Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
May 25th, 2016 by Joel Watts

How I feel as a United Methodist after General Conference

United Methodist

Waiting

Bishop Palmer, the episcopal officer of the West Ohio Annual Conference, preached during the early days of the 2016 General Conference. His sermon was about patiently waiting. Holiness, to sum it up, is about waiting. After two weeks of watching the livestream of the worship and plenary sections as well as engaging with other United Methodists (including some delegates) via social media, I am disheartened somewhat because I now understand just how divided we are but I am still waiting. Indeed, I have waited before posting this reflection, allowing my emotion to subside somewhat — and to allow time to see what developed in the immediate aftermath. I am waiting on unity.

Intermission

I give God praise for each delegate who gave up two weeks of his or her life to serve The United Methodist Church. Their time is precious and their decisions difficult. The worship was outstanding and except for 2 sermons, each one spoke easily the truth. Even the ones I disagreed with spoke to me in some way. To hear the myriad of voices, to watch the multitude of faces, to almost feel the very fabric of global United Methodism was a surreal experience.

The lows

There was some highpoints, as I noted before; however, Rev. Adam Hamilton who seemingly sought to decide the voice of General Conference and the Council of Bishops brought on the lowest point. He voiced his intent to schism The United Methodist Church at a presentation to seminary students the last Tuesday of General Conference (you can watch the video here).

Please note his language on that Tuesday morning and what eventually happened.

As I watch this on my screen, I was astounded that this minister of The United Methodist Church would say such blatantly wrong things. I was mortified as he declared the Bishops’ intentions to propose separation to the General Conference. Then, issues of justice began to weigh on my mind. Why was this happening? No one had mentioned separation thus far. No one had declared their intent to do so. Yet, suddenly there was this grand fear, but from what quarter?

A few things crossed my mind. The first is that for the first time evangelicals would now control both the Judicial Counsel and the University Senate. Further, at that stage, no committee had passed a pro-inclusion piece of legislation, with some defeated heavily in committee. It appeared that accountability was coming to those who would break the Book of Discipline.

On Tuesday, a motion was made for the Bishops to lead. The Bishops did return the next day with a plan that looked oddly like what was mentioned Tuesday morning. Rev. Hamilton made a motion to accept the proposal, a proposal soundly defeated. The next motion was made to accept the Council of Bishops’ plan, and while I believe the parliamentary procedures on this are flawed, it passed. It is clear that this is no longer Adam Hamilton’s Church. His leadership has waned.

Politics is an ugly thing and this is pure politics. My deep suspicion is that several groups conspired together, perhaps the “Centrists” and LYNC, and in doing so, got more than they bargained for. Added to this is the clear support for the office of the bishop exhibited by any delegate groups, although it seems progressives only support the bishops that favor their causes.

As Hamilton noted in his seminary presentation, the talk of schism was a fear-ploy meant to force a compromise. It did not work. It only worked enough to form another in a long line of reports and commissions on human sexuality since 1972. There is nothing binding on the parties involved. And, if it is General Conference 2020 that will handle this issue, what Hamilton feared — that of the exclusion of the hard left — will not only take place but I fear will actually include the soft left.1 The politics played in 2016 gave The United Methodist Church to the evangelicals and ended the liberal voices. Further, it now forces our LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ to be the discussion a little while longer, shouldering the blame for divisions in the Church.

The lower lows

I feel betrayed. I labor to trust Council as a whole. They admit they are divided and I believe they are honest with one another about that issue; however, how can we expect the whole to work together when the parts labor against one another? At least one sermon by a UMC bishop gravely distorted our doctrine in an attempt to attack one segment of the Church.2 Some of the Bishops invited caucus groups and individuals — groups that were not elected to the General Conference — into a conversation, bypassing the singular voice of The United Methodist Church and the Connectional Table, to decide future plans of our denomination.3 Further, 28 bishops signed a statement that is counter to the Book of Discipline. We have bishops working to uphold the Book of Discipline (some against their personal convictions) and other bishops seemingly working to ignore it.

We may share the convictions of the bishops, but convictions that overrule vows break the connexion. As I have written before, the Bishops are the Center of The United Methodist Church. They must hold.

There was this refrain, of unity, “Unity above all things.” Yet, there is no real unity. If you survey the language we use, in the very thing that should unite us, the Godhead, we speak differently. Even our concept of “unity” is a divisive issue. In our view of the global church, we are divided. In our view of what forward looks like, we are divided. Yet, in the trust clause and in pensions, we remain united. Unity has become our idolatry.

