So where are we now?

One of my evangelical Facebook friends some time ago posted a long open letter to fellow United Methodists. The gist of it was this: The United Methodist Church, as you have known it, is gone. You may not perceive it yet, but you’d better get used to the idea, because that’s the plain and honest truth. I was really bothered by this letter, and I told her so. How could she know such things? Why would she give up on the fact that we could reach some kind of solution that would keep at least the bulk of us together?

As it turns out, she wrote that letter either in a moment of amazing foresight or prophetic insight. It’s been on my mind often lately.

At this point, division, or “schism,” as some people like to call it, is not something we can prevent. We can’t prevent it because it’s happening before our eyes. Some conservative churches are leaving the denomination. Especially since the Supreme Court decision regarding gay marriage, many progressive pastors in the UMC have entered into open rebellion against the denomination by performing same-sex marriages in violation of the Discipline and their ordination vows. For some people, Frank Schaefer and Melvin Talbert are heroes leading us into a new era of progressive thinking. For others, they are deeply misguided both in their understanding of marriage and their proper role as UM elders. Pandora’s box is open. In retrospect, this seems to have been inevitable.

The progressives who have publicly violated the Discipline in this way probably do not see their actions as divisive of the denomination, but rather as acts of prophetic witness within an unjust system. Yet when all that unites us is polity—and one would be hard pressed to identify anything else uniting us—to break the back of the polity is to divide the denomination. As the system currently stands, when bishops and other elders are no longer accountable to the General Conference, our polity has broken.

When Bill Arnold and I wrote the A & W Plan, we did so because we felt that without implementing the measures we suggested, the UMC would fall apart. Despite accusations to the contrary, the A & W plan has always been intended as a unity plan. We proposed no strengthening of the disciplinary language around human sexuality. We only insisted that those who took vows to uphold the doctrines and disciplines of the UMC should do so. There is a process for changing the Discipline that we left untouched because we believe in the process of corporate discernment within the body of Christ.

I was naïve about the ways in which people would react to this plan. The vitriol that Bill and I received was surprising, even shocking to me at first. I’ve learned a lot since then. I’m no longer surprised, or really even fazed, by vitriolic rhetoric—even when it comes from people who are friendly to me in interpersonal interactions. I get it—if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen. So be it. I have had to learn—albeit imperfectly—to love my enemies. I’m not very good at that. I’m trying to get better. I’ve also had to learn to ask for forgiveness when I’ve wronged others. I’m not very good at that, either. I’m trying to get better. Such has been my education as a blogger.

I still believe in the A & W Plan. The main reason is this: as I wrote some time back, the UMC is an entirely voluntary organization. We have a process for making decisions regarding Christian theology and practice. If you voluntarily enter into a covenant to honor those practices, you may of course disagree with them and even work to change them, but you should not simply toss them aside. There is a difference between civil disobedience and ecclesial disobedience.

Of course, no plan can prevent a division that is already happening. Even the best plan could only provide some parameters for that section of the church that is willing to live within our corporate decision-making process.

What I don’t want to see is years and years of continued rhetorical and political warfare. We must make a decision either to come together in a common witness, to inhabit a denomination with multiple (and sometimes contrasting) theological and ethical positions, or to say to one another, “Go in peace.” Perhaps the best way forward is through the Jurisdictional Solution. Perhaps it is through a division of assets. Perhaps it is through the proposals of the A & W Plan. I’ve never been enamored with “A Way Forward,” but maybe I’m missing something. I don’t know. What I do know is that we are not serving Christ, not loving one another, and not providing a faithful witness to the world through the ideological trench warfare that we carry out in social media.

There are people with whom I am in deep disagreement on many issues whom I regard as friends and about whom I care deeply. At times these relationships have been under strain. I’m sure that is the case for many people in our denomination. These relationships matter. We need a more peaceable kingdom.

