June 5, 2012

The Attempted Unitarian Universalization of The United Methodist Church

Photo Credit: Religious Ruminations

by John Lomperis

One of the most striking contrasts for me to observe between mainline-denominationally-affiliated theological liberals in “safer” environments like Harvard Divinity School (where I earned my MDiv) vs. in more activist environments like the UMC General Conference is the much greater degree of defensiveness in the latter over words used in describing theologically liberal Protestantism.  At Harvard Divinity School (HDS), I noticed that it was perfectly socially acceptable for professors to give lectures or assign readings describing their fellow liberal mainline Protestants as “secularized” or “more secular,” or speaking of certain theologies as more “orthodox” than others in a similar way to how I would use that term.  At United Methodist General Conferences, of course, equally liberal delegates would loudly protest such wording.

But in such “safer” environments, theological liberals with a United Methodist or other mainline denominational affiliation, including ordination candidates, sometimes very openly share their great enthusiasm for the institution and beliefs of Unitarian Universalism.  The Unitarian Universalist Association is basically an organized religion based on taking theological liberalism to its post-Christian, religiously relativistic, and lefty-politics-centralizing extremes.  Sound familiar?

As a side note, I realize that some Unitarian Universalists, who call themselves UUs, may protest that there are NO set beliefs to which all UUs are required to adhere, as their central value is openness to all religions.  But when you look closer, UUs will admit that there are quite a number of beliefs that are clearly out of bounds in their faith communities, such as orthodox Christian doctrine, right-of-center political opinions, or belief in any sort final Judgment that involves sorting people towards different eternal fates.

Of course, it is hardly uncommon to tailor one’s message for different contexts.  Theological liberals in cocoons like a liberal theological school, within the wider cocoon of the Boston metro area, understandably feel unthreatened in “letting their hair down” about what they really believe.  Meanwhile, even the most theologically radical elected delegates at General Conference can generally be savvy enough to realize that “let’s vote for this proposal so that we can become more like the Unitarians” is not a winning argument.

One notable exception was the Common Witness Coalition (of theologically liberal caucus groups) deciding to devote a page of one of its “Neighbor News” daily General Conference newsletters to a statement from a lesbian woman who left Christianity summarizing her spiritual journey and urging United Methodist delegates to adopt values in line with what she now espouses “[a]s a Unitarian Universalist minister.”  While this may not have been a politically smart move, this was an honest reflection of the Common Witness Coalition’s values.

The fact of the matter is that the leadership of groups like the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) or the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) would be extremely hard-pressed to articulate how their faith – or the guiding theological principles they seek to have our denomination effectively adopt in place of the United Methodist doctrinal standards– differs in any significant way from Unitarian Universalism.  After all, in the name of “freedom” they have categorically decried any attempt to expect clergy leaders to actually keep their promises to teach in line with historic Christian orthodoxy.  In fact, MFSA recently chose as its new leader a former Executive Director of a Unitarian congregation (who has also served as a regional official of America’s largest abortion provider). One RMN leader couples his rejection of Christian orthodoxy with embrace of Wicca and “Earth-based spirituality,” and I have personally heard another, Karen Oliveto, directly rebuke Christ’s own teaching about separating sheep and goats.  During a discussion on “inclusive language” for God, one of the more outspokenly liberal delegates doubtless spoke for many of her fellow Common Witness Coalition activists in denouncing churches using the words “Father” or “King” in reference to God, as she pridefully declared, “I don’t have a king!”

The General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) – which, let’s be honest, effectively operates as an apportionment-funded chapter of MFSA – commissioned Debra Haffner, an ordained UU sexologist (rather than anyone from within United Methodism or even Christianity) to write a couple articles about “Sex and the Church.”  The UU writer used her UMC-provided platform to, among other things, promote the adoption of a new framework for sexual ethics, which she herself has proudly developed “based on my more than 30 years as a sexuality educator,” as a substitute for revealed, biblical teaching, with its allegedly outdated proscriptions against extra-marital sex.  In the wake of the 2012 General Conference, she organized a manifesto of a couple dozen lefty religious figures, not one of whom was identified as United Methodist, decrying our denomination’s affirmation of biblical teaching on sexual self-control.

Given the values and beliefs of the theologically radical caucuses of United Methodists, I suppose it makes sense, at one level, that they would look increasingly to UU theological resources and UU leaders for support.