Hopeful as a United Methodist

So, how do I feel? I am distrustful because it appears caucus groups and certain individuals rather than the General Conference are now the voice of The United Methodist Church, but I am hopeful that we are returning to a Wesleyan orthodoxy inside a wider Christian orthodoxy.4 I am saddened when I see people say they no longer feel like the Church of their birth is theirs. Yesterday, the evangelicals were saying it. Today, the progressives are wailing. Me? I’m committed to growing theologically and spiritually with The United Methodist Church.

One of the better features of Protestantism is that one does not have to belong to a specific denomination in order to be “saved.” I am not convinced that I have to be Methodist even though our Wesleyan theology is by far the best. Such theological trends such as gnostic Sophia theology and process theology derailed the UMC for a time. Now we have the sad theology of certain megachurch pastors to contend with. However, there seems to be a severe reaction if not rejection of Outler’s invention.5 We are overladen with (American-centric) political issues rather than issues of the (universal) Gospel. Given all of this I find great hope in the people called Methodists exactly because of our (returning) Wesleyan emphasis, I’m not ready to leave.

Nor do I believe it is right and necessary to schism. I follow Wesley here, and suggest we avoid schism until we are forced to do something against our conscience. We are Wesleyans and as such, we live by some pretty strict rules — including rules against schism.

My own particular faith is changing, growing more orthodox-centered. I’m not evangelical, for reasons listed elsewhere, but I am orthodox and I believe all conversations about the future — soteriology, ecclesiology, sexuality — must take place within that framework. I find this growth, much like the change in the UMC, as part of Wesley’s idea of perfectionism. If the UMC stagnates under the status quo, it will die. We will need to reset and reflect from time to time, and sometimes rediscover who we are.

As a United Methodist, I am going to commit myself to exploring how to live in what is going to be a conservative denomination. What we must do is to end the free church heresy rampant among us, as it infects both ends of the spectrum, and rediscover what the connexion means. Then we must be willing to understand that we need theological statements on things from time to time. We have doctrinal standards for exactly such a reason. Further, we must once again turn to Scripture as primary and not seek allowances to cast certain parts aside. We are the people called Methodists and as such, we are not merely “biblical Christians” but Christians with proper means to interpret Scripture — with canons full of truth and insight available to us.

Let us commit ourselves to turning from these old internal fights, and truly seek to transform the world as our forebearers in the faith did. What this looks like I cannot say right now.

As a United Methodist, I feel hopeful that we will have a strong denomination to pass to our children.

  1. I am of the opinion that liberalism is best when it accepts Tradition but questions. This is the “soft left.” Wesley never rejected questions, because that is the basis of theology — which is why we aren’t Reformed. Indeed, if you look at some of the more conservative Reformed denominations, they do not handle questions very well.
  2. I note that a day after the Council had decided to create this commission, and voted on by the plenary, the BoOM in that Bishop’s Annual Conference voted on this.
  3. As noted in an interview with Bishop Ough on that Tuesday, caucus groups were invited at least 6 weeks before General Conference, under confidentiality, to discuss plans. They were called together by Bishop Brown. When Bishop Ough became council president, he took over. I note that Monday night fiasco presented a different picture which is why I can call this nothing more than a political theater.
  4. There are caucus groups that exist explicitly to disrupt the UMC. Why do we allow them at the table?
  5. Outler would agree with that rejection.
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

14 Responses to “How I feel as a United Methodist after General Conference”
  1. Dwight Welch says

    It seems to me you are proposing schism. Because you are are seeking not a big tent but a conservative denomination, something I had never experienced with Methodism until my 30s. And you certainly don’t envision a church that would have someone like me in it. Someone who does follow process thought and who is gay. Though given that I’m UCC now that is not an issue. Except that I represent a good chunk of American Methodists that would need to flee for your vision to take hold. In that case Hamilton was not so much calling for schism but just identifying what is or will be the case

    • Dwight, the fact that you identify with servetus is telling.

      Actually, I have no issue with gay Christians. I do, however, have an issue with 1.) making everything about homosexuality and 2.) breaking vows.

      My vision of the UMC? You assume much, but ask little. Rather, I do want a UMC that is vibrant and has one big tent. Right now, we have two big tents which is why there is already division.

      • Dwight Welch says

        Apologize for presumption. Would love it all not to be about homosexuality. Though it does seem the linchpin of many other issues. But to choose one example. You seem to describe this parameter called orthodoxy. How would I as a process thinker fit into that? Or would I? I got the impression that this was an obvious example of what would not happen in this future Methodist Church.

        • Not really. If Process Theology becomes primary, then it is a problem. The Creeds (the perimeter of orthodoxy) does not proscribe any theology – process, open, etc…

          But, if process supplants the Creed then it is problematic — and equally so for those who have allowed Calvinism to replace the Creed, and so on.

