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.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.