The United Methodist Church has finished its special General Conference in St. Louis which was gathered to address divisions over questions relating to sexuality, same sex marriage and the ordination of gay persons. The votes were in favor of the “Traditional Plan” which favored continuing the statements the United Methodists put in their official documents 40 years ago, saying that “homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian faith” and stepping up enforcement of disciplinary rules based on that. It is clearly a crisis for the many faithful members of the United Methodist Church, especially those who are LGBTQ and closely connected with communities who affirm their inclusion.
The following is a post that I put up on a couple Facebook groups. It seems appropriate to put this out more publicly now.
In another context, I posted in support of someone who warned against trying to “poach” United Methodists at this time. My point is about anxiously trying to benefit our church by recruiting others in a crisis — this is quite different from welcoming refugees who have severed their attachment to a church, who no longer have a viable church home, in effect. It is really unseemly to conclude for other people that their church is not viable; they are the ones in the position to make that judgement, and just because they are suffering, doesn’t mean they aren’t living the Gospel. In fact, in the Fall of 2014, when the conflict and suffering was worst for us at GTS is among the times when I have felt that I was living the Gospel along with others the most fully.
I think that United Methodists have vital faith communities and reasons for being and continuing where they are, though this is one of those times, like October 2014 was for us, when things shift and new directions may begin.
So I have been affirming many things about the Methodist church, but I also want to say something about my observation of that church that may appear to run counter to that, but I don’t want to be misunderstood when I say it: The United Methodist Church is an essentially unstable and untenable coalition of irreconcilable parts. It has largely been held together by a strong central authority structure: bishops elected by regional assemblies, who have strong authority but who are accountable to that regional assembly rather than to their local conference (i.e. diocese).
I worked at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington for 2 1/2 years and got to know the Methodists pretty well in that time. The coalition of Methodists stretches from Holiness/Fundamentalist types on the right wing, to theological liberals almost indistinguishable from Unitarian Universalists on the left. There is also a broad middle, which Wesley represented, which was more liturgical and high church with a theology that would fit closely with that of most Episcopalians. Even before the departure of ACNA, etc., the Episcopal Church had hardly any members that could be compared with the fundamentalist end of the Methodists, even allowing for the differences in ecclesiology — our most authoritarian anglo-catholics or evangelicals were small in number and less far out than the more fundamentalist end of the UMC. Likewise, while we have some extreme theological liberals, even unto nontheists & agnostics, they are much smaller in number and more attuned to traditional Christian practice and theological constructions than you find in the UMC. The moderate, more orthodox/liturgical/ecumenical wing of the Methodists is large, but not in any way dominating like it is in TEC. This crisis may end up breaking up this untenable coalition.
I don’t think that self congratulation in the Episcopal Church is called for or helpful. I also don’t think that merger or absorption of portions of the fragmented Methodists will be ecclesially helpful to either body. But prayer, friendship and welcome for them is part of faithfulness — they are called to a season of faithfulness now, and we will see where God leads them.
Lord Jesus Christ, who didst stretch out thine arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of they saving embrace: So clothe us in thy Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know thee to the knowledge and love of thee; for the honor of they Name. Amen (BCP p. 58)