Good News Investigates Unity

The question of “amicable separation” was broached at General Conference this past spring, though not in a substantive manner. Good News, a renewal movement within the church, has produced a research document laying out what they see as the major options facing the church.

The 2004 General Conference of The United Methodist Church in its closing hours overwhelmingly approved a resolution proclaiming unity in Christ. In so doing it professed a desire for dialogue and finding means by which the diverse theological perspectives of The United Methodist Church could continue to exist together. In theory, this is a laudable and worthwhile goal that all who call themselves United Methodist should be willing to commit themselves to. However, the resolution failed to address the reality of the position we find ourselves in as a church.

My impression of this unity declaration when I first heard of it was that it was wishful thinking. If we only deny a problem long enough, maybe it will go away.

Unity is definitely a good thing. Jesus said, “”My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” John 17:20-21 This prayer of Jesus has been the foundation of the Ecumenical Movement for at least a century. Do we now have this kind of unity – are we ONE, just as the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father? Is the world seeing something in us and our relationships with each other that attracts them to Jesus? The world certainly sees that we have the word “United” in our name, but the reality backing it up seems purely institutional.

The UMC has pursued unity during its entire existence:

The reality is that for more than 30 years our denomination has tried to find that common ground. The reality is that, in that time, instead of growing closer theologically, we have grown farther apart.

Why is this? At least two factors. First, United Methodism mirrors the broader American Culture. As a fairly normal cross-section of America, it is not surprising to find the same polarization in the church that we find in the culture. Second, the process of dialogue itself has heightened the articulacy of conflicting positions. If we ignored the situation and just went about our business in the local church (following the advice of some), we wouldn’t know how far apart we really are on some issues.

A third factor may be the rise in the number of pastors who do not attend United Methodist seminaries. As a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary, I find that Methodist doctrine seemed to play a more central role in my education than in that of some peers who attended UM seminaries. What we lacked, however, were the close ties to the denominational leadership and bureaucracy that those seminaries have. As the mass of pastors who see a conflict between the official doctrine of the church and the actual practices of the church reaches criticality, those pastors likely become more articulate and stubborn in their positions. Similarly, those who are taught a revisionist version of doctrine in seminary find an increasing gap between what they see as “real, biblical Christianity” and the traditional expressions of that faith.

We must face up to the reality that the holders of the diverse theological perspectives are firm in their beliefs, and that we as a “united” church lack common agreement on the foundation of our Christian doctrine. We are house divided. Over the past 30 years, too much time, energy, and resources have been spent on holding the United Methodist Church together in the face of our theological schizophrenia. One can only imagine what could have been done to minister to the least, the last, and the lost of the world with those resources.

Yes, people in the UMC firmly hold widely divergent beliefs. I have no trouble attributing sincerity to them all. I have no trouble admitting that each group thinks what they are saying and doing is for the good of the church and truly “of God.” The problem is that what we say and what we do has consequences, not only for ourselves and our churches, but for each other. We find ourselves working at cross purposes. We find ourselves having to undo or redo the work of others. After 30 years, yes, this does get tiring. Yes, it does sap our energy and resources that we could be spending reaching outsiders. But I have a couple of questions.

First, in historical terms, 30 years really isn’t very long. It’s certainly not long enough to adjudicate between traditions. It is, however, long enough to recognize that in the “liberal” and “evangelical” branches of the church we do indeed have different and rival traditions, pursuing different trajectories.

Second, if everything turned around tomorrow and we suddenly had the unity General Conference “celebrated,” would we know how to live in it? I’m not sure I would. If you train someone to be adversarial and defensive for years, how can they suddenly change their ways?

This is more than an intramural ecclesiastical squabble. It raises first order questions of whether United Methodism has a future as an effective tool for making disciples throughout the world and, if there is such a future, how United Methodists are to move beyond our current mode of quadrennial conflict, a high level of distrust, and widely held cynicism. The conflict, distrust, and cynicism marking our denominational life today are not simply emotional reactions, but grow from longstanding experiences within an ineffective and unfocused institution.

