Members of the Bishops’ Commission on A Way Forward, my colleagues at Good News and I thank you for your service to the church which is time consuming and, no doubt, emotionally draining. We have been praying for you and will continue to do so.
Bottom line, we pray that you will propose a solution that allows good people to be true to their convictions and that does not create winners and losers. Doing so will require enough structural separation that neither progressives, nor centrists, nor traditionalists must compromise their deeply held beliefs regarding the Scriptures, the work of the Holy Spirit, or sexuality.
Many of us are weary of the destructive battle that has harmed the church and our witness to the world. We are praying that God will grant you the wisdom and the courage to recommend a solution that ends the infighting that has diverted much of the church’s creative and financial resources from our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Thank you for this opportunity to share our thoughts and concerns.
1. Our differences are irreconcilable. Progressives cannot live in a church that does not marry gay couples and ordain gifted, partnered gay persons. Traditionalists cannot live in a church that does. We can value and welcome all people into our churches. However, we cannot be in a church that promotes what we believe is contrary to God’s Word.
2. We can respect those with whom we disagree. We believe a progressive sexual ethic is contrary to the Scriptures and ultimately detrimental to the church. But we also believe that our progressive brothers and sisters are sincere in their beliefs. We do not want a solution that has winners and losers or where one side is punished or penalized for their convictions. We may not be able to avoid a real structural separation – the other mainline denominations have not been able to do so. But we can do what they have not been able to do – honor each other’s convictions and sincerity by creating a fair, respectful, and amicable parting.
3. The local option is not a viable solution. This option did not receive enough support even to come to the floor in Portland. With most of the same delegates returning, there is no reason to believe it would pass with a majority of the vote in 2019, much less receive the support of two-thirds of the Conference needed for a solution requiring constitutional amendments.
4. Should the local option or some form of the jurisdictional plan pass, the church will come apart. When the jurisdictional plan was seen by some as a viable solution in 2015, Good News held a conference call with nearly 100 pastors of our largest evangelical churches. We expounded on the positive benefits of this plan for traditionalists. In a poll the next day, a majority of the pastors said they could not live with this plan and would do all they could to lead their churches out of the denomination should it pass. The “local option” was even more soundly rejected. It may be hard for progressives and centrists to understand, but many, if not most, traditionalists cannot participate in a church that allows its pastors and bishops to promote something they believe to be sinful even if they themselves are not required to do so.
5. Some form of connection is possible. To receive evangelical support, a plan does not have to remove all ties between the new entities it creates. The pension board, publishing house, UMCOR, and other connections could remain, as well as some kind of Methodist affiliation similar to the World Methodist Council. But most of our pastors cannot remain in a denomination that allows and promotes practices they believe are contrary to the Scriptures.
6. Doing nothing or forming a solution that requires traditionalists or progressives to compromise their beliefs will do great harm. More and more traditional United Methodists are leaving the denomination every day. I receive letters from such people every week. If responses to progressive blogs are to be believed, progressive members are also leaving because they disagree with our present position and they believe the church is harming people. We do not have an easy solution before us. Every possible proposal will create pain. But, the worst solution is to do nothing. In fact, if the commission is not able to propose a way forward that sets both sides free to pursue its vision of God’s will, the present exodus will increase greatly.
Since Good News began in 1967, we have remained at the table in dialogue with those who have different views of Scripture and sexuality. We have been willing to continue the conversation even though our differences have appeared to be irreconcilable. But we are in a different place now. We are no longer a church merely with differing views. We now have differing practices. Annual Conferences, Boards of Ministry, and Jurisdictions have voted to be disobedient to the Book of Discipline, have knowingly acted contrary to our covenant, and have said they will not change in the future. If we are one church, we cannot act as if we are two. If we are two churches, or more, we should no longer pretend to be one.
If you are unable to present a plan that is acceptable to the delegates at General Conference and, later, to the delegates in the Annual Conferences, the church will not separate. It will shatter. The bishops will have failed to fulfill the most important task we have asked them to address in decades. Our leaders, lay, and clergy, will have proven to be ineffective and out of touch. We will leave St. Louis even more hopeless and defeated than we left Tampa in 2012. And the consequences will be devastating. Many traditional churches will immediately stop paying apportionments and many will file law suits to leave the denomination. Whether these churches are successful in leaving with their property and assets or not, the legal fees incurred by the annual conferences will be in the millions of dollars. It will be ugly, expensive, far from amicable, and a terrible witness to the world.
We don’t need winners. And we don’t want losers. But we cannot abide a proposed solution that does not end our fighting. To be adopted it must include sufficient separation that traditionalists in both the United States and the central conferences can affirm it overwhelmingly.
With prayers and gratitude,