019 General Conference in St. Louis. It is not the bishops who will decide the way forward, but the General Conference delegates. A plan for keeping the Discipline the same with enhanced accountability, or a plan incorporating those features, is likely to be put forward despite the bishops’ disapproval. The Council of Bishops has a fairly low influence on U.S. delegates, due to the high level of distrust for the Council, despite the individual regard some delegates have for their own bishop. It is highly unlikely that evangelical delegates in Africa, the Philippines, and Eurasia will vote to change the position of our church, even if it is said that such a change would not affect them.

From my perspective, it is not time for traditional evangelicals to bail out of the United Methodist Church. Nothing has been decided, and the power remains in the hands of the General Conference delegates. We had hoped that the Council of Bishops would present a plan that evangelicals could support. It now looks more likely that will not happen. But for 50 years evangelicals have operated at a disadvantage, and the Lord has enabled our biblically based position that welcomes and loves LGBT persons while teaching against sinful behavior to prevail. We expect that to continue. And if not, we believe that Jesus Christ is still on the throne, and he will guide us into a way in which we can remain faithful. What he asks of us is to stand strongly on his Word and remain faithful.

Please continue to pray for the bishops, the Commission on a Way Forward, and for Good News and the other renewal groups, as we all seek to discern the faithful way forward for our church.

 

 

 

Big Picture Status of United Methodism (Part 2 )

In last week’s edition of Perspective, I began to survey the growth and decline of United Methodism around the globe. The big picture is that most of Methodism around the globe is in decline, with the exception of certain regions in Africa. Last week, I went into more detail about Africa [link].

When turning to the United States, the picture is more grim. Overall, the U.S. church lost 319,000 members. This represents 4.3 percent of its membership. There was only one annual conference that grew over the four years, and every jurisdiction lost members. Here are the statistics by jurisdiction:

The northern jurisdictions are not far behind when it comes to membership loss. They have a much higher membership level to start with, so the impact will not be felt as quickly. However, these figures have implications for the number of bishops in each of the northern jurisdictions. According to the formula in ¶ 404 of the Discipline, both jurisdictions are now entitled to eight bishops. However, both have nine active bishops currently. The 2016 General Conference froze the number of bishops because of the Commission on a Way Forward and its possible implications for restructuring the church. If the church is not restructured, however, it is likely that each jurisdiction will lose a bishop in 2020. (Of course, if there is a substantial exodus of members from the church after the 2019 General Conference, all jurisdictions may face the loss of one or more bishops.)While it had the smallest membership loss in numbers, the Western Jurisdiction lost the highest percentage of its membership. As has been noted for a number of years, this pace of membership loss is unsustainable in the West. Annual conferences are looking at consolidation/merger. There may come a time when the number of bishops in the West will need to be reduced below the constitutionally mandated number of five. Or the Western Jurisdiction may need to be folded into other jurisdictions. A study committee is looking at jurisdictional realignment, but all such plans are on hold until the 2019 General Conference decides what will be our denomination’s “way forward.”

Also in imminent danger of losing a bishop is the South Central Jurisdiction. Based on the formula, the SCJ has only 2,100 members more than the threshold for losing one of its ten bishops. If 2017 numbers are used to determine the number of bishops, it is possible for the SCJ to lose a bishop in 2020. But it will undoubtedly lose one bishop by 2024. The Southeastern Jurisdiction is not in danger of losing a bishop, as they voluntarily declined to add a bishop to which they were entitled several quadrenniums ago.

Annual Conference Trajectories

The only annual conference showing growth for the four years 2012-2016 was the North Carolina Annual Conference, which gained 76 members (statistically, less than 0.1 percent growth). Five other annual conferences declined by less than one percent:

North Georgia                  -0.4 percent

Kentucky                              -0.6 percent

Texas                                     -0.7 percent

Tennessee                             -0.9 percent

Memphis                               -0.9 percent

Texas is in the South Central Jurisdiction, and the other four (plus North Carolina) are in the Southeastern Jurisdiction.

By comparison, there were six annual conferences that lost more than 10 percent of their members from 2012-2016.

Upper New York              -17.0 percent

Desert Southwest                -13.8 percent

Yellowstone                          -12.2 percent

Pacific Northwest                -12.2 percent

Wisconsin                           -11.9 percent

West Ohio                           -10.2 percent

Upper New York had the largest number of members lost at 28,500, making up nearly one-third of the membership losses suffered by the entire Northeastern Jurisdiction. West Ohio was next at 19,250, making up one-fourth of the membership losses suffered by the entire North Central Jurisdiction. Among other annual conferences, Florida, out of a much larger membership total, lost nearly 18,000 members, nearly one-third of the membership losses suffered by the Southeastern Jurisdiction. Central Texas lost 13,600, nearly one-fourth of the membership losses suffered by the South Central Jurisdiction, and Iowa lost nearly 11,000.