I understand that many may have family histories within United Methodism, and some folk may get energized by the militant rationale offered by GBCS staffer  Katey Zeh’s April 29 tweet that “Because I don’t like institutionalized heterosexism, I stay in the #UMC in order to fight it.”  But all of the above, coupled with the fact that the liberal caucuses are fighting a losing battle within the UMC, raises the question of why they would choose to stay in a religious community whose core, historic doctrine they passionately reject, rather than move on to that religious community they sometimes openly name as the one whose beliefs, values, and trajectory actually align with their own.


30 Responses to The Attempted Unitarian Universalization of The United Methodist Church

  1. Mike says:

    Good article. Here in Illinois one of the UMC bishops (I believe for northern Illinois) was or is an ordained UU minister. I don’t understand why these people don’t just become UUs.

  2. Thomas says:

    As a UU, let me affirm that there are core “beliefs”, though the use of that word is a sticking point for some. We have 7 Principles, including the inherent worth and dignity of all people (which is the core of Universalism), and the right of each person to have a say in their own destiny (democracy) controlling it completely so long as they are not infringing on the rights of others (a free and responsible search for truth and meaning). There are a great many theologies that fall outside those wide boundaries, including caste systems, Calvinism, and eternal damnation. So, yes, mainstream Christianity is out, because we don’t believe a loving and just God could punish anyone eternally for temporal sin. We were created with worth, and nothing we can do can completely destroy that.

    As for sexual liberalism, the world we live in has always been more complex than history books make it seem. There have always been teens having sex without the covenant of marriage. There have always been homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgendered persons. It is just easier to see this today, with everyone’s lives on Facebook and even basic cable. We simply need to address them, finally, rather than continuing to alienate people and ignore that they are also children of God.

    So, please, make it known that the Unitarian Universalists will take every last refugee from every Church. We welcome people at any point in their spiritual journey, and will do out best to help them find peace with (or without) God in their lives. It is the second greatest commandment in the teaching of Jesus: “Love your neighbor as yourself”.

    • Mark says:

      Thomas, so you believe in a “loving and just God?” Is judging people or their actions outside the bounds of UU’s?

      What do UU’s consider authoritative with respect to determining moral actions? How does Calvinism fall outside the boundaries you mentioned? You say we were “created with worth.” How do you know this?

      • Thomas says:

        We can only judge people by their actions. There is no way to know for sure what is in their heart. The inherent worth is always there, though. Some people just refuse to express it in their lives. We can judge them, we can hate their actions, we can oppose their beliefs. But we love them anyway.

        Calvinism says that we cannot have a free and responsible search, and that God judges people based, not on their own thoughts or deeds, but based on things he has already determined. That goes against our Principles.

        There is no ultimate authority, but we have a covenant to respect these guiding Principles. We believe in them, without need for absolute proof. How is belief in The Bible, collection of documents written by many hands and riddled with seeming contradictions, any more reasonable than simply looking at the world, and choosig to be good to each other without need for dogma or superstition?

        I know these things as surely as you “know” the Apostles’ Creed to be true; maybe more so because they were not handed down to me, but revealed through my on experience. We have faith. That is belief without the need for definitive proof. We are a religion, after all.

      • Mark says:

        Thomas, on what basis do you think we should love people whether or not we think they are lovable? On what basis do you presuppose a person’s inherent worth? You have to base your beliefs on something.

        What I’m hearing from you is that you make these judgments on a personal level, employing whatever methods that seem to make sense to you, whether that involves rationalism, postmodernism, or some other philosophy or combination thereof. This seems to me to be a rather malleable, subjective process.

        In contrast, though Biblical interpretation is not always easy, and there are apparent ambiguities, the Bible has passed through many hands through many centuries. And there are a copious number of extant interpretive guides and commentaries. The Biblical narrative is married with reason and experience in the Christian believer in order to develop and nurture faith. It seems you are advocating in many ways a more restrictive and more subjective process in finding your way in this world, in finding meaning, whether that involves a God or no God. (Please understand that I fully affirm your right to do so).

        You advocate a nonjudgmental philosophy, but you seem to give yourself license to judge those who disagree (i.e., if I believe in a God who punishes eternally, why would you kick me out of your church? After all, I thought this was laissez faire religion at its best!).

