By Rob Renfroe –
Not long ago I spoke via Zoom to the Zimbabwe General Conference delegation. They have asked several persons representing all theological views to talk to them about the future of the United Methodist Church. The man who spoke before I did would classify himself as a “centrist” with progressive leanings. He’s a genuinely good man and has been a good-faith partner in working for the separation that we desperately need. I respect him, his thinking, and his sincerity.
He was asked by one delegate, “What position will traditionalists hold if they do not join the Global Methodist Church but remain in the Post-Separation United Methodist Church (PSUMC)? How will they be treated?”
His answer was, “I cannot imagine a United Methodist Church without traditionalists being respected and put in places of leadership.”
That has been the line we’ve heard from most centrists and many progressives. Nothing will really change. There’s room in the big tent that is the United Methodist Church for all people and all opinions. There’s no real reason for people of good will to separate. And once the hard-core Bible traditionalists (the people that Good News represents) leave, the beliefs of reasonable traditionalists will be honored; and the PSUMC will be one happy, live-and-let-live family.
Again, I believe the man I described above and some others like him are sincere in their views. And I believe they are absolutely mistaken.
We have recently seen a rash of pastors removed from their pulpits by centrist/progressive bishops without consulting with the pastor or their churches – even though the Book of Discipline says they must consult. This has occurred in three different jurisdictions with three different bishops. Why? Because these pastors have made it clear they are traditionalists who support the coming Global Methodist Church.
Already, there have been several annual conferences where “centrist” and “progressive” bishops have removed traditionalist district superintendents and replaced them with others who share the bishop’s nontraditional beliefs. There is now no one close to these bishops who understands or represents traditionalists.
Many annual conferences have gone on record that they will disregard the Book of Discipline’s prohibitions of same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing gay persons. They are presently ordaining practicing gay persons. Just recently a district in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference certified an openly gay person who performs in drag, Isaac Simmons, as a candidate for ministry. (Certification is the first step in a years-long process toward ordination.) Simmons recently preached at the church where he serves in Bloomington in his drag persona “Miss Penny Cost.” On a YouTube video Miss Penny Cost prays to Mary and refers to God as “Our Lover who art in heaven.” Drag Queen persona aside, a district committee in Illinois Great Rivers felt comfortable recommending for UM ministry a person whose theology cannot possibly be reconciled with authentic Wesleyanism.
Near the time of his crucifixion, Jesus said, “For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:31). It’s not an easy passage to understand, but the general meaning is that if people will do wrong when there is some kind of restraining influence present, what will they do when that presence is gone?
Up until this time, we traditionalists have been the restraint that has kept progressives from doing all they desire in remaking the UM Church. And still they have mistreated pastors and churches who hold traditional beliefs, embraced a progressive sexual ethic, and walked away from Wesleyan theology. When many of us, if not most of us leave, what will they do and how far will they go in the future?
It’s not hard to imagine because we have worked against their agenda at every General Conference since 1972. Once we leave, UM boards and agencies will likely again become partner organizations with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which supports any abortion at any point for any reason. The church is likely to vote to condemn and divest from Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, as has been proposed time and time again at recent General Conferences. When we are gone, every annual conference will celebrate same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination. In fact, there may come an immediate push to redefine marriage, so that it includes more than two persons. In a recent sermon a “centrist” leader said that the vision for the PSUMC will include the affirmation of “trans folks, bi folks, kink folks, poly folk, gender fluid folk and others.” Just to be clear, “poly folk” is a reference to persons who are simultaneously in relationships with several sexual partners. At General Conference 2019, nearly 40 percent of the delegates voted for the Simple Plan, which removed the prohibition against clergy being unfaithful in marriage as a chargeable offense. When traditionalists leave, that 40 percent will probably be at least 60 percent of the PSUMC.
Pastors who do not want to disrupt their churches will tell their people that nothing much will change after the separation. With traditionalists out of the picture, they envision a golden age of peace and understanding will break out within the PSUMC and everyone will be welcome.
But if centrists and progressives do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry? Embracing the LGBTQ agenda is a justice issue for them. As we have seen in The Episcopal Church, what starts out as permitted soon becomes encouraged and eventually becomes mandatory. “Centrist” pastors will tell their congregations that nothing will change. They may even believe that. But everything will change. There is no energy behind the centrist movement any longer. Those who now dominate meetings held by those with nontraditional beliefs are not the centrists but the progressives. Progressive, woke young clergy do not look up to, and will not be deterred by, middle-aged, primarily white centrists who believe in justice by half-measures. And the progressives will win the day.
Eventually, one can foresee the PSUMC becoming a thoroughly progressive denomination that will not allow for freedom of conscience or practice. And the old centrist guard will not be able to stop the march towards a church that is devoid of traditional beliefs and practices.
It is not surprising that centrist leaders cannot see where the PSUMC is headed. They haven’t wanted to see where the church has been headed for the past 20 years – even though we told them that separation was coming. Consequently, we had to go through several destructive General Conferences and many people have been deeply and unnecessarily hurt, waiting for these leaders to grasp the inevitable. If some in the church now want to trust what these same leaders say they see for the future of the PSUMC after we’re gone – mutual respect, traditionalists being placed in positions of influence and authority, local churches enjoying a real measure of autonomy – they are free to do so. They are also free to take the words of Jesus seriously. “For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”