Three of these six fastest-declining conferences are in the Western Jurisdiction, two in the North Central, and one in the Northeastern. These declines could have devastating impact on some of the annual conferences involved. Yellowstone is the smallest non-missionary annual conference, with only 11,000 members. It is planning a merger with the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference over the next few years. Desert Southwest has only 31,000 members, while Pacific Northwest has just over 40,000 members and may explore a merger with the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference (which itself only has just over 25,000 members). Wisconsin has 65,000 members, but may need to share a bishop (relinquishing its own residential bishop) with another annual conference beginning in 2020. Both Upper New York and West Ohio are much larger annual conferences, with almost 140,000 and almost 169,000 members respectively. They will not be as heavily impacted by loss of members in the near term.

The declines in all these conferences, however, are representative of why their respective jurisdictions are experiencing serious membership declines. It is worth noting that all six annual conferences are located in primarily rural areas. However, Washington State, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona rank in the top ten states for population growth since 2010. Montana ranks in the top 20. (Pacific Northwest contains Washington State and part of Idaho, Yellowstone contains Montana and part of Wyoming, and Desert Southwest contains Arizona and part of Nevada.) Wisconsin and Ohio are 39th and 41st in population growth, while New York is 33rd, so that could have played a part in the membership declines in those areas.

Regardless of how fast or slow the population is declining in a given area, recent surveys have shown a surge in the number of unchurched people. The mission field in the United States has plenty of opportunity for harvest! Our church needs to find creative and faithful ways of making more disciples of Jesus Christ. Their eternity, not to mention the future of our church, depends upon it.

Big Picture Status of United Methodism (Part 1 – Africa)

Parishioners sing during worship at the United Methodist church in Kortihun near Bo, Sierra Leone. Several villages in the Bo district will receive new, insecticide-treated mosquito nets from the United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria campaign in the first planned redistribution to replace nets given in 2010. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

We are called Methodists for a reason. John Wesley was very methodical in his approach to discipleship (the means of grace, the General Rules) and revival. He always insisted that small groups be formed of those who responded to his preaching. He insisted that they follow a set process. And he kept detailed numbers on each group — who was participating and how often they attended. We sometimes get hung up on “numbers” vs. more spiritual topics, but each number represents a person. When we talk about gaining 5,000 members, we are talking about 5,000 more men, women, and children who are following Christ in a United Methodist congregation. And that is a great victory. And losing numbers of members is tragic. These numbers and these people matter for eternity.

Detailed statistics have been released by the General Council on Finance and Administration regarding membership numbers used to calculate the number of delegates for each annual conference to the 2020 General Conference. These numbers give us a better sense of the growth trajectory of our denomination. Year-to-year statistics are helpful, but there can be fluctuations. A four-year trend, as portrayed in the comparison between 2020 and 2016 numbers, can be more accurate in telling the overall story. (The numbers in determining the 2020 delegates come from 2016, as compared with 2012 numbers used to determine the 2016 delegates.)

The big picture is that The United Methodist Church gained more than 143,000 members over the past four years. All of the growth, however, took place in two of the African regions: Congo and West Africa. Every other region of the world declined in membership. Congo led the way by gaining more than 429,000 members, topping out at about 3 million United Methodists in the Congo alone. This makes Congo the largest region in the church, exceeding even the Southeastern Jurisdiction. West Africa followed by gaining nearly 200,000 members, coming to over 1.7 million United Methodists. This makes West Africa the third largest region in the world, behind the Southeastern Jurisdiction.

Observers were curious to see the impact of new rules for reporting members for 2016. For the first time, the membership numbers needed to be reported down to the individual church level. Previously, annual conferences outside the U.S. could report aggregate numbers for the whole annual conference, which were often thought to be just estimates that may not have been totally accurate. But the new 2016 numbers are far more reliable, and in many annual conferences in Africa the change did not have the effect of shrinking the membership.

There were still some anomalies in the African reporting. Two annual conferences in the Africa Central region (eastern and southern Africa) did not report their membership numbers. This contributed to the membership decline in the Africa Central Conference region, which lost 86,000 members. (There are issues of conflict in some of those annual conferences that also contributed to the decline.) Half of the annual conferences in this region grew, but the other half suffered some significant losses of 20 to 45 percent.

Another anomaly was that one West Africa annual conference (Cote D’Ivoire or Ivory Coast) reported the exact same number of members it had reported in 2012. Liberia led the way in West Africa with a growth of almost 133,000 members (89 percent). That country just elected its second United Methodist as president of the nation in a row! Sierra Leone gained 60,000 members (27 percent). The three annual conferences of Nigeria also grew slightly while adding a fourth annual conference and continuing to battle the adversity of the Boko Haram insurgency and internal church conflict.