I don’t understand those who say they are the “Great Methodist Middle,” who say they feel caught in the crossfire between the two warring factions. What is their understanding of the nature of doctrine and its role in the church? Are things like the resurrection of Jesus, the Incarnation, biblical sexual morality merely adiaphora – indifferent items – to be held lightly as we live and let live? Sure there are some petty squabbles in the church, rooted in personality differences and power struggles. But most of what I see is based in real substantive disagreement.

Is our present system the one we need to maintain? Again our answer must be a resounding NO! The irreconcilable differences that exist between evangelical/orthodox Christians and revisionist Christians within United Methodism has led to ideological oppression by United Methodist leaders who expect denominational loyalty while undermining our covenant of doctrine and polity. This problem is systemic and not limited to a handful of bishops and board or agency officials.

Wesley’s original Model Deed was a way to control the preaching at the local Methodist stations. The assumption was that the Methodists would be ok at the top (after all, Wesley himself was in firm control in those days) and that problems, if they came, would come from below. Wesley had some experience with preachers “going bad,” so this wan’t an idle fear. The UMC has maintained the tradition of the Model Deed with the current Trust Clause vesting ownership of all church property in the Annual Conference and not in the local church. What we have come to see in the days since Wesley, however, is that departure form Methodist doctrine is not merely a local concern, but is a concern about the leadership of the church even on the highest levels. Whereas the leadership of the church – since Wesley himself – has seen the Model Deed /Trust Clause operating in a one way direction (local churches must be faithful), local churches have seen it as a two way relationship of accountability. Not only are they responsible to uphold Methodist doctrine, but of the leadership above them has departed from that doctrine, then a breach has occurred just as much as if the local church had departed. Having spent some time in the Western Jurisdiction, I’ve seen this in play. The hierarchy of the church, however, rejects such a possibility a priori.

The document goes on to lay out the four options they see. These are adapted from Lyle Schaller’s new book, The Ice Cube is Melting.

A. Continue Current Renewal Strategies (Patching the Old Wineskin)

This option sees the tide of “battle” turning in our favor. It believes that if we continue steadfast in pushing for renewal, we will continue to make incremental progress in improving the spiritual and institutional climate of the denomination. It is just a matter of getting the right people elected as delegates and members of agency boards to bring about the cultural changes in the church that will foster spiritual vitality and growth.

This option is a type of Forced Departure, which is based on the model of church discipline, wherein the majority party within the church would essentially expel the minority party in order to create unity. The expulsion can be done either indirectly or directly. It would be done indirectly through making the environment of the church so hostile to the minority party that they choose either to leave or to agree to amicable separation. It would be done directly by requiring some type of “loyalty oath” or other enforcement mechanism that would require individuals and congregations to choose to leave if they could not live with the current majority policy.

This option starts off sounding positive – “Let’s keep doing what we’ve been doing.” After all, no change is usually the easiest position. But notice how it works out in light of our real and substantive differences – it becomes “Forced departure.”

B Work for a Heterogeneous Denomination

This option believes that we will never get the United Methodist Church as a whole to agree to our vision of a renewed church. Rather than continuing to fight against the revisionists for control of the denomination, we would seek to decentralize control in the denomination and make a safe and healthy place for evangelicals to do ministry within the United Methodist Church.

I think this might go over better with the “unity first” crowd, but I’m not sure anyone else would like it in the long run. The hierarchy won’t like it because it will entail huge power shifts and decentralization. Those who are theologically polarized won’t like it, because they will see the American public (wrongly) perceiving them as the same as their opponents. But maybe I’m too cynical.

C Refashion United Methodism as a High-Expectation Covenant Community

This approach would also allow us to retain the name and heritage of United Methodism, while creating within it a new church that would emphasize high expectations, high commitment, doctrinal certainty, and covenant accountability. This approach would be to jump immediately to the end state of what we hope our incremental changes under Option A would bring about. At the same time, there would need to be a renewal of the restated covenant for every member, pastor, and congregation. Those churches and individuals who could not affirm the renewed covenant would have to leave the denomination, and provision would need to be made for retaining property, pensions, and the like.

