Monday, March 20, 2017

May Unity in Diversity Be Our Witnesss

In a commentary titled Misunderstandings and Mischaracterizations first published by Good News and later by, Walter Fenton attempted to "clarify what United Methodists in the renewal and reform groups [like Good News and WCA] regard as misunderstandings or mischaracterizations of their positions." The commentary lists a series of "claims" that "centrists and progressives" make about "renewal and reform leaders" and then shows in turn how each of these claims is false.

Occasionally I'll hear someone who was raised in a church from the theological far right or left speak of why they no longer believe in God. Almost always I will reply, "I don't believe in that God either. Let me tell you about the God I do believe in." In the same way, I will not contend with Rev. Fenton's assessment of how the reform and renewal groups believe their positions are mischaracterized. As someone who travels with both centrist and progressive groups, I will contend that for many the mischaracterizations that Rev. Fenton sees are not ones that I am hearing. Indeed, the groups that I am familiar with are suggesting a very different future for the UMC than what Rev. Fenton seems to think they are looking for. Perhaps instead of Rev. Fenton telling us what the progressives and centrists believe to be the case it would be profitable to speak with them directly.

Instead of engaging in the mischaracterizations that, whether true or not, distract from the conversation (the God I don't believe in) let me tell you what I and many other centrists and progressives do believe.

We believe that theological diversity, including a variety of ways of interpreting the Bible, is good. There are limits to that diversity, both on the left and the right. For example, the Trinity is an essential belief in Methodism, as is made clear in our doctrinal standards. If a potential pastor denies the Trinity then that person should not be allowed to be a pastor. On the other hand, Christians have had rich debates about the exact nature of the Trinity. There is room for conversation and disagreement about the precise nature of the three-in-one God. Similarly, unlike some denominations like the Anglican Church of North America, the United Methodist Church does not restrict which version of the Bible can be used in worship. Every version is, in part, and interpretation and we recognize that a variety of interpretations helps us on our faith journeys rather than hinders us.

We believe the Bible is True. We also believe that there are various ways of understanding that truth. I believe the creation story in Genesis is beautiful poetry that describes the incredible truth that a loving God, out of love, created all. With God, we should celebrate that in creation God did something miraculous and "It was very good." Another pastor in our tradition (and in fact a pastor that I know who used to serve in the same conference as me) might argue that the creation story teaches us that everything was created in a step-by-step process over the course of seven days. We disagree about how Genesis 1-2 is true, but we agree that it is true.

We believe that the Church should not cave in to cultural norms. I have yet to talk to a person who has said "we should change our position on homosexuality because everyone else has changed their mind, too." In fact, the early proponents of change in our policy began their work at a time when concepts like same-sex marriage would be laughable. According to Pew, a majority of Americans remained opposed to same-sex marriage until 2013. Instead, I would offer that we are engaged in the common cultural practice, and unbiblical practice, of polarization. Jesus said that our unity would be a witness to the world. We are caving to the cultural notion that those with differing perspectives can't work together for the common good. Just as the Methodist church split over slavery at roughly the same time the country split, we find ourselves at General Conference as unable to work together "across the aisle" as our current Congress.

Because of this, we believe that there is room in the United Methodist Church for a variety of views and practices regarding same-sex marriage and "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" as pastors. Personally, I think there will come a time when we will look back on this in the same way that we do previous issues of equality with race and gender - we will celebrate the progress that has been made toward equality and note that there are ways in which we still fall short. However, I acknowledge that I could be wrong. In the meantime, I am more than willing to work in a denomination with those who disagree with me. Will I hope that they change their mind? Absolutely! Will I advocate forcing them to change their mind or leave the denomination? Absolutely not! In fact, there is no serious proposal to require any pastor to perform same-sex marriages or any conference to ordain "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." This is why I expect that if the denomination changes it's position there will be some on both the theological left and right who choose to leave. The choices at this time are very straightforward. We can continue something resembling our current arrangement, dig in our heals, and ultimately go our separate ways. Or, we can change our position to one that does not coerce pastors or conferences into practices that they disagree with.

Let's be clear. The Way Forward Commission and the next General Conference will not be choosing between whether our denomination is "pro-gay" or "anti-gay." They will be choosing whether or not we are willing to work together even as we disagree on particular positions and whether we will defy culture by staying united at a time when the world says we should divide.


  1. Thank you for your reasoned blog. Have you considered Rev Chris Ritter's Jurisdictional Solution? What are the issues with that implementation in your view? Is the main difficulty having congregations and conferences choose one jurisdiction or another and the tension that vote would cause? Wouldn't that be preferable to complete schism? At least that result would acknowledge some common spiritual connection and humanity, rather than the "we're holy, you're not" implication of a complete separation. I am trying to work through what has happened and the likely outcomes. What is your centrist view on this issue?

  2. Thanks for the nice words. I've visited with Chris some about his suggestions. Many will disagree, but I think they have some merit. I'm particularly intrigued with the "organic jurisdiction" model that doesn't confine jurisdictions by geography. In today's world that may be possible in a way that it wasn't before.

    If you've read some of my other stuff you know I have deep concerns about the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Honestly, the single biggest challenge to adopting some form of the Jurisdictional Solution in my mind is simply getting it approved because the WCA has issued a "no compromise" position. Chris is on their board. I'm not sure if he even supports the Jurisdictional Solution now. There are some technical difficulties but I think they could be overcome. Having churches and conferences vote would be difficult, but realistically that vote is coming anyway. If the denomination splits churches will be voting over which way to go. There is no painless or easy solution at this point.

  3. I have been part of United Methodism since 1968 when as a very traditional EUB member I swallowed a more liberal approach to scripture and preaching. I survived and today identify more with progressive Christian views and process theology but still Wesleyan. I have a daughter who has been a practicing lesbian for nearly 30 years. She and her partner are members of a MCC church and her partner is a Lutheran who "suffered through" as that denomination made the choice to be not only welcoming but ordaining practicing homosexual clergy. Because of my earlier Wesleyan Theological education at St Paul's I think the UMC can "straddle that fence" and maybe refocus our faith toward the teaching of Christ and belief in a God that created in the beginning and built in a component called evolution. I have always preached equality and that "all really means all". My concern has been that the majority of clergy are accepting and in many ways pressuring a more hesitant laity to something they don't believe or understand. At some point I hope to see us make a choice, knowing that the truly Christian at heart will seek and find a home compatible with what seems right to them.