        I am not a Calvinist, but I think you misstate the theology a bit. Calvinism never says that we cannot perceive ourselves to have a “free and responsible” search, or that such a search is not, in reality, “free and responsible.” It simply posits a God Who is in total control. The mechanism for that control is, necessarily, unclear.

        You stated earlier that you cannot believe that a loving God would punish someone eternally. Of course, that presupposes not only a God, but a loving God. While this may be your personal reasoning, it is interesting that you state that UU’s, in general, have no criteria with respect to belief or nonbelief in a Deity (in other words, a nonbelieving UU would find such reasoning totally meaningless).

        I fully affirm your worth as a person (though we arrive at that understanding differently) as well as your right to believe, or not believe, as you so choose, but I think your commentary underscores the accuracy of Mr. Lomperis’ observations.

    • BobBrooke says:

      And what sin is “temporary?”

      • Thomas says:

        Anything any mortal does is temporary. How can a perfect and all powerful God be unable to ever forgive?

        Salvation is perfect, and inevitable. God didn’t create anything that cannot be redeemed and brought back to Him. You can believe otherwise. God will love you, anyway.

        “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” John 3:17

      • joe says:

        You quote Jesus approvingly? LOL. See his comments on Hell.

    • Does the UU concept of the “inherent worth and dignity of all people” include the unborn?

  3. Matthew Johnson-Doyle says:

    John — the image you are using for this story is the Rhenberg window, a piece of art which hangs in the Unitarian Universalist Church, Rockford, IL (the church I serve as minister). Please change your photo credit to reflect this.

    For the record, I’d be fine with these liberal methodists becoming Unitarian Universalists; but I also think you can be orthodox in your beliefs about God, Jesus, Judgment and the Bible while still affirming the equality of gay and lesbian folks. Course, I’m a UU, so that doesn’t really concern me.

  4. Mark says:

    The article reflects what has been my thinking for years. I’ve wrestled with why these folks stay in the UM. One answer may be a desire to foist legitimacy on what they may know, deep down, is wrong. One answer may be money. For example, the Gen Bd of Church and Society is basically a propaganda arm for the secular left. Those on the secular left, which includes many of the UU’s, have a ready-made funding system to get out their points of view. If UM’s are stupid enough to continue to allow it then why wouldn’t they take advantage of it?

  5. Marco Bell says:

    I like everything Mark has said, and I also realized, that I am a U.U. by nature. Thanks for the enlightenment.

  6. Ron says:

    Marco, our uniquely positioned “Faith of the Free” warmly welcomes you, and all who are ready for a truly freedom-based approach to religion. We welcome all “UU’s at heart”, who believe not just in freedom “of” religion but freedom “within” religion as well…who understand freedom not as an end in itself, but as the most fitting and logical beginning place for the sacred journey of the soul, a journey filled with challenge, responsibility and accountability. One of our greatest Unitarian ministers, by the way, Arthur Powell Davies, was a Methodist minister who like yourself realized that his own true nature was in such a freed-faith community. Again welcome, Marco, and if we can be of any assistance along the way, please feel free to contact us. Our Faith of the Free Facebook (discussion) group is at https://www.facebook.com/groups/2204654293/ — and our page is at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Unitarian-Universalism-Faith-of-the-Free/83274552762

  7. […] The Attempted Unitarian Universalization of the Methodist Church John Lomperis, Juicy Ecumenism […]

  8. Lynna says:

    How funny – I left the United Methodist Church for the Unitarian Universalist one.

    Then – when I realized that the “tolerance” preached by UU meant that Christians were expected to “tolerate” people of different values and goals and desires – but not a reciprocal “tolerance” of UUs toward Christians – I went looking for something based on truth, because I’m pretty sure truth is not compatible with cognitive dissonance – and I’m even more sure there is no truth where there is no Golden Rule, no reciprocity.

    This is the great problem of the “tolerant” denominations – the fact that it is easy to be “tolerant” toward people whose beliefs are compatible with your own, but not so easy to be “tolerant” toward people whose beliefs are in direct conflict with your own.

    I no longer have any doubt that God judges. Forgiveness is not the same as pretending that unrepentant sin is the same as goodness – and I have come to see in my own life how sin is neither “victimless” nor “harmless”.