After at least a century of little or no doctrinal discipline, this would surely be a shocking move. I’m not sure we are close to havig a theory of doctrine that would accommodate this model. We can handle the “I’m right, you’re wrong” model, We can handle the “Doctrine divides, service unites” (relativistic) model. Doctrinal clarity and accountability – with love and compassion – I’m not sure we’d know what to do with it. Even more, I’m not sure that we have a solid enough consensus in any group within the church to form a clear majority.

D. Work for a Structural Separation of Methodism

This option believes that it will be impossible to renew the current United Methodist denomination. A new start for all the various factions within Methodism would allow for greater creativity, smaller and (hopefully) more effective denominations, and homogeneous denominations that are outward-focused, rather than quarrelling as factions within a larger whole….

There appear to be two options for bringing about a structural separation within United Methodism: amicable separation and voluntary departure.

Amicable Separation

The option of amicable separation is based on both sides agreeing that a separation needs to take place. This option can be precipitated by one or the other side, but to go forward, it needs the agreement of both sides in the debate. The proposal worked on at General Conference calling for some type of commission or task group to create a plan of separation is the likely form this option would take. The appeal of this option could be broadened by creating the possibility of more than two options for new denominations. Lyle Schaller outlines five different denominations that could emerge (p. 206):

1) A new Methodist denomination closely resembling today’s UMC, without the Restrictive Rules and with a reworked annual conference and general agency structure.

2) A new Methodist denomination retaining current UM doctrine, but with a new polity, organizational structure, and system of accountability.

3) A new Protestant denomination with its own distinctive doctrinal statement and an episcopal system of governance.

4) A new Wesleyan denomination with a new self-defined polity and doctrine.

5) A new Christian religious body with a self-defined polity and doctrine.

The labels “Wesleyan,” “Protestant,” and “Christian” relate to how closely the new denomination’s doctrine and polity resembles historic Methodism. Central Conferences would have the choice of becoming autonomous Methodist churches or affiliating with one of the new denominations. Under amicable separation, the United Methodist Church would cease to exist, and every individual and congregation would be forced to make a conscious choice of which new denomination to become part of (or to become independent).

This option has the advantage of bringing an amicable spirit to the process of structural separation, since both sides agree to its necessity. It poses the least potential for disruption, since minimal energy is spent fighting the separation and most of the energy is devoted to constructing the two new entities.

The drawback to this option is its requirement that both sides agree, in order for it to be effective. One side can hold the other hostage by refusing to agree, either to the need for separation or to some particular elements in the plan of separation. It would also require a high level of agreement by General Conference delegates, who tend to be institutional preservers and unlikely to easily come to such agreement.

Voluntary Departure

The voluntary departure of an organized group from the church is an option that is within the realm of possibility. It is the most frequent model of structural separation in the history of Methodism, including the formation of such denominations as the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Wesleyan, and Free Methodist, among a number of others.

The advantage of this option is that it does not require creating a high level of hostility within the denomination in order to succeed. It can be implemented by a highly committed group within the church, with minimal need for agreement by the General Conference. Thus, this option is most under the control of the group initiating it, where they are not at the mercy of other groups.

The disadvantages of this option are that it may require some congregations to leave their property behind (although one hopes a large enough critical mass of those departing could work around this problem). It also leaves the United Methodist denomination somewhat intact, with the accumulation of resources to potentially continue for decades on a progressively revisionist track. It will also require great investment of time and energy to create a new denominational structure, with the potential for further division among the departing group over the shape of that structure.

This is a variant of the position that generated so much heat at General Conference. The key recognition is that there is already a divorce between our theory and practice, and that at least one cause of this is a confusion as to whether our official doctrine is also to be considered operational (I take the distinction from George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine). As it stands, the way we do doctrine doesn’t seem to fit with the way we do polity, and because there is a strong push to treat our official doctrine as non-operational, polity becomes the driving force in United Methodism. Given that we are Methodists, this might make sense, but I think being method driven as opposed to mission/purpose driven is fatal in the long run.

This document draws no conclusions about what steps the United Methodist Church (or Good News) ought to pursue. Some ineffetice strategies (withholding apportionments, sleective withdrawal) are mentioned. The most effective mentioned is networking with like-minded people.
We’ll see what happens.

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