By Rob Renfroe-
Facing reality can be painful. Especially when the only choices reality offers us are difficult, unsatisfying, or confusing. At that point there is a tendency to walk away from the problem emotionally and mentally in one of two ways. There’s the Scarlett O’Hara approach: “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Or we tell ourselves everything is going to be ok and make up some reason why we don’t have to act. In other words, we create a comforting myth that helps us sleep at night but that actually does nothing to resolve the issue. Either way, we deny reality and usually end up with a solution far worse than what might have been.
I’m afraid many United Methodists are still denying the reality of how deep our divisions run and how difficult a workable solution to our problems will be. I believe this because of the myths I hear people, many well-intended, clinging to and trying to persuade others to believe.
One long-standing progressive myth, recently restated by a retired bishop, is so obviously false that it’s hard to imagine anyone still holding on to it. It’s the idea that our differences over sexuality can be resolved through “the local option” – that is, allowing individual pastors to determine whether to marry same-gendered couples and permitting each Annual Conference to decide whether to ordain practicing gay persons.
Only persons who have been asleep longer than Rip Van Winkle was could find any solace in this illusion. More benign compromises failed to gain General Conference approval in the past decade. And more recently in Portland last May, after several of our leading pastors and our most influential administrative body, the Connectional Table, used all of their influence to promote such a plan, it was so soundly defeated in committee that it was not even brought to the plenary floor. The local option is dead. I pray that the Bishops’ Commission on A Way Forward will not waste precious time following our own Alices in Wonderland down that rabbit hole.
A conservative myth that needs to be dispelled is “maybe the progressives will leave.” It usually begins with the statement, “If they don’t like the way the church is, they should leave and start their own.” Sorry to burst your bubble, but this is a political battle. And in politics “should” has nothing to do with what people actually do. The progressive goal is to change the whole church, not create a progressive subdivision of the church.
An amicable separation (or as some have begun to call it “a new form of unity”) may be proposed by the Bishops’ Commission, but the progressives are not going to just up and leave on their own. Why would they? They just elected as bishop a married lesbian who has stated that she has performed 50 gay weddings. In the entirety of the Western Jurisdiction, in most of the Northeastern Jurisdiction, and in much of the North Central Jurisdiction pastors may marry gay couples and break the Book of Discipline with no consequences of any kind. A dozen annual conferences are on record that they will ordain practicing gay persons regardless of church law. So, why would progressives leave when they can do what they want to do, have continued access to general church funds, and can keep the name United Methodist?
“Well, we’ll write stricter legislation at General Conference and make it even harder for them to break the rules.” We have good policies now. Our problem has never been bad legislation; it has always been bad actors. You can be sure they will be just as disobedient to stricter rules as they are to the present ones.
“Then, let’s go nuclear. Let’s make the rules so that we can vote out any pastor, bishop, or congregation that breaks church law.” I understand this approach, but I find it less than realistic. Conservatives hold the line against gay marriage and ordination by the slimmest of margins every four years. It is a misguided myth to believe that the General Conference is going to give some governing body the authority to start excommunicating pastors, churches, and bishops. That’s not who United Methodists are. We are nice people, warm-hearted and generous of spirit. General Conference will never pass a proposal for some small group to be authorized to decide who’s a good enough Methodist to stay in the church and who’s not.
“But maybe in 20 years, we can ‘win.’” Faithful United Methodists are leaving our congregations every day because of the continuing battle over sexuality. People are tired of it and they’re walking away. Two large churches in Mississippi – one the 15th largest church in the denomination – have announced they are leaving. That’s in conservative Mississippi where no one is marrying gay couples and where the bishop upholds the Book of Discipline. In the Good News office, we regularly receive calls from pastors who are under pressure by their congregations, especially in liberal areas, to lead them out of the denomination.
If the Bishops’ Commission does not resolve this issue, there will be no “twenty years from now.” People will leave. Pastors will leave. Churches will leave. Conservative people, pastors, and churches. If the Commission does not come up with a solution, the church will be in so much chaos that the slow drip, drip, drip of faithful evangelical members leaving will become a roaring flood.
As evangelicals and traditionalists, we need to do some serious thinking about what it means to “win.” Win what? A church that 20 years from now could be so depleted in numbers that “a faithful remnant” would be a generous euphemism to describe what’s left? Winning is not holding onto a church that is a shadow of what it once was and what it could have been. A win for the Kingdom is coming out of the present mess with as many faithful Methodists as possible connected to each other and working together for the Kingdom.
One final myth is that “what’s at stake is the unity of the church.” We’re way past that. One bishop recently stated to his pastors, “Twelve of our annual conferences are in schism right now. They are unwilling to live by our covenant and that places them in schism.” Twelve annual conferences. That’s over one-fifth of the conferences in the United States and there are others who do not live by the Discipline, they just haven’t stated so publicly.
We are not a united church. Having the same name on our signs and the same logo on our letterhead does not make us a unified church. The bishops had their opportunity to work for the unity of the church by teaching our doctrines and enforcing our covenant for the past 50 years. Instead, many decided to be permissive parents allowing disobedience and rebellion, and others actually promoted such behavior. And sadly, few of our conservative bishops have banded together to speak out or call the rogue bishops to task. And the result, as it is with all families headed by permissive parents, is not unity but dysfunction, self-centeredness, and division.
Over a decade ago I told a group of bishops, tasked with creating unity within the church, “You may wish you had another issue to deal with other than sexuality. But this is the issue of your time that threatens to divide the church. You will either act in a way that holds us together or you will act in a way that guarantees our division. Either way, it will be on you.” Now here we are. And to be told by some of those same bishops that the unity of the church is now at stake – well, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Look, the Commission is the game. Not stricter legislation in 2020. Not a local option. Not hoping or making the progressives leave. Those are myths and nothing more. Please do not be distracted by illusions that may bring comfort the way pleasant dreams do at night but that disappear upon waking. What the Commission recommends will either be based in reality or in wishful thinking.
Let’s make sure its members hear from us that clinging to or promoting myths and illusions – progressive or conservative – will not serve the church or the cause of Christ well. Reality may not be what we wish it was but it is what is. Let’s face it honestly and courageously with our eyes wide open.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.