Commission on a Way Forward members: Bishop Gregory Palmer, Jasmine Rose Smothers, Dave Nuckols and Jorge Acevedo, UMNS

Commission on a Way Forward members: Bishop Gregory Palmer, Jasmine Rose Smothers, Dave Nuckols and Jorge Acevedo, UMNS

By Walter Fenton-

As the Commission on a Way Forward moves beyond preliminaries to the hard task of proposing a plan for the church’s consideration, it is worth trying to clarify what United Methodists in the renewal and reform groups regard as misunderstandings or mischaracterizations of their positions.

Not infrequently, some centrists and progressives claim renewal and reform leaders are unwilling to engage in dialogue. This is demonstrably untrue. Over the years, its leaders and board members have participated in numerous roundtables, open forums, and debates at every level of the church. They have respectfully listened to others, represented their own positions, and have given consideration to proposals to resolve our differences. They remain open to further conversation today. People who claim otherwise are either unfamiliar with the church’s fifty year history or are attempting to characterize them as impediments to unity.

Closely associated with the foregoing is the claim renewal and reform leaders are opposed to any and all attempts to change or modify the Book of Discipline regarding the UM Church’s sexual ethics and teachings on marriage. Again, this is simply not true. They respect the church’s polity and believe all United Methodists have the right to propose changes. For instance, at the 2016 General Conference, it was not renewal and reform leaders who led the effort to table petitions seeking to alter the church’s teachings on these matters. Leaders in the movement have advocated that all petitions, within reason, should be considered and discharged at General Conference.

Having said that, renewal and reform leaders oppose the actions of those who would impose their preferred outcomes on the majority of the church through acts of ecclesiastical disobedience. They reject the claim that widespread and organized defiance of church law is necessary in order to keep faith with other parts of it. This siren song always sounds good to those who believe their cause is just and right. However, following it is an invitation to supplanting the individual conscience over the authority of the church – a community, it should be remembered, of the willing not the compelled.

By way of example, consider the case of female ordination, a vital part of our Wesleyan heritage supported by renewal and reform ministries. Even though it is less so every day, there are some United Methodists who would seek to impede a woman’s path to ordination based on their own Scriptural interpretations and readings of church history. In such a case, renewal and reform leaders expect the church to stand by its well founded conviction that ordination is open to women. In short, United Methodists are entitled to advocate for changing the Discipline, but not to imposing their wills on others.

Too often the above mischaracterizations lead to the more harmful claim that renewal and reform leaders are “schismatics”. This term – often used hyperbolically – simply shuts down conversation rather than fosters it. While it is true that some renewal and reform leaders have discussed “amicable separation,” more often than not it has been offered as sober analysis of the state of the church, not necessarily as a preferred prescription.

Nevertheless, given the deep differences and actions of various parties, separation can no longer be dismissed out of hand. It should be prayerfully and thoughtfully considered. The name calling, on the other hand, is not helpful. Truth be told, leaders across the connection – at every level – are either openly or quietly considering the option.

Finally, it would help dialogue if progressives learned the difference between the biblical hermeneutic of evangelicals and fundamentalists. Too often, progressives point out to conservatives – as if they are unaware – that there are biblical prohibitions (e.g., from body tattoos to dietary laws) the Discipline does not even mention, let alone enforce. It seems as if they are then quick to compare, for example, avoiding shell-fish to the church’s prohibition against the practice of homosexuality – ultimately claiming our view of marriage and sexuality is rooted in homophobia. This is to create a straw man anyone can blow down.

The church’s prohibition, however, is grounded in a nuanced and classical form of biblical interpretation going back to John Wesley and well beyond. It is certainly true that a host of contemporary biblical scholars and theologians have made compelling arguments for change (e.g., James V. Brownson, Victor Paul Furnish, Letha Scanzoni, Virginia Mollenkott,), but it is just as true that others have quite capably defended and reaffirmed the church’s teachings (e.g., William Abraham, Bill Arnold, Richard Hays). We are thankful for their work, believe it to be done in good faith, and deserving of our careful attention. But in the end, the General Conference alone, (and even it, within proscribed limits) is empowered to establish church teaching and order.

At this critical juncture it is important for various parties to deal with one another as they truly are, not as we imagine them to be.

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergy person and an analyst for Good News.


  1. So often it’s the perception of reality that determines outcome. Both liberals and conservatives must see one another through Jesus’ eyes before any course of action is taken.

  2. Then Jesus called the crowd to Him once more and said to them, “Listen to me all of you, and understand. There is nothing that goes into a person from the outside which can make him ritually unclean. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that makes him unclean”
    Mark 7, 14-16

  3. “Closely associated with the foregoing is the claim renewal and reform leaders are opposed to any and all attempts to change or modify the Book of Discipline regarding the UM Church’s sexual ethics and teachings on marriage. Again, this is simply not true.”

