By Walter Fenton-
Florida Bishop Ken Carter recently released a video citing seven reasons why he believes The United Methodist Church will remain united. This is a notable move since Carter is one of three moderators for the denomination-wide Commission on a Way Forward, a group that will be releasing a plan to deal with the irreconcilable differences within our denomination at our specially-called 2019 General Conference in St. Louis.
United Methodists will justifiably ask questions about the release of the video. After all, it makes it far more difficult to view him as an objective moderator since he has taken on the role of advocate. Furthermore, people in the pews are going to quickly discover that many of the reasons given should have been more thoroughly vetted because they fail to make his case.
To his credit Carter begins with the Bible. “The consistent witness of Scripture,” he says, “[is] for unity.” He cites New Testament passages to support his assertion (e.g., Jesus’ prayer in John 17, Pentecost in Acts 2, Paul’s admonishment to the Philippians to “be of one mind,” and the same apostle’s cry to the Corinthians, “One faith, one baptism, one Lord.”). Of course, there are others he could cite.
Nevertheless, proof-texting is hardly a sufficient exercise for building a case for church unity. Unity is not some vague idea floating free of our engagement with all of Scripture, our theological confessions, and the moral and ethical ways we live that derive from them. Unfortunately, the video presentation lacks nuance in its appeal to Scripture.
Whether Jesus is turning over tables in the Temple courtyard or rebuking Peter at Caesarea Philippi, he does not end such encounters with a simple shrug of his shoulders. At the end of his outburst, Jesus does not say to the moneychangers, “For the sake of unity, let’s just agree to disagree on whether it’s wrong or right to take advantage of the poor.” Nor does he patch things up with Peter by saying, “For the sake of unity, let’s just be of two minds regarding God’s plan for the redemption of humankind.”
Paul does not just proclaim the core teachings of our faith and its ethical and moral demands to the Corinthians and leave it at that. He makes judgments, and he charges the Corinthians to make them as well. A true community of faith is actually prepared to hold its members accountable for the sake of unity.
Carter takes from the passages he cites that “God desires unity, not division.” This is true, but it is not a unity simply for the sake of unity. It is unity grounded in Scripture and in a body of theological confessions that in turn transform and shape the people of the church. And as the very existence of our Book of Discipline proves, any church worth its salt requires covenantal accountability for the growth and prospering of its people.
Unfortunately, the very division Carter decries exists because some of our episcopal leaders have failed at the Scriptural command to shepherd the church.
Our Doctrine of Grace
Carter also attempts to root our unity in our doctrine of grace. To be sure, there is certainly a great deal of unity around it. However, the video message fails to demonstrate how the doctrine of grace necessitates our unity in light of a fundamental difference over our doctrine on the authority of Scripture.
It won’t do to pluck one doctrine out of many and then argue it alone requires unity. Given the nature of the long debate over our sexual ethics, Carter is mistaken to think an appeal to our doctrine of grace will allow us to gloss over equally fundamental doctrines pertaining to the unity of the church.
And besides, doctrines require adherence in order to achieve unity. The majority of the church affirms our church’s sexual ethics and its teachings on marriage and ordination. Furthermore, they believe these teachings are well grounded in Scripture, the historic teachings of the church universal, and our Book of Discipline.
To be sure, some United Methodists disagree – apparently Carter himself - but that does not entitle them to defy those teachings. Rather, for the sake of unity, they are, at a minimum, to conform themselves to them.
In the same way we read Scripture holistically we are to engage our doctrines holistically. It will not do to prioritize one, and then arbitrarily put it to service for the sake of church unity.
The Presence of LGBTQ+ People in Our Church
Carter goes on to say the UM Church will remain united because “LGBTQ people have been present, are present, and will continue to be present in our churches.” No one disputes the reality of his observation, but with all due respect, citing it as a one of his reasons why the church “will remain united” does not make sense. The mere presence of people who identify themselves in a particular way is no guarantee of church unity.
His implication here is disquieting. He seems to suggest the mere presence of LGBTQ people in our pews requires the church’s capitulation regarding its sexual ethics and teachings on marriage. This argument has not been persuasive, is not persuasive, and will not be persuasive at the 2019 General Conference.
Our Mission Incarnates the Gospel
Carter’s fourth reason for why the church will remain united is because, “Our global mission incarnates the Gospel across the world.” True enough, the church does do this, but will it be able to do so in the future? Carter’s presentation ignores the hard realities of a denomination in decline. U.S. membership, worship, and giving (adjusted for inflation) are all falling. Annual conferences and districts are being forced to merge. And local churches are closing or, in some cases, leaving or exploring how to leave the denomination.
Ironically, Carter notes in this section of his video that, “Division is sometimes a distraction and often a destructive reality that keeps us from taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth.” But he fails to address the reason for “division” and the “destructive reality” that it has become. Not once in his video does he acknowledge “ecclesial defiance” has forced upon us the destructive reality of division.
Here, the video lacks credibility, and borders on being platitudinous. Bishop Carter never addresses how the church will remain united when a minority wing of it in the U.S. (with the approval of some of his episcopal colleagues) finds it perfectly acceptable to defy the will of General Conference, our Discipline, and now our Judicial Council.
Young People are for Unity and LGBTQ Accommodation
According to the video message, another reason we will remain united is because, “Younger generations are passionate about the unity of the church,… and are also much less likely to see LGBTQ experience as a divisive issue.”