All this having been said, I’m hopeful. You have to be hopeful if you’re a Christian because we believe in the power and work of the Holy Spirit. God can bring forth good out of any situation. I don’t know what the future looks like for those who currently worship within The United Methodist Church. I do know that the centuries-long renewal movement that we call Wesleyanism has not run its course. God is still doing great things all over the world. I want to be a part of that, and I want to be a part of a church that is more focused on making disciples than on the culture wars.

38 thoughts on “So where are we now?

  1. Pingback: The Best Proposed Solution to the UMC’s Stalemate

  2. Could you please clarify what you mean by your last sentence: “I want to be a part of that, and I want to be a part of a church that is more focused on making disciples than on the culture wars.” Are you implying that biblically faithful teaching, practice and discipline in regard to sexuality and marriage are not an aspect of “making disciples” but part of the “culture wars?” One could read it that way.

  3. I myself told the 3 Pastors I served under 3 years ago, the solution is too split. I realize it’s not easy for clergy to walk away since the conference owns your property, your pension and basically your financial future. The denomination has always puzzled me what with a special book for theology, paying an apportionment to a central agency, millions spent on conferences that produce basically more decention than unity. Seems that the leaders are more concerned about the denomination than taking some real action. There is The confessional movement, which I have followed, however they have no plan to split or even move forward. What I have observed for the past 5 years is just what the original article we are commenting on does. Leaders of the UMC writing there opinions and nothing more. I left the UMC 2 years ago and one of the 3 Pastors I mentioned has done so recently. Kudos to that woman’s courage.

    • I think you may have a point. Even though there are strong beliefs on both sides, and almost no chance to come together, when it comes to splitting the church and actually dividing millions of dollars of property, things will really get ugly very quickly. I doubt that can get done. Rather, the church will just give up and learn to live with each other, crippled though it will be, as many of its evangelicals leave.

      • There seems to be a fear here of the UMC collapsing, with out any regard to Biblical doctrine. To continue with a crippled church to me seems like an act of heresy. What other word could be used. You cannot ignore this situation and and keep claiming the Holy Spirit’s leading. Of course it would be hard to split. Of course it would take years. To option to continue with a crippled body is pathetic.

  4. David, you have again masterfully wrung the bell on the state of the church. And as you are wont to say, “I get it.” But what I don’t understand is the fantasy of a fractious church inexplicably and serendipitously deciding to set aside its theological differences and “with one heart and mind” devoting itself to making disciples (as if we agree on what that consists of). Why would one convert to a divided Christ? Why would one attend a double-minded church? Why would one sit still for a confused message? Are you imagining that the progressives are going to lay down their arms in response to such an appeal?

    • Gary, I think it would take a miracle for us to come together in one mind, but I believe in miracles, and I don’t want to rule out the possiblity.

  5. As an Episcopal Church refugee I have a pretty good idea how this will play out. It will not be pretty. Any attempt to put in place a plan for property and pension division is immediately greeted as schismatic and promptly shouted down. We could go toward a Congregationalist model but that destroys the connection. Trying to paper over theological differences with some sort of polity solution leaves us crippled in our mission to make disciples for Christ. The train wreck continues.

    • Destroy what connection? Stop clinging to a term that no longer is relevant. The congregational model is the only real solution. Let a train wreck continue? I don’t agree with that conclusion. Seems that all are willingly to live with this and make the best. If that’s your solution and you are an Evangelical you are the problem not the liberal wing. Forget about the survival of the UMC and focus on Biblical doctrine. God will honor that. Move forward and let the trees fall in the forest!

      • John,
        You may be correct in that the connection has been damaged beyond repair. When I referred to the train wreck I am taking the pessimistic approach that none of the proposed compromise solutions will work and the disobedient actions by our clergy will continue no matter what GC 2016 decides. After that the real fighting will begin. I am in a wait and see mode. After 2016 I will make a personal decision about whether or not I remain with The UMC. If we go to a Congregationalist model of governance I might be able to live with that. This means of course that my local church will no longer be required to comply with the guidance provided by our DS or Bishop unless we agree with them. That would include how much money we kick upline into the conference coffers. I am not as concerned with the survival of The UMC as an organized entity as I probably should be.

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