By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht
Recently, progressive blogger Jeremy Smith made the claim that “Conservative activists in the United Methodist Church are pushing out the perceived source of all things bad: Progressive Methodists.” Not only does Rev. Smith perceive an effort to “expel” progressives from our church, he also detects a trajectory changing who should leave the church. “Over the past 10 years, for folks seeking to divide the UMC, the rhetoric of ‘who leaves’ has shifted from ‘the Conservatives want to leave’ to ‘let’s make the Progressives leave.’”
In response to the narrative that Smith is positing, I wish to correct the historical record about this supposed shift from conservatives leaving to progressives leaving the church. I also want to dispute the notion that anyone is trying to “expel” others from the church.
Smith believes that the Rev. Dr. Bill Hinson’s speech raising the possibility of separation at the 2004 General Conference was “asking for the conservative churches to part ways with the wayward denomination.”
As one who also attended that conference and was present when Hinson gave his speech, that was not what he said or what he meant. This is what he said: “Our friends who have broken our covenant [namely progressives] feel that they themselves are broken… They are seeking autonomy from the larger body. They garnered more than 300 votes in an attempt to do things their way with regard to ordination in the Western Jurisdiction. Let’s set them and ourselves free to pursue our highest aspirations.” He concluded, “I believe the time has come when we must begin to explore an amicable and just separation that will free both sides from our cycle of pain and conflict. Such a just separation will protect the property rights of churches and the pension rights of clergy. It will also free us to reclaim our high calling and to fulfill our mission in the world. Therefore, let us, like Paul and Barnabas, agree to go our separate ways.”
What Hinson proposed was mutual, amicable separation as a way of releasing progressives to follow their consciences and pursue ministry in the way they feel God calling them. There was no talk of “conservatives leaving” or “expelling” anyone. At most, the raising of the question was a way of allowing progressives to leave, if they desired. Dr. Hinson’s heart was that the church should be released from fighting itself in order to carry on a more effective mission in the world. “We cannot fight both church and culture,” Hinson said. “Our culture alone confronts us with more challenges than we can humanly speaking confront and challenge. That struggle, combined with the continuous struggle in the church, is more than we can bear.”
Dr. Hinson acknowledged his own sadness with regard to the dividedness of the church and the ongoing pain suffered by both sides (and those in the middle). “No sincere person can rejoice in another person’s pain. No one enjoys stepping on another person’s dream… I believe it is time for us to end this cycle of pain we are inflicting on each other,” he said. “The thought of hurting another makes us sick. They hurt us by defying the covenant, and we hurt them with our votes to uphold the Discipline every four years.”
It is in that spirit of wanting to stop the cycle of pain that Drs. Bill Arnold and David Watson have proposed allowing any local church to withdraw from The United Methodist Church based on a declaration “that it is in irreconcilable conflict for reasons of conscience with the provisions of The United Methodist Church Book of Discipline on the practice of homosexuality and the blessing of homosexual unions.” There is no expulsion here. Only a desire to treat others as we ourselves would want to be treated, and a desire to respect the sincere consciences of others in our church body. It is also a concession to the idea that full-blown amicable separation may not be legislatively possible at the 2016 General Conference.
It is in that same spirit that Good News, understanding that the local church in Cassopolis, Michigan, was considering leaving the UM Church, stated that the congregation should be permitted to leave the denomination with its property and assets, if they so desired. “We believe the exercise of the trust clause to hold congregations within the church is a poor foundation upon which to build church unity,” Good News stated. We do not believe covenant ought to be coerced by financial considerations or the trust clause. Those who cannot abide by the covenant they made with The United Methodist Church ought to be allowed to leave without penalizing them. There is nothing new in this. We have maintained this position for many years. And we would hope that, if the language in the Book of Discipline were to be changed, we who could no longer live with that covenant would be similarly treated.
There is no “trajectory” moving from evangelicals leaving the UM Church to expelling progressives. In case the Rev. Smith has not noticed, it is evangelical congregations who are now leaving the denomination (such as Wesley UM Church in Quarryville, Pennsylvania and others).
Dr. Hinson’s question still stands, however. Is it time to consider the possibility of amicable separation? Can we continue to live together in the same church, while hurting each other through our deep disagreements?
I have no desire to expel anyone, nor any desire to leave the church in which I have faithfully served for over 30 years. I pray that I do not face that choice in the future.
(The full text of Dr. Hinson’s speech can be found in the May/June 2004 issue of Good News.)