First, there is no survey to back-up Carter’s claim that younger United Methodists are “passionate about the unity of the church.” One assumes that he has had many positive encounters with “younger generations,” but this counts only as anecdotal information. Again, there is no survey to tell us about the level of passion for church unity among 18-39 years old (or for any age cohort for that matter).
Carter then points his viewer to a Pew Religious Landscape Survey (apparently a 2014 study, in the video he does not specify) to substantiate his claim that “younger generations are… much less likely to see LGBTQ experience as a divisive issue.” True, it does show UM GenXers and Millennials are more inclined than older generations to say, “homosexuality and same-sex marriage should be accepted.” But the survey is not nearly the clincher he thinks it is.
The Pew study is of United Methodists living in the U.S. We are a global church with nearly half of our members living in Africa, Europe, and The Philippines. And since the average age of a UM member in Africa and The Philippines is significantly younger than those in the U.S., it is almost certainly the case there are more 18-39 year olds living in these regions than in the U.S. (some would say substantially more).
The church is growing rapidly in Africa and The Philippines, and their members’ views on the practice of homosexuality and same-sex marriage are closely aligned with our church’s teachings. Therefore, Carter must contend with the distinct possibility that the majority of the younger generation in the UM Church actually does “see LGBTQ experience as a divisive issue.”
Bishop Carter’s video will no doubt have greater receptivity in Miami, Key West, and Palm Beach than it will in African churches in Harare, Abuja, and Kinshasa.
Whatever the case, the implication of Carter’s observation is faulty. The church should not change its sexual ethics and teachings on marriage based on what surveys tell us U.S. “younger generations” feel or believe about the practice of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. The church does not do theology or ground its ethics in surveys.
A Massive Centrist Experience
Carter’s sixth reason the church will remain united is his observation that, “There is a massive centrist experience [in the UM Church] that is often unrepresented in our media, our dialogues, our blogs, our discernments.” I am not sure what a “massive centrist experience” actually is, but there is no demonstrable evidence suggesting it will keep the church united.
According to the video message, centrists are now “finding their voice,” which begs the question, “What took them so long?” Additional questions seem worth asking. Have the so-called centrists failed to recognize the downward trajectory of the denomination for the past 45 years? Were they not paying attention when the Call to Action Report revealed a sense of malaise in the church and lack of trust for its denominational leaders? Were they unaware of the intense debate over sexual ethics that has exercised the wider culture and our church for many years?
This Centrist group, it is contended, “is the deep, rich, center of The United Methodist Church.” Carter goes further by saying that from his “experience” it is “the great majority of our denomination.”
In all actuality, it is “the great majority of our denomination” who have – for the last 40 years – affirmed the biblical and historical teachings on marriage and sexuality.
If Carter’s wide-spread hypothetical center exists, it has a lot of catching up to do. To date, it has failed to recognize the critical challenges facing the church, failed to organize a response, and at this late date, is just now “finding [its] voice.” And to propose what? The video message does not say, and yet this ill-defined center will supposedly keep the church united.
Division is Costly
Finally, Carter says the church will remain united because, “We want to avoid the structural harm that would divert resources to the legal pursuit of division.” No one, of course, wants to “divert resources to the legal pursuit of division,” but this is neither a good reason for why, nor a guarantee that, the church will remain united.
Those who believe resources will not be diverted or expended just because we remain united are not paying attention to the Mainline Protestant landscape. The United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America could all claim they remain “united,” but their unity has come at a staggering price. All of these denominations are losing members, experiencing dramatic declines in worship attendance, and, yes, hemorrhaging “resources.” At least two of them have spent millions of dollars in “resources” in the “legal pursuit” of compelling unity.
Carter’s final argument (it is not a reason) for unity is the epitome of the institutional case for it: we need to remain united because to do anything else would be too costly. This essentially calls us to take comfort in institutional inertia. There is no realistic plan offered for how to hold the institution together. One wing believes it is justified in ecclesial disobedience. Another wing thinks the disobedience is an invitation to institutional anarchy. Presumably, the “massive centrist experience” thinks a united church should just sit loose when it comes to sexual ethics and marriage, allowing annual conferences, local churches, and clergy to do what they think is best in their own eyes.
Disappointingly, in the end, Bishop Carter’s video is a barely concealed endorsement of the Connectional Table’s “A Third Way” plan. In closing, a few points should be made about the ill-fated “Third Way” plan. First, the plan never made it to the floor of the 2016 General Conference. Its promoters were willing to table a vote on it because they knew it would be defeated. Second, the vast majority of the delegates attending the called 2019 General Conference are those who attended in 2016. They will be no more inclined to approve such a plan then than they were in 2016. And third, many progressives justifiably deride such a plan as a “Jim Crow” proposal for LGBTQ people. Even if such a plan passed, they would continue to advocate for change through acts of ecclesial disobedience. And of course some progressive bishops will countenance their defiance, and some will even encourage it. And all the while, more people – and whole congregations – will leave the church and take their resources with them.
According to the news reports, The Committee on a Way Forward has been tirelessly attempting to cobble together some kind of a plan to present to the entire denomination. As one of the moderators for the group – and now and advocate – Bishop Carter’s video message has got to be disheartening to the commission members who have been laboring in good faith for a sustainable and fruitful future that would respect the consciences of all parties concerned. By failing to even recognize the challenges facing the church, and offering no realistic plan for contending with them, the video message is little more than an institutionally pragmatic and platitudinous plea for unity… for the sake of unity.
Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergy person and an analyst for Good News.