The Wesleyan Covenant Association has become a source of controversy among some in our denomination. Only in times such as these could a group that affirms all of the central teachings of United Methodism, is led primarily by pastors who have kept their ordination vows and pay their apportionments, and has publicly disavowed the intention to divide The United Methodist Church be accused of attempting to foment such a division. Then again, we UM’s live in a time of broken trust, broken covenants, and a broken system of church governance. Charitable readings of one another’s intentions are in short supply.
I get it. We are broken people. God is making us whole again, but we still have our faults. My family and close friends could no doubt recite a litany of mine. The church, as we know it, is imperfect because God has chosen to work through imperfect people like us. As a friend of mine likes to say, there are no problem-free situations.
I have to remind myself of this often these days. There are no problem-free situations. Still, the characterization of the WCA as a divisive movement has always struck me as a misunderstanding of its purpose. The specific doctrinal and ethical affirmations of the WCA are no different from those of the UMC, with one addition, the Nicene Creed. This last point seems rather uncontroversial, since the Nicene Creed is affirmed by virtually all of Christendom, including our ecumenical partners.
Many felt that Bishop Ough mischaracterized the WCA in a statement on behalf of the Council of Bishops: “The reported declarations of non-compliance from several annual conferences, the intention to convene a Wesleyan Covenant Association and the election of the Rev. Karen Oliveto as a bishop of the church have opened deep wounds and fissures within The United Methodist Church and fanned fears of schism.” Why, they asked, would our bishops understand the formation of the WCA in the same way that they understood open defiance of the General Conference? As Dr. Kevin Watson wrote in a very insightful blog post, “one of these things is not like the others.” It is an informed and well-reasoned piece that I commend to your reading.
I served under Bishop Ough when he was bishop of the West Ohio Conference, and I very much appreciated his leadership. I found him to be a fair and reasonable leader with the interests of the whole church in mind. I’m certainly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt then, that he did not mean to mischaracterize the WCA, but instead perhaps meant to indicate that the divisiveness within the UMC does not come entirely from one direction. Nevertheless I agree with those who hold that it was unhelpful to lump the WCA in with acts of open defiance of the General Conference.
It struck me as an odd omission, moreover, that there was no mention in the bishops’ statement of an unofficial meeting at General Conference that included some of the most influential people in the denomination. During this meeting, as described in this video by Adam Hamilton, the participants seriously considered the idea of a three-way division. Surely this meeting and the buzz that it generated contributed as much as anything else to the concerns around a denominational split.
At this point, I don’t think anyone knows what that future of the UMC will look like. There are too many variables. What decisions will the Judicial Council make? What recommendations will the bishops’ commission bring forward? Will these recommendations pass a special General Conference in 2018? What happens if they don’t? Will we become two denominations? Three? Will we fracture into several? Attempts to answer these questions are generally exercises in conjecture. We just don’t have enough information. God has not made clear our future yet. All we can do is continue faithful dialogue and prayerful discernment with all of the constituencies of our denomination.
The UMC is my home. I was baptized, confirmed, educated, and ordained in this tradition. I got on board with the WCA early on because I am committed to upholding the teachings of the UMC and the vows that I took when I was ordained. With all of the instability of our denomination right now, I find it helpful to be part of a community of people who openly share those commitments. That’s it. I’m not a radical right-winger or a fundamentalist. Those terms don’t accurately describe the beliefs or ethos of the WCA. We’re just trying to be faithful in the best way we can with a community of people who have a similar understanding of what faithfulness entails. As for the future, that is really up to God. May God give all of us–progressive, centrist, conservative, or anything else–the wisdom we need to be faithful in these challenging times.