Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
June 10th, 2014 by Joel Watts

A rough plan for anti- #UMCschism

English: "John Wesley," by the Engli...

Wesley feels your pain but wonders if you aren’t causing it yourself.

Update – Read this post about the necessity of a return to theological reflection.

I do not believe the United Methodist Church needs saving. That would, in my mind, indicate the Church is lost, or losing, rather than the reality we actually face. I am, most days, a optimistic pragmatist.

There are numerous suggestions on how to “save the UMC.” There is the Hamilton-Slaughter plan. This has been derided as an end to our connexionalism. Some have responded to this accusation.1 Somewhat following David Watson’s earlier post, there is a plan to do away with the jurisdictions, albeit with a slightly — well, rather huge, in fact — difference.

Not all of these ideas found genesis in my mind; yet, I feel uncomfortable in attribution due to the private conversations in which some of these ideas took shape. This plan has three parts. First, I will give you my view of where we are right now. Second, I will give you my overall plan for reforming the UMC. Third, I will give you my suggestions for getting past the impasse we have at the moment.

  1. The UMC is a product of a merger between the ME and the EUB, but before that, the ME has existed since Bishops Asbury and Coke landed on these shores. Yes, there were splits, but I would maintain that these groups (ME-South, and the MPC) left connexion rather than suggesting the connexion dissolved.
  2. The Methodist people are only in existence because of a forced separation from the Church of England due to some theological differences and the Church of England’s exclusion of the Methodist people, especially in relation to the recently independent colonies. It was a tough and trying time during the years of 1784-95, but in the end, it was not truly the Methodist people who left, but the Anglicans forcing them out.
  3. We stand as much in the Apostolic Succession as the Anglicans and have use of the Great Tradition and Reason in interpreting Scripture — and we do so within the experience of our salvation. As such, we know Scripture is useful for such questions as polity. It reforms the Church and has always done so. We know the greatest reformers begin not in culture but in Scripture necessitated by a crisis.
  4. The UMC is not lost. We are facing hurt and ruin. We are hurting and oppressing many by our fights. We see conferences disrupted, people torn asunder, and Christian unity destroyed because of bad theology, a lack of Grace, and our human nature corrupting everything. In a word, we are sinners.
  5. I believe that given the way the Methodist people were excluded from the Anglican Communion by the Bishops, along with the coldness of the Anglican divines as portrayed by Wesley, it is in our corporate DNA to withhold from the episcopacy a great deal of legitimacy and authority. The Methodist people were orphaned; therefore, we trust not those who should be our parents in the Lord. We have robbed them of much of their historic and biblical office.
  6. Our polity, as many have suggested, has in fact caused more turmoil than it should have.

Therefore, I propose this:

  1. The last day of each Annual Conference before the General Conference and the first day of each General Conference should be devoted to prayer and Christian conferencing. See here and here for what is meant by this last phrase. Specifically, “Christian Conference was honest, direct, piercing conversation with other Christians that was intended to help the participants grow in holiness.” While it normally would take place in class meetings, it is possible to conduct such meetings even in large gatherings. If Christian conferencing is dispensed with, then spend the entire day in prayer and fasting (along with taking the Eucharist.) 
  2. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral should be revolutionized to help us to begin to re-indoctrinate ourselves. I have stated in numerous places, both private and public, that the biggest problem facing the UMC is the lack of doctrine. Let me refine that here. We have doctrine. Wesley was one of the most theological minds of his time and gave us a framework we have lost. What we need is to understand the importance of doctrine and to find faith once again in orthodoxy.
  3. We need to set Scripture first. It is primary in our Wesleyan view. It is not secondary, and most certainly not secondary to experience. As Christians, we can choose to either obey it or not, but if we choose to not have it, we are not Wesleyans. We must always be open to a better interpretation. I was sorely disappointed at reading what happened with a statement defining better our view on prima scriptura at the last General Conference.
  4. Likewise, we need to understand that while Scripture does not change, our understanding of it does. If we truly believe in the gift promised in John 14-16, then we will more honestly deal with new Reason(s) and be willing to re-examine previous positions without a complete disregard to the Great Tradition. This is not “progressive revelation” in the sense that God will tell us something new, but “corrective revelation,” in that God will lead us into all truth (John 16.13). If we limit our understanding of the sacred writings before us to those who have come before us, we limit the Spirit of God.2
  5. We need to invest in our episcopacy a certain amount of authority. We need to require them to focus on teaching and leadership rather than social justice concerns. I am a United Methodist in part due to the social justice outreach and focus historically found in Methodism; therefore, I do not say this lightly. The Council of Bishops should focus on the mission of the Church internally so that the laity and other clergy can focus on the mission of the Church externally. In examining ¶402-403 of the Book of Discipline, I find a start here, but it needs to be defined to move the bishop away from caretaking to leading. I read in these paragraphs that while they are to “guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church” there are also the passive, limiting, words of “sharing,” “urging,” and “encourages.” This is fine, but more often than not, this is the same language of “leading from behind.” Likewise, I am concerned about “the world” aspect in ¶403(d). Let the bishops focus on the Church; the disciples will focus on the world. Further, the rest of the Church should be taught what place the Bishop holds. I believe in Apostolic Succession and as such, I see in the bishop the Apostles.
  6. As the UMC has done with This Holy Mystery and By Water and the Spirit, we need to invested heavily into creating documents about episcopal authority, prima scriptura, and church discipline.  As the church is a voluntary institution, and more specifically since the UMC is a “by choice” denomination with an ecumenical view along with many ecumenical relationships,3 we must be ready to present what we believe and hold those who take vows to the UMC accountable. As much as social justice has been our concern for the last century, the Methodist people must return to focusing of theology as a means to transform the world. This does not mean that we must create a doctrinal purity commission, as a generous orthodoxy is a must, especially for the ordained.
  7. The “ministry of order” should be a focus for a position paper.

In the meantime, here are some (I hope) practical ways forward in the impasse:

  1. Allow pastors who wish to perform same-sex marriages to do so away from their appointment. I do not believe pastors are really ever “off duty;” however, they must have times to make decisions for themselves and to exercise their conscious before God. We would not charge pastors for violating Article XIV if they attended a Catholic retreat center, would we? I would also lightly argue that this allowance may fall under Articles of Religion XXI and XXII.
  2. Ban unofficial groups from the General Conference as much as possible. By this, I mean to refuse them a place on any exhibit floors and to prevent any signage from these groups to be displayed during the General Conference. Further, restrict the use of “United Methodist,” etc, as much as possible, to officially recognized groups. I would call attention to Articles of Religion XIII and XXII.
  3. All changes to the Book of Discipline must be accompanied with a Scriptural warrant. Recognizing that our understanding of Scripture will change as will the needs of such things as administration, nevertheless, all things must be done in unity with Scripture so that we may “guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church.” Here, I believe we can suggest only Article of Religion V.
  4. Enforce the itinerant system. While this may come as a shock to many, there is a cult of personalities attached to some pastors. We find this in large and small churches, liberal and conservative congregations as well. The itinerant system protects against this. Yet, if a pastor is doing well and grows his/her church to a mega-level, the may never be moved again. We rail against the congregational system (seemingly) proposed by Hamilton-Slaughter, but in fact, we are making ourselves a confederacy of congregations if we do not enforce the itinerant system.

I believe this is enough for now. I realize that I haven’t discussed the issue of removing the language many, myself include, find wrong in the Book of Discipline, or the issue of ordaining those who love differently than others. I would like to find a way that is not congregationalism, but in the end, such a move would require deep love, patience, grace, and theological discussions — something I have tried to build into the above.

