For the Cause of Unity
On November 5, 2009, twelve representatives of renewal and reform groups within the United Methodist Church met with the Bishops’ Unity Task Force. The same task force had previously met with a group representing the Reconciling Ministries Network and the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA).
The wide-ranging and forthright discussion focused on matters that threaten the unity of the United Methodist Church. In this issue of Good News, we excerpt a portion of the statement dealing with unity and division within the United Methodist Church that was presented to the Bishops’ Unity Task Force by the renewal and reform group leaders. This was excerpted from the beginning and conclusion of their presentation. In the May/June 2010 issue of Good News, we will offer the middle section, highlighting the group’s specific concerns surrounding the way General Conference activities are conducted.
For the Cause of Unity
We are grateful for the opportunity to have this discussion and appreciative of the initiative the Council of Bishops has taken to explore the critical issue of unity. It is crucially important to us to lift up the unity of the church. We love the United Methodist Church, are committed to it, spend time defending it, and have served and supported it throughout our professional lives. We have come both to listen and to speak, and to seek to keep our hearts open to the Holy Spirit throughout this dialogue—for division within the Body of Christ breaks the heart of God and weakens our witness in the world.
We have come to be honorable partners in this process. Whether this conversation goes beyond this day or not, we seek to open ourselves not just to the Spirit but also to you, our Bishops. We want to be as honest with you as we can possibly be about tension points we see within the denomination, about dangers our church may face if they are not addressed, and about ways forward through them. We do this for the sake of working together so that these points of difficulty can be addressed. We also know that you have perspectives you would share with us, and we will be honest and thoughtful in our responses.
We also think it important to say that we do not perceive ourselves as representing fringe elements of the church. As we think of the people we serve, they form the core of the people in the pews, who pay the bills, build new congregations, support missions, love the Lord, and love his church. While they form a working majority at General Conference, the numbers they represent in the local church are even more significant. Therefore, it is doubly important to us that we are here, so that we can reflect to you with a significant degree of accuracy the feelings and thoughts of much of the heart of the membership of the United Methodist Church.
The theology of unity
We come here representing a network of renewal groups, some of which have been in operation since the 1960s. … We are committed to the mainstream generous orthodoxy of the church catholic and of classical Methodism. The focus of renewal movements varies, of course, according to the renewal movement. We have worked diligently for a deeper commitment to—and immersion in— Scripture, to the retrieval of our doctrinal heritage in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, to the development of comprehensive mission that includes evangelism, disciple-making, church planting, social engagement, and to a fresh and continuous Pentecost in our midst. More specifically, we are committed to the transmission of the Christian faith as bequeathed to us through the Wesleys and Methodism. We believe that Methodism has inherited a viable and precious version of the Gospel (in its doctrines and in its practices) that was birthed of the Spirit and that is vital to the church catholic in the future. Of course, some may disagree on what that legacy is, but we cannot but be faithful to the light as we see it.
We have no interest in dividing the church. Our aim is the renewal of the church, not its division. It is daft to seek to fix or renew something in order to divide it. On the contrary, division would be a very messy and unmanageable development. It would consume precious energy and massive resources that we want to use in sustaining healthy churches, in renewing the denomination, and in carrying out mission and evangelism. We have, in fact, been vital in enabling many United Methodists to stay within our church, especially those who have felt alienated for various reasons (some healthy and some unhealthy). We love our church—warts and all—and have absolutely no interest in causing schism.
We believe that our unity is both a gift and a task. It is a work of the Spirit, and it demands constant effort. Unity is fragile today. The evidence from other mainline Protestant traditions (Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian) is obvious and compelling on this front. We support both the teaching and canon law of our Book of Discipline on homosexual practice. Contrary to what is often thought, this is not the primary issue for us. It has been made a primary issue by those desiring to change our teaching and discipline; we cannot ignore it because it simply keeps recurring again and again. Our primary commitments are scriptural, doctrinal, and missional. We place these in a theological vision of the Methodist tradition that is committed to the divine revelation enshrined in Scripture. So the bigger issues are those of faithfulness to our Lord and to the church as a community of Word and Sacrament rightly ordered in faithfulness. These are not matters that can be resolved by political slogans like “the extreme center” or “the middle way” or “inclusivism.” Theological and missional integrity under the authority of divine revelation are vital to us.
