By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht
In the wake of the September meeting of the Commission on a Way Forward in Berlin, I would like to reflect on the balancing act that the Commission is engaged in as it formulates its proposal for the Council of Bishops and the called 2019 General Conference. Any views expressed here are my own and do not reflect the thinking of the Commission as a whole.
The key to understanding the Commission’s work is the Vision statement that describes what the Commission is trying to accomplish. “The Commission will design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible.” Please observe that the phrase “as possible” is repeated three times.
A Missional Purpose
The first thing to note is that the Commission seeks to “maximize the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible.” Our work has a missional imperative. We acknowledge that different groups can best reach different types of people. Those who respond positively to a progressive expression of United Methodism would probably not respond well to a more traditional expression, and vice versa. Right now, the conflict in our denomination is hindering both progressives and traditionalists from fulfilling our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Whatever proposal the Commission recommends ought to be aimed at freeing us for Christ-based mission and enhancing the missional potential for all parts of the denomination.
Balancing Differentiation with Unity
The crux of the Commission’s work, however, is found in the word “balance.” We are trying to balance the need for “as much contextual differentiation as possible” related to the “different theological understandings of human sexuality” with “a desire for as much unity as possible.” Contextualization requires space and a loosening of the connection. Unity requires a tightening of the connection. As Bishop Ken Carter put it in a September 21 press release, “We know that members of our denomination want space from each other—because of theological differences from each other and the harm we have done to each other—and at the same time connection—because this is in our DNA.” Where is the balance point between as much space as is needed to accommodate the different theological understandings and as much unity/connection as possible? That is what the Commission needs to discern.
It is important to understand that no proposal from the Commission is going to be the magic wand or ideal solution. We deal with a political reality in terms of coming to an agreement that will satisfy many diverse groups of people, both in the U.S. and in the 60 nations around the world where Methodism is present. It has been said that politics is the art of the possible, not a search for the ideal. Sometimes, the perfect becomes the enemy of the good. Holding out for the ideal solution (from our perspective) may mean that nothing gets accomplished, and the impasse remains. So the Commission is seeking to balance competing interests to come to a workable solution.
It is a given that our current denominational structure does not achieve this balance. For progressives who want to perform same-sex weddings, there is too much connection that is inhibiting their ability to do ministry as they believe they are called to do it, in that their ministry is prohibited by the general church. At the same time, there is not enough connection in that the rest of the church has not agreed to endorse the progressive vision for ministry with LGBTQ persons.
For conservatives, there is not enough connection in that there is little accountability or adherence to the actions of General Conference defining our parameters of ministry with LGBTQ persons. At the same time, there is too much connection in that the actions of progressives to perform same-sex weddings and ordain practicing homosexuals cause the community to think all United Methodist churches do so and alienates traditional United Methodists from the denomination.
Since the current structure is untenable, what might we move toward? The Commission’s Scope declares, “We should be open to new ways of embodying unity.” It adds, “We will fulfill our directive by considering ‘new forms and structures’ of relationship.” Further, “We will give consideration to greater freedom and flexibility to a future United Methodist Church that will redefine our present connectionality, which is showing signs of brokenness.”
All of this means that we will need to redefine what “unity” means for United Methodists. We can no longer have unity with one another on the same basis as in the past. To move forward, we will have to reach a new understanding of unity.
First, we must acknowledge that the unity of the church is not at stake here. In the press release, Bishop Ken Carter said, “We are the one Body of Christ with many members, and God uses this diversity to offer grace and healing to the world.” With all due respect, United Methodism is not “the one Body of Christ.” That distinction belongs to the whole worldwide Christian Church. United Methodism is only a part of “the one Body of Christ”—a vital and personal part for those of us who call ourselves Wesleyans. In reality, however, that global body has been institutionally divided since the Great Schism of 1054 between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. It has been further divided by the thousands of Protestant denominations that have arisen over the past 500 years.
The unity that “the one Body of Christ” is able to have is not institutional, but spiritual. We can acknowledge each other as believers in Jesus Christ and work together in ways that stem from common agreement. By that mutual acknowledgement and respect, along with common efforts in ministry, the worldwide Christian Church can indeed express “diversity to offer grace and healing to the world.” Whether The United Methodist Church stays together in one denomination will have minimal impact on the unity of the worldwide Christian Church. That unity can best be preserved in our part of the Body by our treating each other with mutual acknowledgement and respect, while working together in aspects of ministry that stem from common agreement. Perhaps that is a new definition of unity.
Second, we must acknowledge that the unity of The United Methodist Church is broken beyond repair. This is difficult and painful for us to admit. However, we must face the fact that many progressives who want to be able to perform same-sex marriages and ordain practicing homosexuals cannot live much longer in a church that prohibits them from doing so. And we must face the fact that many conservatives who believe that same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals is contrary to God’s will could not live for long in a church that allowed and even advocated for such. As the prophet Amos put it, “Can two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” (Amos 3:3).
A New Unity
We could reestablish unity in The United Methodist Church on the basis of agreement only by seeing either progressives or evangelicals leave the church in large numbers. The recently formed Uniting Methodists group cherishes the hope that many United Methodists could remain united in a body that gave a “local option.” Under this previously rejected plan, pastors could individually decide whether or not to perform same-sex weddings, but would not be forced to do so. And annual conferences could individually decide whether or not to ordain practicing homosexuals, but would not be forced to do so. Such a scenario would only be acceptable to progressives as a way station en route to eventual full endorsement of homosexuality. And many evangelicals would feel a need to depart once their annual conference or local church moved toward LGBTQ affirmation.
Alternatively, we could reestablish unity by restructuring The United Methodist Church into something looser, where progressives and traditionalists would not have a say over each other’s ministries, and where financial ties would be limited to those common areas of ministry that all agreed upon. This would be the type of redefining “unity” and considering “new forms and structures of relationship” that the Commission’s Scope envisions.
The question comes down to how much space is necessary between progressives and traditionalists. Can they share bishops? Can they be bound by a common set of membership qualifications? Can they support the same list of seminaries? Can they both continue to support all the same general boards and agencies we now have? How do congregations and clergy determine which part of The United Methodist Church they identify with? How do local churches obtain a pastor who is theologically compatible with the congregation’s views on LGBTQ ministry? How do congregations identify or “market” themselves as distinctively progressive or traditionalist or something else? Are we all still part of the same denomination or are we different denominations? How do the central conferences outside the U.S. continue to receive support from The United Methodist Church? With what part of the UM Church (if any) do central conferences identify? And the list of questions goes on.
The balancing act comes in because there is a desire for as much unity and connection as possible among many United Methodists. But the level of connection desired varies from person to person. What is too much connection for one person is not enough connection for another. And the more connection we maintain between progressives and traditionalists, the more traditionalists may decide to withdraw from United Methodism altogether, thus defeating the goal of preserving unity with those congregations and clergy.
These questions and issues will test the Commission, and ultimately the whole United Methodist Church, as we seek to balance differentiation and unity. There will not be a proposal that pleases everyone. Some will want more unity, while others will want more differentiation. All we can hope for is to strike a balance that will satisfy the greatest number of people, while providing a way for those who cannot live with that proposal to exit from the denomination with pension, property, and assets. This approach is the only way to end the conflict that is tearing our church apart and distracting us from our main mission of disciple-making.
Please continue praying for the Commission as we seek out the optimum balancing point.