A group of leading pastors and theologians released a progress report on their considerations regarding the future of The United Methodist Church. Hailing from all five jurisdictions, the more than 80 pastors and theologians have engaged in sober and prayerful conversations via conference call over the past two months. The discussion was launched because the group believes that our denomination is facing a crisis regarding 1.) covenant, 2.) organizational discipline, 3.) authority of Scripture, and 4.) discipleship.
The group believes that it is “time to recognize that traditionalists and progressives are pursuing divergent paths as we try to follow Christ and be faithful to what we understand to be the Gospel.” Their statement asks if “it is not time for persons of good faith, representing the spectrum of theological positions within The United Methodist Church, to begin discussing ways to create a ‘win-win’ scenario for the mental, emotional and spiritual well-being of everyone involved?”
“We can no longer talk about schism as something that might happen in the future. Schism has already taken place in our connection,” said Dr. Maxie Dunnam, retired pastor, author, and seminary president. “There are conscience-bound persons who find it impossible to live in The United Methodist Church as we presently define ourselves in relation to human sexuality. Others could not live in The United Methodist Church if the present position of the church on human sexuality were changed. Forty years of wrestling with the issue is enough, and has proven the solidity of the belief systems of the two groups.”
The group lamented the irreconcilable differences that have been manifest over the last four decades within the denomination. At the same time, they agreed that a peaceful parting could be in the best interest of United Methodists.
“It occurs to me that we can learn something from the destructive nature of the separations that other denominations have experienced,” observed the Rev. Chuck Savage, president of the Georgia United Methodist Foundation. “I don’t think we will ever agree on the issues that deeply divide us, however, it is my hope that we will agree on a plan of separation that will serve both traditionalists and progressives well. My opinion is that if we can reach agreement on such a plan both progressives and traditionalists will emerge stronger.”
The idea of separation was not an issue that the pastors and theologians wrestled with casually. The group concluded, however, that the denomination was hemorrhaging energy and members over the emotional issues that divide United Methodists and leaders needed to offer a vision for the future.
“Those who know me best know that I reluctantly come to a decision that it is time for The United Methodist Church to move forward and out of our present irreconcilable ecclesiastical reality,” said the Rev. Larry R. Baird, a former district superintendent and currently pastor of Trinity Church in Grand Island, New York. “We must do so in as faithful, forthright, and compassionate a way as possible. To continue operating as we are is more of a disgrace to the Body of Christ than our inability to resolve the presenting issues and make a common statement of faith that results in compatible directions in ministry and mission.”
Although the issues surrounding marriage and human sexuality have been the presenting issues that have caused the divisions in all the other mainline denominations in addition to our own, the group agreed that the real division is theological.
“Ten years ago, Lyle Schaller wrote of the division of The United Methodist Church in his book, The Ice Cube Is Melting,” said the Rev. Dr. Tom Harrison, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “Is authority located in ‘Scripture and Tradition’ (‘Team Jerusalem’) or ‘Reason and Experience’ (‘Team Athens’)? He expressed that the division was so severe that separation seemed unavoidable. Our gap has widened since he wrote his book. I’m looking for the best ‘win-win’ resolution for both sides to this issue.”
The group expressed its desire for United Methodists of goodwill to be unsaddled by the current controversies in order to “give each other the freedom to pursue our understanding of God’s will.”
“The energy of the Church that should have been spent on our mission has been focused on this debate,” concluded Dunnam. “There is no viable ‘third way,’ or ‘compromise,’ so why not be Christian and civil, valuing each other, and work out a separation that will allow both groups to serve the Kingdom with the kind of commitment and passion essential for any powerful witness we wish to make.”
Those on the conference calls look forward to working with others of differing theological perspectives in creating a “way of parting that honors the sincerity of those with whom we differ and no longer brings pain to persons made in the image of God.”
To read the group’s full statement, click HERE.