(Picture credit: English: “John Wesley,” by the English artist George Romney, oil on canvas. 29 1/2 in. x 24 3/4 in. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia))

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  1. I am betwixt the two leaders here, David Watson and Kevin Carnahan. I cannot recommend more highly these two, even in their divergent opinions, and demand you read their blog.
  2. See Dei Verbum, 8.
  3. i.e., We aren’t the “only church” and neither are you.
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

13 Responses to “A rough plan for anti- #UMCschism”
  1. Know More Than I Should says

    In time, of course, the United Methodist Church’s present predicament will be resolved through some high class funerals in that, so as far as I can tell, the denominational potential schism is both generational and socioeconomic.

  2. The Hamilton-Slaughter plan sounds perfectly reasonable to me.
    Also, the petition on the Primacy of Scripture sounds rather suspect to me. But no info on it. At least the Hamilton-Slaughter plan is available to read on the web. This shows the advantage of the Hamilton-Slaughter plan. Each congregation hears and votes on what is done locally. The setup of “representatives” sent to conference, and becoming advocates, aggressively, of some obscure plan that the representative came up with, but not necessarily representing the majority of the local congregation that they represent, is absurd.
    Just curious, where is the Primacy of Scripture plan?
    And what were the votes, yes or no count, on the Hamilton-Slaughter plan? I see there were over a thousand people signing that they agree with it.
    I can see why the UMC is so screwed up with this political conference system.
    From my narrow perspective, a church is “the local church”, people I interact with everyday. Not a Mega Conglomerate, that I have no contact with, other than through some representative, who may, or may not, even be close to my position. Or provide me feedback as to what the heck he/she is aggressively pushing in regard to doctrine that I am suppose to support. That goes for all the big shots, including the pastor. I am getting very bad vibes on this conference system. Unless it has accountability back to the local congregation.

    • One more comment. The comment from David Watson against the Hamilton-Slaughter plan as such:
      “Connectionalism also locates us squarely in the one, catholic, and universal Church. The idea of leaving to each congregation how it will settle this important and sensitive question reconfigures Methodism significantly, and formalizes an institutional version of ancient Israel’s chaos: “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).”
      My response to this would be:
      1. Not willing to accept reality. It is obvious from the discord, that there is not “one” universal Catholic Church on the issue. Connectionalism is disconnected, at this time. It is better to have connectionalism among individuals at the local level, than disconnectionalism at the highest level, which is the current state. Plus I noticed far more people supporting Hamilton-Slaughter from the Deep South, than the liberal states. So I would tend to believe their “states rights” DNA is showing. Which is Ok with me, as a liberal. Whatever you are comfortable with at the local level is better than fighting at the top level (like the Federal Congress, which accomplishes nothing).
      2. The reference to Judges, everyone doing what they want…this just reflects the divide that “connectionalism” will never overcome for mutual peace. Using Judges as a reference implies Watson’s association of the issue with one of the most violent, disgraceful moments in the history of Israel. So I would think he has an obvious bias that comes off as, “because we didn’t have a King”. That is, it is my way, or the highway. Besides, Israel got into big trouble when they did get a King. Saul needs to take over UMC, then there will be unity, with a sword. (I am just trying to show the absurdity of rejecting a compromise).

  3. This is a good post, Joel. Very thoughtful.

  4. Diane Reamer-Evans says

    I expect it is a good post, but much of it is esoteric. Any chance you could revise so us commoners could understand it all?

    • Diane,

      Here are the finer points of the first 2 sections.

      Unify with theology. Go back to the Wesleyan insistence of Reason, theology, and thinking. Recover the better parts of our Anglican heritage with strong bishops.

      Does this help?

  5. Take a look at http://www.jurisdictionalsolution.org and let me know what you think.

    • Rev. Ritter – I have. My issue is that it involves a layered jurisdictional approach. While there is much merit – much merit – my first concern is the amount of legislative work it would take to move us in that direction.

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