I am going to do my best to be fair and to give credit where it is due. Bishop Jones and Bishop Bard have done a good job of thinking out of the box that the rest of the UMC has been thinking in. They are to be commended for that. With that said, I am fully cognizant that I am distrustful of the Council of Bishops as a whole, and by extension skeptical of any plan that originates with the Bishops. The problem that I see begins in the very title of their proposal, “A New Form of Unity”. Before we continue on, we should be using shared definitions of words, so allow me to quote the Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘unity’. “The state of being united or joined as a whole.” If we are being honest, this plan’s claim of a new form of unity, misses the mark and, if anything, shows the type of unity at all costs idolatry that is very much a problem. As the purpose of the plan was to stimulate some form of conversation and a starting point for it, I guess this is my contribution to said conversation.
In the creation of two, three, or more denominations out of the current UMC, the plan envisions full communion between said branches. Assuming that the definition of full communion will remain the same, this presents a problem. In the United Methodist church, full communion means the following: “Full communion agreements mean we recognize in each other’s churches that the gospel is rightly preached, the sacraments are duly administered, and the ministry of the clergy is ordered in such a way as to allow for the orderly exchange of some ordained clergy among us, as defined by the agreement reached between The United Methodist Church and each of the denominations with whom we are in full communion.” (UMC.org) While many still seem to (wrongly) think that the major issue in the UMC is sexual ethics, I, and many others, still maintain that sexual ethics simply are the presenting issue of drastically different understandings of theology including the gospels. A traditional Methodist church should have no such agreement with a progressive branch of the Methodist church that does not recognize basic things like a historic understanding of the trinity, for example, as some progressive Methodists do. A traditionalist church should have no such agreement with a church which allows it’s bishops to teach Jesus was a racist, but it’s ok because He got better. It glosses over the very real differences for the sake of a new form of unity. That can not, and should not, be.
I do not care who gets the cross and flame logo, but I do care if all use it. The reason is simple. If we are different, we should be identified as different. Not superior, or inferior, but certainly different. The shared logo just seems to add to the confusion, not to take away from it.
Regular contact for shared mission sounds great in principle, but the truth is that requires trust and if we are being honest, we, as a whole, do not trust each other. Assuming that could be over come, the simple reality is that we can not share cooperatively in the primary mission of the church, to make disciples, jointly when we have competing theologies on significant issues. It just doesn’t work. The Bishops meeting to coordinate expressions of unity seems to me rather forced. If you are unified, no coordinated expressions of it are necessary. If you are not, then no coordinated expressions will change that. It seems like it is not a new form of unity that is being sought, but an entirely new definition to unity that is being sought.
All the churches will share in the governance of agencies, and I assume that they will also contribute to said agencies as well. In short, this is just a mess. If we are to be different denominations, then so be it (I think it’s a great idea), but let’s not pretend. One of the issues that people are concerned about is supporting ministries and churches that are not cogent with the beliefs of the UMC currently. If the traditional church does not allow the ordination of practicing homosexuals, as is currently the policy, do we really think that supporting churches that do will suddenly be ok just because there is a different name on the door? For that matter, we are already entirely to top heavy and should be seeking to reduce the general agencies, not find ways to continue them by and large. Some bureaucracy is always going to be necessary, but the general agencies are not working terribly well now, thinking that they will suddenly work better because now there is a three fold split in them is a pipe dream. Even Wespath has become embroiled in the disagreements as of late.
Each church will be able to decide ti’sown theology, but somehow we will call this being unified. It is not so in any real sense of the word. The unity proposed may be a way to preserve some of the institutions, but it will appear as a reorganization to the world for the sake of the assets, and not an expression of faith. The witness of the UMC will be that money is what has kept us together and not any form of shared mission. The new form of connection that is proposed is says that it does not really matter what you believe on any number of different points of theology. There will be no actual theology of the church, no actual church beliefs, just a reorganized institution that holds us together. There will not even be three different denominations under a system similar to the Anglican Communion, but rather a cesspool of differing beliefs that might or might not be true, that you may or may not want to believe, and should or should not follow and practically apply to life. That is the “new unity” that this plan proposes. This plan would mean that while one might be able to claim to be a part of the traditional wing (or centrist wing, or progressive wing, etc) of the Methodist church, we are all united in mission to the world even though half the time we can not agree on who Jesus is, let alone what He has taught. It is little more than a large scale congregationalism instead of the smaller scale congregationalism that has been proposed before.
The end of this is pretty clear to me. Frankly, I do not think that we want to be together. We do not want some ‘new unity’ unless it is on our terms. Right or wrong, that seems to be the truth. The progressive wing of the UMC is no longer content, if they ever were, to work within the system for the change that they desire. The traditional wing is no longer content, if they ever were, to look the other way and allow congregations, pastors, and bishops to do as they please. We don’t trust each other and I think that frankly we don’t like each other much anymore. On a personal level, I do not want to be in any sort of connection with bishops that have called a hateful, bigoted, murderer. I am equally sure that they, if they are being honest, don’t want much of a connection with me either. I am ok with that. At some point we have to deal with the lie that has been perpetuated over and over again. We are not better together. We just aren’t. Maybe we should be, maybe at one point we could have been, heck, maybe even once we were, but we are not now. No new unity is going to change what is real, that we, progressives, traditionalists, and centrists, are at this point all competing cancers trying to see who can win the day not realizing that the only thing left will be a dead and lifeless body. For once, I pray that we all will realize together this simply truth and cut the cancer out rather than letting it fester. An orderly dissolution of the church, so that something new, and likely several things new, might rise from the soil we have fertilized. The church is dead, long live The Church.