As we in the renewal and reform groups seek what will make for unity in the church, we find a number of tension points that we believe are disruptive of the unity that we all seek.
1. Some leaders of the church seem to be promoting an agenda of changing the United Methodist Church’s position on human sexuality. This is being done both overtly and more subtly. Examples include the following:
• Bishops who speak at Reconciling Ministries events, including celebrations at Reconciling Congregations within their annual conferences.
• Bishops who participated in an “extraordinary” ordination of a self-avowed practicing homosexual person who was denied acceptance into ministry in the UM Church.
• A bishop taking the microphone on the floor of General Conference and haranguing the delegates about how our votes on this issue were contrary to the will of God.
• The utilization of “testimonies” by self-avowed practicing homosexuals during worship services and other programs sponsored by boards and agencies and annual conferences, in an attempt to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.
• Placing self-avowed practicing homosexuals or vocal proponents of the acceptance of homosexual practice in positions of high visibility in the church, for example, music leaders at General Conference.
• Articles printed or promoted by general boards and agencies contradicting United Methodist positions, such as a recent article on the General Board of Church and Society website that promoted the acceptance of sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage, with no commitment or covenant expected.
These and many similar activities are corrosive to the unity of the United Methodist Church. They represent a minority of the church attempting to force its agenda on the majority. We believe the leaders of the church, including its bishops, should promote and defend the church’s position on issues, not a minority agenda that alienates people in the pews and fosters division in the church.
2. On the flip side of the coin, there is often a deafening silence when it comes to promoting and defending the United Methodist Church’s position on doctrinal and social issues that are controversial in the church. There have been times when a bishop has spoken out in defense of the church’s position, but then has been pressured by colleagues into subsequent silence. It seems that it is acceptable for bishops and others to speak out against the church’s position, but it is not acceptable for bishops and others to promote the church’s position.
3. It is our perception that the renewal group constituency—theologically orthodox, evangelical, or conservative—is not adequately represented on boards and agencies and other denominational decision-making bodies. Several general boards have fewer than 10 percent of their directors voting in a theologically conservative direction, whereas recent Barna surveys and other studies have identified that over 50 percent of United Methodists consider themselves to be conservative theologically. Numerous surveys over the past 20 years have demonstrated that General Conference delegates, general board members, and agency staff are not (as a group) representative of the opinions of grassroots United Methodists. The Byzantine nominations process used to constitute boards and agencies, including the Connectional Table, are so convoluted that it is nearly impossible for us to gain fair representation on these decision-making bodies. Even within various boards, classically orthodox members are often excluded from strategic committee assignments.
There is great concern about diversity of externals, such as race, gender, age, or those differently abled, but there is very little attention paid to ensuring the presence and participation of those committed to the historic doctrines and mission of the UM Church. This lack of proportional representation leads denominational decision-making bodies to speak and act in conflict with the beliefs and values of many grassroots United Methodists, resulting in a widespread lack of trust by laity in these church bodies. Inasmuch as bishops are heavily involved in the nominations process at the Jurisdictional level and at the various boards and agencies, we believe that bishops could exercise leadership in assuring that orthodox United Methodists are proportionally represented at the various tables where the current and future ministry of our church is being set.
4. To us, there seems to be a misuse of the principle of accountability within the covenant of ordained ministry. On the one hand, there is little or no accountability exercised over bishops, elders, or deacons who contradict the church’s doctrinal standards or moral positions. On the other hand, there have been instances over the past ten years of leaders using the complaint process to silence or expel classically orthodox voices in some annual conferences. While we sympathize with the desire to eliminate the guaranteed appointment, we are afraid that its elimination will provide one more tool for the marginalization of solid, loyal, classically orthodox clergy within annual conferences.
These are some of the items we have identified as leading to a fracturing of our United Methodist body and increasing the tensions that lead to disunity among us. They are reflective of the polarization of our church and society at large. They also reflect a struggle for power within the church that seems to be more about a certain agenda or vision of the church, than about promoting the unity and mission of the church. We are alarmed that some pursuing this power and control agenda disregard the consequences of their approach to the unity and vitality of the church. It seems as if they would rather have their way in the church, even if it leads to widespread membership losses or even outright separation.
