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. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Our polity, as many have suggested, has in fact caused more turmoil than it should have.
Therefore, I propose this:
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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))
- The Coup D’Etat Hope of the Good News “Gang of 80″ #UMC #UMCschism (christythomas.com)
- Why do Catholics and Protestants remain divided? (johnmeunier.wordpress.com)
- Methodists fear split over same-sex marriage (usatoday.com)
- The bedrock of United Methodist doctrine (johnmeunier.wordpress.com)
- Anglican Church Members Now Take Anti-homosexuality Oath (gbeborungidi.wordpress.com)