All but two annual conferences in the Congo grew over the four years. The Oriental and Equator Annual Conference in the Congo went from 5,000 members in 2012 to over 90,000 members in 2016. Presumably, these recent numbers are more accurate. Two other annual conferences more than doubled in size. The largest annual conference (North Katanga) gained 90,000 members (11 percent). At 910,000 members, they are the largest annual conference in the global United Methodist Church, 2-1/2 times the size of North Georgia, the next largest! This rapid growth is why the Congo will probably receive the lion’s share of the four new bishops to be added in Africa in 2020.

Even with the anomalies, we have a much more accurate picture of the status of United Methodist membership in Africa and other parts of the world.

The big picture is that most of Methodism around the globe is in decline, with the exception of certain regions in Africa. In my next blog, I will look at the situation in the United States.

A Secular Religion: The Challenge We Face

A recent article in the journal First Things by Mary Eberstadt entitled The Zealous Faith of Secularism makes the case that the challenge we face in the United States and the Western World is one of competing faiths or competing ideologies. Christianity faces off against a secularism that has its own dogmas. Some of those dogmas are so entrenched in our culture that we don’t even recognize them as beliefs in competition with a Christian worldview.

One of these secular dogmas is that the purpose of life is personal happiness. This stems, of course, from the uniquely American DNA reflected in our Declaration of Independence, that holds that we are endowed by our Creator with certain “unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Our American “religion” believes that we have the right to pursue happiness in whatever way we believe best, whether we eventually find it or not. This has evolved into the idea that the pursuit of happiness is the purpose of life. It has led to a focus on materialism/greed, sex, and power in a misguided quest for happiness.

Instead, we believe as Christians that the purpose of life is to know God and to glorify him with our lives. That may or may not make us happy in the moment, but it will lead to our ultimate happiness and the deepest joy. C.S. Lewis talks about that in his book, Mere Christianity. “What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’ — could set up on their own as if they had created themselves — be their own masters — invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history — money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery — the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy. … God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”

Another secular dogma is that sex is for pleasure, and I am entitled to have as much of it as I want, with whomever I want, whenever I want. The idea that we ought to reserve sex for the committed relationship of marriage is often thought to be quaint and old-fashioned, if not downright detrimental to happiness (see dogma #1). Paul faced this attitude in Corinth, which prompted him to write: “The body isn’t for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body. … Don’t you know that your bodies are parts of Christ? So then, should I take parts of Christ and make them a part of someone who is sleeping around?” (I Corinthians 6:13-15, CEB). Sex is sacred, and we find our greatest joy in reserving the sexual relationship to be shared only with our spouse — but that is not the message that we hear from the world each and every day.

A third dogma is that a woman can do what she wants with her own body, and a fetus is only a part of a woman’s body, not an independent life form. Of course, this leads to the demand for abortion to be available at any time, for any reason, up until the last day of pregnancy. This fits very well with dogma #2, since abortion makes it possible for a person to enjoy unlimited sex without the inconvenience of a child (one of the actual purposes of sex). What a different attitude is portrayed in Psalm 127:3: “children are a gift from the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a divine reward.”

A fourth dogma is that marriage is a relationship between any two people (and sometimes not even limited to two) who want to commit themselves to each other. A corollary dogma is that sexual orientation is inborn and unchangeable, and that it is unjust to expect persons with same-sex attraction not to find the fulfillment of marriage that heterosexual people do. Based on these beliefs, people are prepared to change the definition of marriage that has held true for all civilizations for at least 5,000 years. It doesn’t matter that the scientific evidence is decidedly against sexual orientation being an inborn characteristic. It doesn’t matter that some people have indeed changed their sexual orientation. It doesn’t matter that Jesus defines marriage as between one man and one woman (Matthew 19:4-6, cf. Genesis 2:24, I Timothy 3:2).

That last point is what reveals these dogmas as ideologies or quasi-religious matters of faith. They are not based on any kind of empirical evidence. They are just “truths” that people are expected to agree with. And if one disputes these dogmas, there is a visceral, angry reaction to silence dissent and compel (if possible) belief.

I could go on listing secular dogmas, but what the church faces today is a fully developed ideology or religion that cuts out God and substitutes articles of faith that it believes will lead to human happiness. Of course, we know (as Lewis stated in the quote above) that there is no lasting happiness apart from God. But we sometimes allow these secular dogmas to creep into our thinking and guide the church’s beliefs and actions. That is the source of our theological conflict in The United Methodist Church today. It is a conflict between traditional, orthodox, biblical Christianity and a Christianity that is influenced by secular ideology.

There is a paramount need to self-critically discern where our theology, ethics, or actions are being influenced by secular ideology. The best antidote to this poison is to be thoroughly steeped in a biblical worldview. We need to know biblical theology to protect ourselves from the secular counterfeit, and we need to live out that biblical theology in order to have any hope of convincing the world it is wrong. It comes back to the formation of Christian disciples as the supreme task of the church. The challenges we face today show that we have not been entirely successful in that task.