  9. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    About ten years ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arranged to purchase from Salt Lake City a block long section of city street which separated the two blocks on which the church’s headquarters campus was located, in order to place a parking garage underground and create a pedestrian plaza with water fountains at the surface that woulf unify the two blocks into a single campus. For some reason the city’s attorney insisted that the city retain an easement for the public to walk through the plaza, even though purpose of building the plaza was to invite pedestrian traffic, and the two existing blocks occupied by church buildings carried a lot of foot traffic through them, because the church invites visitors to walk around and ask questions.

    The American Civil Liberties Union and the local Unitarian Universalist church brought a lawsuit objecting to the reservations which the church had persuaded the city to place in the deed, alongside the city’s retained easement. The Church reservation insisted that as private property it would not allow demonstrations and pickets on the property, something that is a recurring event when the church holds its worldwide General Conference every April and October. Pickets could demonstrate on the remaining public sidewalks that surround the two block campus, adjacent to the streets still carrying traffic, but that did not satisfy the ACLU and the UU church. The plaintiffs were victorious in the US Court of Appeals, but the court noted it would be legitimate for the city to sell the remaining easement to the LDS Church. That is what happened; some third party civic leaders made a large donation to a community center, and the city transferred the easwement to the LDS Church, extinguishing it.

    The only purpose of the lawsuit was to enable loud and obnoxious demonstrators to interfere with the quiet enjoyment of the LDS Church campus by the members of that church, including the families of people getting married at the Salt Lake Temple who go out to the plaza to take group photos with the temple in the background. Demonstrators had been known to use bullhorns to call newlywed women “whores” and other pejoratives.

    It struck me that the Unitarians were not really acting on behalf of reedom of expression, which could be had on any city sidewalk, but rather sought to interfere with the Mormon’s enjoyment of their own religion, on their own property, with no harm done to anyone else. No Unitarian was harmed in any way, physically or philosophically, by the Mormons,. It seemed to me to be an expression of pure religious hatred toward Mormons, who were targeted because they just don’t embrace “diversity of belief” in the way Unitarians do. They exhibited no tolerance of anyone who disagreed with them. The amazing thing is that they seemed to place respect for “nothing” above religious worship of God as a matter that should be enforced by the coercive power of the state, without regard for private property.

    • Susan Marlowe says:

      The LDS Church was prompted to purchase that block of city street to prevent protesters from exercising their First Amendment rights next to the jewel of Mormon temples in SLC. The protesters, many of whom were former Mormons, were speaking out about how the LDS Church had damaged individuals and families.

      Btw, one of the reasons that wedding parties have their pictures taken outside of the temple is because non “temple worthy” Mormons and, by extension, any non-Mormons, are not permitted in the temple even it it’s their son or daughter who is marrying.

      While the LDS Church has every right to try to purchase property to ensure its privacy, it’s time for apologists for the LDS Church to be honest about its actions and motivations.

  10. Greggo says:

    Gee Whiz. Here in Southwest Indiana one usually has to attend a Baptist Church to hear such ranting. Interestingly when I checked out the UU church locally they were more conservative in social action than the UMW. Theology is fun to discuss but what does the church do? Is it that imporftant whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son? Is God in Everything? Is Everything God?

  11. Roger W. says:

    It is very evident that United Methodist are not united in our beliefs. John Wesley said that we should hold each other accountable. We have no accountability among us and most of us are Biblical illiterate. Freedom is responsibility to produce the fruits of Christ. Many of our leaders are false teachers of the Scriptures and only tickle our ears as pointed out by this article. Let us hold each other accountable because a free boat without a rudder will drift to any shore.

  12. Trish Scharmann says:

    It upset me reading this article to find that the United Methodist are hiring “UU’s” to run important Methodist committees. If terrifies me after reading the remarks that follow and what Thomas and other UU’s added about their beliefs. How can we hire these persons to set our Christian policies when they admit they are not Christian nor do they believe as we do?

    • DK Adams says:

      In general, I don’t think UUs consider themselves entirely non-Christian. Unitarian Universalist churches certainly began as Christian paths, and their theological positions came from those who read the Bible, and found evidence there for rejecting both the Trinity and hell. Today, it’s my understanding that UUs are best considered Post-Christian. That is to say, UUs have roots in and influence from Christianity. I am not uncomfortable with a bishop or DS making policy changes, even of they come from the UU tradition. Incidentally, I was a United Methodist pastor, and now I am an ordained Unitarian pastor.