          I personally am against process theology but find no harm in discussing the possibility.

          • Dwight Welch says

            Cool. Like I said I’m UCC but have liberal colleagues in the UMC. For me creeds are sources for reinterpretation not dismissal nor acceptance. They provide the vocab of faith but get refitted to do the work needed to be done. This can be a frustrating stance to both spong like folks who want to set aside such language and Orthodox folks who know um bastardizing the tradition

  2. I don’t disagree with most of your assertions, but I’m curious about “the sad theology produced by megachurch pastors”. The gnostic Sophia stuff & process theology is easy enough to identify, but what is the megachurch theology to which you refer? Is it an actual theological distinctive or simply megachurch dominance (which is justifiably concerning)?

  3. Thanks for your perspective, Joel. I want to respond to one of your statements: “I follow Wesley here, and suggest we avoid schism until we are forced to do something against our conscience.”

    Are people not already forced to do something against their conscience? Are not pro-LGBTQ pastors forced to refrain from doing same-sex weddings, despite their conscience leading them to do those services? And conversely, given that the Baltimore-Washington Conference intends to recommend for commissioning a lesbian who is married to her partner, are not evangelicals in that conference being forced to accept someone as (eventually) ordained clergy who is disqualified by our rules and (we believe) by Scripture?

    The reason I think separation in some form is inevitable is that we have already crossed over the line of violating conscience on both “sides” of this dispute. I do not see a way to put the genie back in the bottle. Those who have already begun doing same-sex weddings and ordaining and appointing openly gay clergy will not cease from those activities, and they are not willing to leave the UMC. I believe the church at large lacks the will to force disobedient folks out. That leaves us with either a negotiated separation or evangelicals leaving the UMC.

    As you think about this, what am I missing here? And if separation is inevitable, would it not be a better witness to the world that such separation be done graciously, fairly, and (as much as possible) amicably, rather than via political knife fights and secular lawsuits? Could we not follow the example of Abraham and Lot (Genesis 13) or Barnabas and Paul (Acts 15)?

    • Tom,

      I hope that others picked up on that suggestion. You’re correct. The progressives are prevented from doing something against their conscience. If they were Wesleyans, I’d suspect they would already have left.

      To the point about BWAC, I’m not sure I would go that far. Here, I think clergy can still preach the Gospel, still refuse to perform SSM (unlike we see developing in the PCUSA). Now, if it goes much further, yes. I think you’ll be correct on the conservative end. Say, if a jurisdiction elects a bishop who is a practicing homosexual.

      I do think some form of separation is going to happen — and it is necessary. So it should be gracious. The disaffiliation proposal should have gone through (or Bishops should be willing to do what they can) and allow congregations to leave who cannot abide by current BoD standards.

  4. Joel, thank you for this well-thought-out contribution to the current discussion, and for linking to some of your better pieces from the past that I had not read.

    If others would follow your attitude toward orthodoxy, it would go a long way toward talking conservatives off the ledge of schism. But as Tom Lambrecht notes above, people on both sides are already having to violate their consciences (in ways often dismissed or not acknowledged by the other side), and that does not seem to be improving.

    In reading your pieces about evangelicalism and how you are only 2/4… are you sure you are not 3/4? You should read (again) Wesley on “The New Birth” and “The Marks of the New Birth” and take another look at that one (and then maybe even “The Great Privilege of those that are Born of God”). It seems to me you have rejected a caricature of the new birth or the “born-again status,” rather than the real thing. It is a distinct point along the way of salvation, which Wesley believed, preached, and taught consistently throughout his life. As for the other point of “biblicalism,” I pretty much believe as you and the Orthodox do (that the Bible is more like a subset of Tradition rather than a distinct authority unto itself), but since I believe it is all true in some sense, that God is communicating purposefully through all of it to the Church, the Scripture will not mislead us, and we don’t need to discount any of it (there is no Bucket #3), I count myself “evangelical” there as well.

    • In response to the born again status, I am speaking specifically of the “sinner’s prayer” etc. As a Wesleyan, we have Aldersgate.

      • That’s kind of what I figured, which is why I called it a “caricature.” Wesleyans actually aren’t the only segments of evangelical Protestantism to take issue with the “sinner’s prayer” / come-forward-once-and-done version of being born again. The more historically-aware wings of several different evangelical traditions recognize it’s a sentimental abuse that arose as pragmatists wanted to be able to reproduce moves of the Spirit at will. At least there are plenty of conservative Baptists and Calvinists who recognize that, as well as Wesleyans. But at the same time, of course, the caricature also hugely influenced all of those same traditions.

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