Do “Uniting Methodists” Have the Answer

Lonnie Chafin, Northern Illinois Conference treasurer, leads strategy session for General Conference delegates at the “Uniting Methodists” gathering in Dallas. Speaking to the entire group, he said, “Our goal is to have a one-on-one conversation with every potential delegate in order to bring them to the One Church Plan.” Chafin asked those in attendance to do their own lobbying of delegates. He promised the coalition for One Church would be organized and ready to maneuver once floor action begins. He even said he’s looking for a “parliamentary ninja” to help, drawing laughs from the crowd. Photo and reporting by Sam Hodges of United Methodist News Service.

By Katy Kaiser –

The Commission on a Way Forward has finished its work; the bishops have recommended the One Church Plan; the Judicial Council has ruled that the Connectional Conference Plan and the Traditionalist Plan will also be considered at the 2019 General Conference; and now, unless the Judicial Council finds something unconstitutional in the plans or about the call, we are headed to St Louis. Could the great conflict over human sexuality in the United Methodist Church be coming to an end? The centrists called “Uniting Methodists,” who met in Dallas this summer, believe it can.

The new caucus organized under the slogan, “Room for ALL” at their conference. The unity of believers is their organizing principle. Their preferred vision for the church is one where traditionalists, progressives, and all those somewhere between are held together in one great denomination. Why? Because they need one another, and the beliefs of each are sharpened by the other. They believe we can unite in a common mission to make disciples, because we all love God and our fellow man.

Three bishops, several prominent pastors, and laity spoke to the challenges and questions that they firmly believe can be resolved by the One Church Plan. Selling this plan to the entire church and getting it adopted at the 2019 General Conference was the goal of this conference. Our conflict over human sexuality was compared to the circumcision conflict in Acts and Paul’s admonition in I Corinthians to let Christ be Lord of All. The attendees were told the church needs a “bigger boat,” “more casseroles,” and more stories – not less. For all the enthusiasm and positive rhetoric around unity and room at the table, there were many unresolved issues.

Authority of Scripture and its Interpretation. Early in the conference, a pastor boldly stated that the authority of scripture was not in question. It was an essential that Wesley insisted upon, but he went on to say that the interpretation of scripture was a non-essential. He did not explain how scripture can be an essential while its interpretation is not. He gave the impression that scripture can be ignored or interpreted at will.

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, author of Making Sense of the Bible, made a more systematic argument. He acknowledged the issue is scripture for traditionalists who say, “This couldn’t be right” when speaking of same-sex marriage and ordination of practicing homosexuals. He defended the claim that progressives and traditionalists both believe in the authority of scripture. Hamilton did not distinguish between valid interpretation and that which is contrary to biblical teaching. He eloquently contends that dividing over different interpretations of scripture is not necessary. But both in his book and in his talk to the Uniting Methodists, he critiques those who hold to a time-honored view of the meaning of scripture concerning sexuality and any number of other difficult subjects.

Why the One Church Plan. Layman Dave Nuckols, board member of the Reconciling Ministries Network, explained that the purpose of the One Church Plan was to move the church away from the old argument that “I’m right and you’re wrong” to a place in the middle where everyone on the continuum could be the church together with integrity. No one would have to change their positions on the issue of human sexuality, because the church will no longer tell pastors and churches what they can and cannot do. Nuckols, also a member of the Committee on the Way Forward, believes the space provided in the plan will enable international support.

Retired Bishop Janice Huie offered many of the same pragmatic reasons for adopting the plan. She believes the plan “expands the middle” of the bell curve between the opposite poles of traditionalists and progressives and moves us away from voting so not to create winners and losers and eliminates church trials related to LGBTQ issues.

In her answer to the question on the right of conscience for bishops in matters of ordination, Huie remarked, “If we can open ourselves up here, I think our imagination can come up with some plans…” In fact, she appealed to “our imagination” several times. She explained that a candidate will have other options if their bishop for reasons of conscience will not ordain him/her.

