As a layman, I am always humbled by the thoughts of distinguished Methodist scholars like Dr. Abraham. They have insights into the history and polity of the Methodist movement that I cannot hope to share. All I can bring to the table is a lifelong membership in The United Methodist Church, years of observation of how it works (or not) and a sincere desire to continue learning every day.
I read Dr. Abraham’s recent essay on the results of the 2016 General Conference with interest. I have met Dr. Abraham, have heard him speak, and have read a few of his papers. I have one of his books on my table, waiting to bubble up to the top of the stack. I hope that will not take long. What I find confusing is that even though Dr. Abraham holds the Outler chair at Perkins, it seems to be one of his objectives to undo the work of Outler. But that’s for another day.
There are three major themes in the essay that I would like to take issue with: the value of revelation in our deliberations; the financial considerations of a possible schism; and a growing disrespect among Christians for each other.
First, divine revelation. At two places in his essay, Dr. Abraham is dismissive of people who have said that they have experienced divine revelation regarding sexuality issues. These individuals are not casual extremists; one is a Bishop, the other the past President of a widely respected evangelical seminary. (I’ll add that I, too, have had spiritual revelation regarding this topic, but my experience should not carry weight in this discussion.) But then Dr. Abraham goes on to praise conservatives who “reject pluralism in favor of a vision of the church that remains faithful to divine revelation enshrined in scripture and tradition. At bottom they find it well-nigh impossible to live in a church that rejects the truth of revelation.”
One has to wonder which revelation is really the “right” message. And whether one’s viewpoint invalidates another’s revelation. But more importantly, it highlights something that I believe is missing from this discussion – the Will of God.
I know that God has a correct course for us. I am not sure what it is, but I’m certain that if we, as a denomination, truly seek the will of God, he will reveal his message in a way that we will all understand. Perhaps there’s a new way of looking at Scripture. Perhaps we should be asking a different question (a favorite technique of Jesus). Or perhaps the Methodist movement is not blessed by God, and we should reunite with the one of the Catholic bodies.
I don’t know that any of those things are the “right” way. What I am certain of is that we, as a denomination, have not exercised our corporate ability to pray for and discern God’s guidance in this matter. One of the things that the Commission could bring to the table is a period of sincere reflection and prayer, jointly, in an effort to discern the will of God. Does it have to be 40 days and 40 nights in the desert? Probably not. But if we aren’t willing to make that kind of sacrifice, we’ll only be left with human power struggles.
Every time I have proposed such a thing, I’ve gotten shuffling feet and averted eyes in response. Now we have Dr. Abraham, along with many others, saying that a period of prayer is just “kicking the can down the road”. I suggest that we’ve been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return. No reason to get impatient about a few months of prayer.
So what is the obstacle? Why do we not want to join in prayer with fellow Christians to try to discern the Will of God?
Second, financial considerations. I really dislike having money become a determinant in what should be a matter of theology, but Dr. Abraham brought it forward, so I’ll take it up also.
Somehow, conservatives seem to believe that the money issue is on their side. They are the congregations who can withhold apportionments, and they are the people who will dole out the assets of the UMC. What they don’t seem to realize is that it’s a two-edged sword.
I won’t go into whether conservatives are right or liberals are right, because it makes no difference. What I will say is that any schism in the U.S. Church will be the end of the Global Methodist Church as we know it.
As of right now the U.S. contributes 99% of all UMC funds — and when the new Central Conference apportionments requirements begin, we will still hover around 91% of contributions. Regardless of how any separation plan is enacted, that revenue is going to go down, a lot. Some number of congregations and members will form a new denomination (maybe), will exit to other denominations, or will simply leave Christian life. None of those scenarios are going to provide the funding currently required to support the Global UMC.
So what will happen then? Will jurisdictions outside the U.S. be able to raise their own support? Will they attend General Conference if no funds are available to pay their way? Will they build universities and seminaries with their own resources? These might be imponderable. But in any case, we can see that it’s not going to be the way it is today.
What do we owe our brethren outside the U.S.? We brought them into this fold. Is it our responsibility to keep them there? Will they stay as part of the UMC when we are no longer paying the bills? Do they believe that they get enough from the Connection that they will remain faithful to the UMC? Or will they form their own Wesleyan denomination, or join another existing Wesleyan group? Perhaps we should look at this question seriously before we make a pragmatic decision in the U.S. that will affect the rest of the Methodist world.
And finally, disrespect. Dr. Abraham loses no opportunity to slight the liberal wing of the church. I won’t repeat his statements; they’re there for all to read. In his defense, the liberal groups don’t treat the conservatives any better. And EVERYBODY beats up on the Bishops and Centrists.
This has got to stop. The people on the other side of the table are dedicated, prayerful Christian believers. They are dedicated to the same Jesus we all are – the one who says “love God, love your neighbor.” They are not stupid, or intellectual lightweights, or naïve victims of some modern philosophical trend. They are humans who read the same Bible, pray to the same God, and worship the same way that you do.
I propose this test: Before you write something that denigrates the faithfulness or intellectual capacity of your fellow Christian, ask yourself “Will these words be pleasing to God?”. If you can’t answer with a definite “yes”, put down your pen. (or you keyboard or whatever). Probably, that thought doesn’t need to be expressed at all. Or if it is important, find a better way to say it. One that won’t offend the person or offend God.
You have a different point of view. You DON’T have any claim on the True Knowledge of God. We’re all going to have things to answer for at the Pearly Gates. Try to make sure your list is a short as possible.