By Walter Fenton
Uniting Methodists is a new caucus group that has entered as a “new voice” in the battle over the United Methodist Church’s sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and its ordination standards. It joins a long roster of groups formed by concerned United Methodists over the years to lobby official church bodies like the General Conference, the Council of Bishops (COB), and now the COB’s special Commission on a Way Forward.
One of the more peculiar claims from Uniting Methodists is its belief that it is not like any of these other groups. As it states on its website, “We are not another combatant in a denominational tug-of-war.” (One supposes, without naming, they want to convey they are not like Methodist Federation for Social Action, Good News, Reconciling Ministries Network, or The Confessing Movement.) They’re just trying, as their tag line says, “to be a unifying and clarifying voice in a divided conversation and a polarized culture.” In other words, they want to convey they are not combatants, but nice people.
And of course, they are nice people, some of the nicest in the whole church. But as Bishop Will Willimon once said, one of the UM Church’s problems is its unspoken “conspiracy of niceness.” The denomination is already full of nice leaders who like to style themselves as facilitators, bridge-builders, and conveners of round-table discussions. Given the crowded table, one does wonder how much more room there is for another group dedicated to be a “clarifying voice in a divided conversation.” (By the way, everyone already at the table thinks they are “a unifying and clarifying voice in a divided conversation.”)
Uniting Methodists certainly say all the right things.
Its homepage says the movement is “Christ centered, hope filled,” and committed to “make disciples for the transformation of the world.”
In its mission statement, it puts itself forward as a voice “that clarifies and unifies our church, [and] urges holiness.” It calls for “cooperation with Christ-like love and honest, humble conversation, and desire[s] spiritual and structural unity in the church.”
In a section entitled “A Shared Commitment,” it professes to follow a God who reveals through Jesus Christ that He is both “fixed and free.” So they are a people who “seek to keep [their] hearts and minds centered on Jesus,” and “open to wherever the catholic spirit of God’s love might lead [them].”
Of course, The United Methodist Church already says all of these things. They are embedded in our Wesleyan heritage, and are rooted in our church’s constitution, doctrinal standards, theological task, social principles, and our polity. So what gives? Why another caucus group, especially one professing not to be “another combatant” in our perennial struggles?
Let’s be straightforward: Uniting Methodists, despite its protests, has its own agenda when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and its ordination standards. It would like to liberalize all of them. The group wants to eliminate the church’s statement on the “practice of homosexuality,” redefine Christian marriage as “a covenant between two people,” and give UM clergy the freedom to preside at “same-sex weddings.”
While studiously avoiding terms such as liberal or progressive, its members simply want to be known as people trying to secure a peace for a denomination beleaguered by combative groups. They haven’t shown up to take sides; in fact, they don’t even claim to be a side. They’ve arrived, as they put it, to help “clarify” things and bring “unity.” (Long time church observers should be forgiven for finding this kind of rhetoric mildly exasperating.)
But Uniting Methodists is, in fact, another caucus group, and there’s no shame in that. In time, the group might come to realize being combative for their cause can be an honorable and noble thing. But for now, they run the risk of appearing to be a group of reluctant combatants. They’re willing to allow for the ordination of LGBTQ people, but if there is push back from an annual conference, then they’ll retreat. And if a lesbian or gay couple can find a UM pastor willing to preside at their wedding, great. But if another one refuses to preside at such a service, then they’ll side with the pastor.
This “local option” approach, which has been floated before, is more likely to antagonize than unify the church. Uniting Methodists run the risk of appearing to be muddled and half-hearted, and it’s likely both LGBTQ advocates and many United Methodists will see them as such.
LGBTQ advocates are all in; they’re advocating for full inclusion in and unfettered access to the church. The timidity of Uniting Methodists will neither impress them nor deter them from their ultimate aims. They will quietly pocket the gains Uniting Methodists would be willing to cede them, and then continue their fight for full inclusion in and unfettered access to the church.
And the vast majority of United Methodists across the global connection, who support the church’s teachings, are firm in their convictions that those teachings are grounded in Scripture and the teachings of the church catholic. They’ve watched what has happened to other mainline denominations that adopted the approach Uniting Methodists are pedaling, and they will want none of it.
The new organization’s laudable tag line, “called to be a unifying and clarifying voice,” does succeed in clarifying that its members lean left, but that’s not a winning strategy if they also hope to be a voice for unity
Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and an analyst at Good News.