A provision has been added that requires each Episcopal Area to fund the salary and benefits of their bishop; yet when asked, Huie clarified that the Episcopal Fund would not go away. It was explained that this provision was added to address concerns of traditionalists who do not want their apportionments funding same-sex married bishops.

Huie also assured the attendees that the guaranteed appointment would not go away. When asked why there was no gracious exit provision in the OCP, she responded, the Book of Discipline already makes provision for that. Will her answer reassure the churches, who have found the door of gracious exit closed to them?

Can Mission Unite Us? We are divided over human sexuality and interpretation of scripture, but can we unite around a shared vision of mission? Is it true that we can accomplish more together than apart? This was the argument of a staff person from the General Board of Global Ministries. She touted the work of UMCOR during the hurricanes of 2017. She spoke of “kinship” and the good work in our communities as if that were the sum goal of mission and would not be accomplished unless unity was preserved.

Others spoke of the mission of the church in terms of contending for rights and social justice, addressing the opioid epidemic and poverty. And still others made it clear that mission to them was contending for LGBTQ justice until the entire church sees this as an on-going movement in the same way the church saw the women’s and civil rights movements. For all the talk of transforming the world, it was clear that transformation means entirely different things to progressives and traditionalists.

Will We Lose the Millennials?  A panel discussion of four millennials was led by the Rev. Michael Baughman, founder of Union Coffee in Dallas, affiliated with the Reconciling Ministries Network. They spoke about where they were coming from, what they believed, and their disagreements with the church. Statements were made such as: “The Bible is wrong” on the subject of homosexuality, “just because the Bible says something doesn’t mean it has any authority,” “I will fight injustice and anything that takes away human dignity,” and “I’m not going anywhere!” The panelists did not talk about Jesus or a relationship with God.

The one traditional panelist stated that he had come to this group to be a counter balance to the progressives, but as he sat with them his resolve was “slowly chipped away.” He found he was wrong and realizes he may be wrong still, but stated he was OK with that. Another panelist found her truth in tears.

Baughman thinks we should see this generation as the future of the church and come to terms with who they are and what they believe. After all, they outnumber the baby boomers. Do the millennials give us reasons to change our time-honored theology – or a wake-up call to the fact that the church has failed this generation and left them at the mercy of our culture?

Is there Really a Centrist Position? The Uniting Methodists claim they embrace traditionalists, centrists, and progressives. But do they? For all 23 presenters at the Uniting Methodist event, there was a clear willingness to compromise our church’s position on same-sex marriage and ordination of practicing homosexuals – the progressive viewpoint. There was much talk that we need each other; there is “Room for ALL.” But is there? Does opposition go away just because we say: now everyone, do what seems right to you?

A traditional, orthodox, Wesleyan perspective was sorely lacking at this gathering. It seemed clear from the presentations and the discussions that most centrists are promoting the progressive agenda for full LGBTQ inclusion.

If this plan is adopted, the traditional scriptural understanding of marriage will be stricken from the Book of Discipline. Marriage becomes defined as between two adults. The only reference to “a union of one man and one woman” is qualified with the words, “traditionally understood as.” Centrists claim this wording honors “the traditional understanding of marriage” and protects religious liberty “for those whose consciences would be impinged if they celebrated a same-sex union in societies where it is allowed.” But is this language a mere stepping-stone to be eliminated at some future date?

The centrists are correct about one thing; our conflict is not about “I’m right, and you’re wrong.” But it is about what is right and what is wrong. For some time now, the United Methodist Church has tried to get around this reality. We have tried to solve our conflict over human sexuality by saying officially one thing and tolerating another. We have wanted it both ways. The Uniting Methodists still do. I went away from the conference and wondered: Does the United Methodist Church have the courage to decide?

Kathyrn Kiser is the team leader for the Renew Women’s Ministries (www.renewnetwork.org; renew@goodnewsmag.org). 

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