William J. Abraham has never been accused of pulling his punches. In his newest book, Dialogues Amongst the People Called United Methodists, he is true to form, taking on the debate over human sexuality that we have engaged in for forty years and which will likely reach a boiling point in Portland in 2016. As the title suggests, the book takes the form of a dialogue. There are five participants:
Traditionalist – Wants to expel the ecclesially disobedient (without property) and protect the integrity of the UMC’s theological heritage and decision-making processes.
Evangelical – Fed up with the protests, rallies, and disobedience of the progressives, the evangelical is ready for “amicable separation.”
Pietist – A former evangelical who has had a change of heart on matters of human sexuality. Wants to bring everyone to a round table for dialogue.
Reconciler – Wants a plan that can accommodate both conservative and progressive positions within the same denomination. (Think “A Way Forward.”)
Progressive – Sees human sexuality as an all-or-nothing, no-holds-barred, battle, part of a larger culture war in which United Methodism is the last frontier of conquest.
Each of these characters is a “type.” Each is the distillation of certain characteristics manifested in the political life of the UMC. Of course, most people cannot be entirely described by one of these types. I am sure that Abraham would acknowledge this (though a few public figures in the UMC seem to fit quite nicely into a single category). Nevertheless, the types that he develops are helpful heuristic devices for understanding the motivations, assumptions, and tactics of the groups that are locked in a death embrace–or caught in the middle of one–in the UMC.
Abraham is a friend of many years. He was my teacher many years ago at Perkins, and I have continued to learn from him in our frequent conversations since. I don’t always agree with him (and have told him so many times), but I have never ceased to be amazed at the quickness of his mind, his analytical ability, the quality and quantity of his work, and his sheer optimism about the future of the church. This book will inform and challenge you, and probably at some point (or several points) make you mad. At times it made me squirm a bit, but I’m glad that I read it .