Just a couple of weeks ago I shared in an interview these words, which I think are best understood with the accompanying rationale that you will find included below: “Our connectional covenant depends on obedience and faithfulness to the policies adopted by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church (UMC). From bishops, to clergy, to laity, to boards and agencies, it is that covenant that makes us united and binds us together. When the covenant is not maintained and protected at any level of the church, we suffer from disunity and create a diffused witness to both the church and the world in which we live.”
To remain in a covenant of one is my heart’s desire and that of virtually all those I conference with regardless of their beliefs, practices and preferences. The statement above is how I understand the covenant of one that I vowed to give my life for at my ordination in 1985 in the UMC.
These are meaningful days in the United Methodist Church as clergy and laity alike begin to own our reality. We are a church that united in 1968 and have shared a global witness through our faith in Christ as we have made disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world. We have created a reality of great witness and diversity which I praise God for daily.
Yet we have also created a reality that has evaded denominational growth. According to Scott Brewer of GCFA, the last year that the UMC recorded both an increase in membership and worship attendance was 1966. Sobering. So many good and talented people, how can that be? In fact, were it not for Africa and other global segments that are experiencing extraordinary growth, our reality would be even more disturbing. What has happened the last 50 years in Methodism in America?
That’s a great question and I am thankful for all those who are weighing in from every corner of the world and every theological perspective. It seems in these days there is more pause for spiritual and historical reflection among those who have loved being a part of the Methodist Movement.
I suspect that is in part that the word “schism” has been introduced in the media conversation. I, for one, hope there is a way forward for us all to live in freedom in Christ together. Even if as a last resort we face being different movements, I hope that it would be amicable for those who hold a broader and culturally hermeneutic of the Scriptures as well as for people like me who hold a historical view of what the Church has recognized as a traditional interpretation of the scriptures in apostolic tradition.
Here is what I think I have learned: 1) I have not spoken about this issue to a single person of any perspective that is happy with the way things are in the United Methodist Church, and 2) we are embracing our reality as a Church that things cannot continue the way they are currently.
Even as I write this, I don’t know what terms to use; they all feel like labels. I honestly confess I do not know what these terms mean precisely: conservative, liberal, traditional, progressive, evangelical, reconciling, transforming and so on. I am being honest with a heart to do no harm. Even within the hundreds of theological camps within Methodism, there are variations of opinions on both scriptural interpretation and social/cultural issues.
Can I suggest it is the way we have gone about living in our “unity” that has been the problem? We confess, one Lord, one Salvation, one Baptism, one Faith, but yet we have broken everything from the chalice to the Book of Discipline and thus our witness in living in covenant is broken despite our desire to be one? History teaches me that we will forever argue over what goes in which bucket and maintain a contentious family relationship while those both inside the Church and outside the Church ask, “Who are those people and how can they say they are one?” You certainly may see the reality differently, but that is my take at present.
I celebrate all the thoughtful conversations I am reading, though I don’t personally agree with some of it. I love the people who are a part of God’s Kingdom and I pray that there be a movement by which all can live in freedom in Christ by finding a way forward where there is no harm done to any, yet know that pain is our companion past, present and future. It pains me to think of the church I love leaving me outside the circle. I am in pain thinking of those who may be different from me thinking the church they love is leaving them outside the circle. Perhaps we need a few circles inside a big circle?
To all those who do not hold the historic view that I hold of scriptural authority on which the Methodist Church (movement) was birthed, please know I love you. I certainly respect you and your position. And, like many of you, I do not desire to continue living in broken covenant like a contentious marriage. To say that we are stronger together appeals to my heart, but my mind says that the pathology of our past indicates that is simply not true if we continue to live out the historical behavior of our denominational unity that we call one.
Our Canon Law is no longer respected as a covenant of one, so to live in unity for the sake of unity while forsaking the church’s historical definition of the authority of Scripture is not God’s way forward for any of us in my opinion. And just to be crystal clear, the issue for me is not around human sexuality or the practice of homosexuality; I have been and will, as long as I am able, be in ministry with and to people in sin, including sexual sin. We are all sinners.
The issue for me is around the apostolic faith and authority of Scripture that the Church has held now for generations being left behind for what appears to be a better interpretation. Think of me what you will, but I reiterate I love you all. I must own my part of what has unfolded in the UMC in my almost 30 years of ministry. What we have collectively done together is grow the church down and diffuse its mission and we have deviated from Wesley’s principle of “homo unius libri” with an increasingly pluralistic hermeneutic.
I am reminded that Paul instructed Timothy to watch his life and doctrine closely. I think that instruction is a sensible word today. I have hope for a greater day forward. I am praying that we find God’s new definition of one that we can all worship and serve together with none penalized or compromised.
The question before us appears, Does unity for unity’s sake work? The complexities are in how we have defined what it means to be one. Actually, and better said, how have we modeled what it means to be one as a witness as disciples of Jesus Christ to the church and a lost and dying world? There is ambiguity around what it means to individuals to be in covenant with God and one another (a covenant of one).
There is hope for a way forward for all of us – left, middle, right, liberal, conservative, gay, straight, questioning and those who are just plain tired of the rhetoric – because of who God is, not because of who we are or how we think. Only God can get us there. Lord, let it be so!
One of my closest friends in the ministry and a respected colleague across Methodism wrote these words, “The sexuality issues are the presenting issue, yet they are not the prime cause of our demise in membership and mission.”
I think any new way forward has to be in response to enabling the birth of a new Methodist movement that returns us to our roots of effectiveness and is committed to address the major problems before us. Friends from around the connection suggest these are critical path items:
-The need for a covenant of one that we all embrace for the good of the body of Christ with order and discipline on every level of the church and a willingness to enforce the Book of Discipline on all issues: Baptism, Marriage, Christology, etc.
– The guaranteed appointment and the challenge of ineffective pastors
– The lack of funding and focus on starting new places of worship
– The need to focus on what Millennials are seeking in a faith community
– The need to train, equip and deploy to seminary and into ordination ethnically diverse, younger women and men
– Developing Methodist seminaries whose prime mission is training effective pastors
– The challenge of an optimum balance of the connectional and local church
– The morale of clergy and laity across the denomination, a spirit of mutual accountability of our Episcopacy
Like you, I love this church, I love God and I love you. I am happy to be a part of the discussion and pray I can be a part of the constructive solution to find a glorious way forward to do no harm, do all the good I can and stay in love with God. Join me in praying for God’s way to be one.