    Here is where you lose me. “Reform leaders are not opposed to attempts to change. They are only opposed to actually changing the BOD.”
    As long as the attempts to change are unsuccessful reform leaders will engage in dialogue. Given that there are not enough votes to change the BOD reform leaders can appear to take the high road and seem willing to talk. Suppose the BOD were actually changed at GC. Would these reform leaders accept the change? I doubt it. This article is dishonest. Why can’t we openly say what we want as an end result? For the reform leaders simply come out and say they any change to the current wording is unacceptable.
    Those in favor of changing our policy on LGBT inclusion have been very clear about what they want. Why can’t the reform leaders show some guts and do likewise?

  4. “LGBT inclusion”. “LGBT full inclusion”. These secular terms are, of course, used repeatedly by the left because there are no Scriptural terms available to them as a substitute that conveys the same meaning. These are actually wedge terms that Satan applauds as part of his narrative because they fit nicely into his goal of driving that immovable wedge between man and God.

    Furthermore, suppose the UMC granted “full inclusion” to the LGBT group. How, then, could it not grant “full inclusion” to all, including heterosexuals, who practice sexual immorality as a customary and usual part of their lifestyles? After all, it’s virtually the new norm in the 21st century. Where would the granting of “full inclusion” end for the church? What would be the reason to preach the Gospel of justifying grace if the practice of sexual immorality is scrubbed as sinful? How would the church explain the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? What would be the new message of the church if it recognized and legitimized this new order? Would there even be a reason to continue the church?

  5. Why can’t the renewal and reform leaders simply say that they are going to fight LGBT full inclusion? And if they lose that fight then they will leave. I could get onboard with that. I want to see clarity and honesty in what they are ultimately trying to achieve. So far all I see is a bunch of smoke.
    If that is not their position then why should I waste any more time with them or any of their organizational initiatives such as the WCA?

  6. The conversation is on a closed loop; there’s no advance, and there’s no resolution. Increasingly it appears the conservatives are bewitched. The game is rigged.

  7. Kevin, you are so right. What they are doing now is just smoke and mirrors. Checking on how people feel and think is not coming to the issue of what is sin and what will the church endorse. The pro gay people have lost every vote and that is not going to change. We have two choices; to split amicably or to enforce the discipline and purge the people who will not obey the discipline. I do not want to see that happen. We need to agree to disagree and settle the issue once and for all.Both sides believe they are on the side of God and neither will give.Let’s get this over with so we can focus on making disciples for Christ. Who wants to join our denomination in the midst of this chaos. We are bleeding members and it is time to operate.

  8. The redemptive work of Christ has been/is/will be sufficient for all time. And while the UMC has done laudable work in relaying Christ’s sacrifice and love to the world, we have allowed His grace to be cheapened by permitting society to dictate the parameters and nature of sin. My observations inform me that any and all transgressions, shortcomings and sins seem to be open to reinterpretation in today’s UMC. We are unable or unwilling to adhere to the high standards of holiness and righteous living as prescribed in God’s Word. As we seem unprepared to build God’s church on the saved alone, we allow society to redefine what sin truly is or isn’t; this spiritual magic trick permits us to gather in both the faithful and the faithless, as we moan about avoiding judgmentalism and reaching out in the love of God. Perhaps the biggest single error in this entire schism is this: no member, minister, DS, bishop or church council can ever presume to define what is or is not acceptable to God. His Word stands! It has stood the test of time, through many charlatans, church councils and religious egotists; it has weathered splits, schisms, mergers and dissolutions. The UMC must come out of this conflict, not wishing to make the church more popular or more acceptable… but desiring and consecrating itself to become more holy and more committed to holding up the risen Lord. Only as we accept God’s word as our only, unimpeachable source of spiritual wisdom and direction will we draw all mankind to Christ. Sin is, as it has always been; the reason we are actively involved in the current debate is that we want to accommodate sin, rather being God’s champions for rescuing sinners. Those who wish to accept homosexual bishops, ministers and members into the UMC have already chosen to break faith and fellowship with God’s word. This is more than obvious with even a rudimentary reading of scripture. I will continue to pray for those who more earnestly desire society’s approval than God’s blessing; however, the time for permitting those misdirected souls among us to render the UMC powerless and indecisive has run its course. It is time for God’s people to stand up and be counted. UM’s are not perfect, but we must never allow ourselves to justify imperfection.

  9. Peaceful defiance of law is how laws have been changed over the years. Cases in point, in the Methodist Church were the division over slavery, and then forcing all our African American churches into the Central Jurisdiction, no matter where they were located geographically.
    Now, it is forbidding any of our LBGTQAI sisters and brothers from marrying the person whom they love in a UMC, or being ordained in the UMC. There well may be schism, but that, too, will heal and one day we will be one, with all God’s children being granted Full Inclusion.

  10. We are a covenant organization. There are no laws. We voluntarily pledge to uphold our rules and policies. It is not possible to defy those rules without being an oath breaker. Those who do not like the rules should use the accepted methods for changing them at GC. Failing that, they should uphold the rules or if they cannot do so then the only ethical course of action is to leave.

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