Worst case scenarios and how to avoid them
Our intent is not to be caustic, hostile, or divisive; but simply to be honest. We acknowledge that our major problem within our local congregations is not with the practice of homosexuality, but with heterosexuality run amuck.
Nevertheless, we strongly support our current stance on this issue. Simply put, we welcome all people, but we do not affirm all behavior.
If there was a change in the position of our denomination in regards to the practice of homosexuality no longer being incompatible with Christian teaching, it obviously would have a devastating impact on the United Methodist Church. The experience of the Episcopal Church in America is an example and should serve as a warning to us. Very serious and dire consequences would in all likelihood ensue for the United Methodist Church as well. Membership and worship attendance loss, apportionments withheld and unpaid, and litigation would occur in local congregations and within entire annual conferences. It is not only large congregations that would be adversely affected by a change in our stance, but churches (and conferences) of all sizes.
At a meeting in August 2009, the senior pastors of 92 of the 100 largest United Methodist Churches in the United States had a discussion about this matter in relationship to General Conference. These churches have over 150,000 in weekly worship attendance, and pay between $45-50 million in apportionments each year. While those in attendance vary significantly in ministry and theological styles, they left that meeting with a definite consensus that it is imperative that the 2012 General Conference focus on our pathways in worship, prayer, and mission planning, and to defer all legislation concerning human sexuality.
In the strongest possible language we can use, we would ask that the bishops actively work to help avoid changing the current stance on sexuality.
The center of God’s will and a way forward
Again, we want to thank you for the invitation to dialogue and to discuss issues that are dear to all of our hearts.
Hopefully, you have heard how much all of us and those we represent love the United Methodist Church and our Wesleyan heritage. We are committed to preserving the wonderful gift God gave the world through the Wesleyan revival—its doctrines, disciplines, and spirit.
How do we move forward as a church together in mission?
One way that we are convinced will not work for the long term is finding “middle ground.” We disagree with that concept theologically and practically.
1. Theologically, the goal should not be to take a poll of all views within the church and land somewhere in the middle of the most extreme views—mistakenly thinking that such an approach is unity. It is not. It’s little more than a politically expedient way to ignore the deep issues that divide us.
The goal is to be faithful to what God has revealed. Where we in the renewal movements are wrong, we want to be corrected. Where we are right, we cannot deny what God has said simply because others see matters differently.
Though our disagreements as a church often center on sexuality, we know that the real issues that divide us are much deeper and more important — issues such as the authority of the Scriptures, the present work of the Holy Spirit, and the uniqueness of Christ (whether his work on the cross is the sole means of salvation for all the world). Even on matters we consider essential, we know that United Methodists are not of one mind. And our differences on these issues do raise the question of what kind of unity is truly possible for the people called Methodist.
We can disagree amicably and with respect. We can look for points of agreement and celebrate those. And we can believe the best about each other. But our goal is not to find a middle ground. Our goal is for the church, theologically and missionally, to be faithful to what God has revealed and to live in the center of God’s will.
2. Practically, we are uncomfortable with the concept of finding middle ground because we don’t believe that’s what the other side desires. In Pittsburgh the motif that was chosen by the Reconciling Movement was “like water on a rock.” It’s a great metaphor and one that is telling. The goal of the Reconciling Movement is not to agree to disagree—it’s to wear away at least some of the long-standing, traditional Christian beliefs regarding human sexuality. Simply stated, it is to change the views that have been in The Discipline for decades and in the Church for centuries.
Any movement away from the current positions and towards what some might describe as middle ground will simply create a new starting point for further dialogue—again with the stated goal of trying to reach new middle ground. Only this time, we will begin even further from where the Church has always been theologically, and closer to a view that the majority of United Methodists hold to be incompatible with Christian teaching.
Practically, finding middle ground will become nothing more than a series of steps, with the goal of each time taking us further from traditional beliefs and closer to views that the Church has rejected. Like water on a rock, the ultimate goal is to wear away our resistance to a cultural flood that rejects traditional Christian teaching. And the other side will not be satisfied until this end has been reached.