  13. Trish Scharmann says:

    Just a note, God does not send people to hell. We send ourselves to hell by the choices we make. God sent his son to die a terrible physical death on the cross to save us. God has given us freewill to either choose him or not choose him. We make that choice now. If we do not choose to recognize our need for a Savior and never ask Jesus to come in our lives, then we are choosing to live without God now and in eternity. God only honors the choice that we make. If there are other avenues to heaven then there was no need for Christ to suffer on the cross or for that matter even come to earth in the form of a human baby. However, God loves us so much that He chose to die for us. But if we do not believe in what :He did for us, well …

    • TucsonJeremey says:

      Preach it…I love this post!!!

      • Trish Scharmann says:

        Thank you Jeremey. It comes from my heart and is something that it took me many years to understand. At one time, I was a baby on milk and did not understand. I believed, as many who grew up in the 60’s & 70’s, in ‘I’m OK & You’re OK’. I battled with the idea of God sending “GOOD” people to hell. However, in an effort to understand my faith I have studied the Word with the help of sound Christian teachers to grow and be weaned from Milk. It’s really very simple, when I say that I am a follower of Christ, which I am, them how can I pick and choose his teachings? It does not matter what I think, it matters what He says and I am so humbled and thankful for His (Father, Son & Holy Spirit) love.

    • jschrack says:

      Preach it…God is Good and Christ is the only way.

      • Trish Scharmann says:

        Thank you J Schrack. Please refer to my response to Jeremy above. You are so right – All the time, God is Good and and Christ is the only way. My heart breaks for those who do not believe in Him. A pray that the Holy Spirit will open their hearts and minds to the Truth.

  14. Rob says:

    If I may be so bold as to approach this from a slightly different approach:

    I first “discovered” Unitarian Universalism under an extremely well educated minister in the UU church I began attending. I found myself drawn to it but always had a nagging feeling that the Unitarianism that Channing preached and the concepts of Universal salvation that were tenants of the Unitarian church and the Universalist church were somehow lost in the broader UUA. When this minister left and the new minister was represented I found myself unwilling to go to the church due to its doctrinal slide – a slide that was in hindsight more towards “normal” UUA stances.

    So I’m left in a bit of a pickle as far as religious organizations. I tried several. While I am Unitarian if we were to have a long conversation you would find the difference between my unitarianism and traditional beliefs in the divinity of Christ are fairly minor. Where traditional trinitarian belief holds that Christ was divine since the beginning I hold that it was his giving of himself fully to the spirit of God that made him divine and that he was born fully man. Thus the creedal statements that are read every week at the Lutheran and Catholic churches I might attend are slightly out of line with my own beliefs

    Universalism actually has multiple facets. Most are familiar with universal salvation – the idea that hell does not exist so none can go and salvation is the default selection. I actually disagree with this and argue for universal restoration. All mankind will face hell as we find ourselves separated from God. Christ showed us how, through his example, to narrow this separation and come to God. Most of us will not do it in this lifetime but we will, at some point, be restored to glory with God.

    I do not accept that God, shown to us through the love of Christ, will condemn countless people because of a sacramental issue to hell for all eternity. It would seem fundamentally unfair to me to think that God, shown only to a small overall portion of the world, would condemn for all eternity those who never even had a chance to learn of Christ’s teachings.

    Quaker discussion on the sacraments teaches us they are meaningless if we simply stand and go through the motions with no reflection or opening ourselves. I could go to a conventional church, speak empty words, and carry through with empty gestures but I believe that it would be incredible hypocrisy and I simply refuse to.

    There is a story of Channing riding home with his father after a particular fire and brimstone sermon. His father is whistling and in a jovial mood while young Channing realizes that a good share of his friends and family are going to hell over doctrinal issues. Channing cannot figure out why he is not concerned. I think most people miss what is actually said in church. I’m sorry but a loving God that condemns people to eternal hell over a doctrinal issue is, in my opinion, not worthy of worship.

    The UMC makes a statement involving communion that paraphrases: this is Christ’s table, not the table of the United Methodist Church. I know the statement may not seem like much but I have taken that as an ultimately welcoming statement.

    So perhaps there are some of you that find my presence in a UMC suspect. Maybe you are right and I am ultimately going to hell for all eternity over it. I find the UMC, for the most part, to be welcoming – frankly more welcoming than many modern UUA churches.

  15. […] (affiliated with a non-Christian religion founded on rejecting belief in the divinity of Jesus) did not prevent the leadership of MFSA from inviting her to be their next leader. (She resigned in […]

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