We don’t fault those with whom we disagree for promoting their beliefs. They have every right to do so. But we’re not naive. “Middle ground” is only a step toward changing the Church’s views, and it is best to admit so at present and acknowledge that we can’t take that journey together.
How do we move forward?
One way is to watch our language. It’s hard to believe we can move forward together when we are likened to the KKK by persons representing the other side. It’s hard to believe we can work together when we are called racists, as we were at General Conference, or when bishops refer to us as sinners because we have voted our conscience.
We respectfully ask that if leaders of our renewal groups have ever used derogatory language to refer to persons whose beliefs or practices differ from ours that we be given that information. We will personally ask them to apologize and make whatever amends are necessary.
How can we move forward together?
The best way we know is to agree that The Book of Discipline will be our guide, and for our bishops not only to enforce it but also to promote it. It should not fall upon the renewal groups to defend and promote the position of the church regarding sexuality or any issue. That is the charge given to our episcopal leaders. And yet, when have we ever heard our bishops give a thoughtful, substantive defense and rationale for our views? The loudest voices are those that speak in favor of changing the church’s position. That does not create unity, and it does not assure our church members that the leadership of the church represents them and their beliefs.
Again, we are grateful for the invitation to meet with you. And we pray God’s wisdom and courage for you as you move forward.
Bishops’ Unity Task Force
• Sally Dyck, Chairperson (Minnesota)
• Mike Lowry (Central Texas)
• Minerva Carcaño (Desert Southwest)
• Peter Weaver (New England)
• Daniel Arichea (The Philippines)
• Joao Machado (Mozambique)
• William J. Abraham is the Albert Cook Outler Professor of Theology and Wesley Studies and Altshuler Distinquished Teaching Professor at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. He is widely known as a theologian, philosopher, and scholar of Methodism, most recently as co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies (Oxford University Press 2009).
• Larry R. Baird is in his seventh year as District Superintendent for the Cornerstone District of the Western New York Conference. He has served on the General Board of Discipleship, the Northeastern Jurisdiction Episcopacy Committee, and New ACT—the body responsible for enabling leaders in four Annual Conferences to create a new upstate New York Conference.
• Eddie Fox is one of Methodism’s foremost evangelists. He has been the World Director of Evangelism for the World Methodist Council since 1987. A member of the Holston Annual Conference, Dr. Fox has served as a General Conference delegate on several occasions.
• Tom Harrison is in his seventeenth year as the Senior Pastor of the 7,600-member Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Dr. Harrison has been a General Conference delegate and alternate. He currently serves as chairperson of the Oklahoma Annual Conference Council on Finance and Administration.
• Liza Kittle is a member of Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church in Augusta, Georgia, and is the current President of the Renew Network, the women’s ministry program arm of Good News.
• Tom Lambrecht is an ordained minister in the Wisconsin Annual Conference and former Chairperson of the Board of Directors of Good News. He served as the coordinator of the Renewal and Reform Coalition efforts at the 2008 General Conference.
• Senator Patricia Miller has been the Executive Director of The Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church since 1997 and has served as a General Conference delegate from South Indiana five times. She became a State Senator in Indiana in 1983 and continues to serve in that capacity.
• Rob Renfroe is the President and Publisher of Good News and previously served as the Chairperson of The Confessing Movement Board of Directors. He is the Pastor of Adult Discipleship at The Woodlands United Methodist Church, north of Houston, Texas.
• Chuck Savage is the Senior Pastor at Kingswood United Methodist Church in Dunwoody, Georgia. He has been in full-time ministry for sixteen years and was elected as a delegate to the 2008 General Conference. He currently serves on the Board of Trustees of the Board of Church and Society.
• Steve Wende is the Senior Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Houston, one of our denomination’s leading congregations. He is a member of the Texas Annual Conference and has served as a General Conference delegate five times.
• Alice Wolfe has served as a pastor in the West Ohio Conference for twelve years and is currently serving as Senior Pastor of Anna United Methodist Church in Anna, Ohio. She served as a delegate to the 2008 General Conference and to the North Central Jurisdictional Conference in 2004 and 2008.
• Steve Wood is the Senior Pastor of Mount Pisgah United Methodist Church, a 9,000-member congregation in the Atlanta area. He has served as a church planter, the pastor of a multi-ethnic church, and as a delegate to both General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference.