By John Lomperis (@JohnLomperis)
Since last spring’s General Conference, there has been an unprecedented mushrooming of talk of liberal exodus from the United Methodist Church. For all of the surrounding frustration, that landmark event in Tampa, Florida was an apparent turning point in the struggle for the soul of our global denomination.
Delegates affirmed the denomination’s official teaching that sex is “only” for marriage and that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching” (¶161F of the Book of Discipline) by a significantly larger margin than the previous General Conference. For the first time, activists opposed to biblical teaching ultimately gave up on even contesting UMC policies aligning required behavior of clergy and denominational officials with this stand.
This happened despite the fact that for their General Conference efforts, such activists received massive funding from secular political sources, launched a massive, months-long project of lobbying delegates, pursued unprecedented outreach to overseas delegates, brought an army of colorfully clad volunteers, had biased allies strategically placed in key General Conference leadership positions, and even received the prominently touted partial support of celebrity, former evangelical pastors Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter.
Meanwhile, the “victories” celebrated by theologically unorthodox activists were almost entirely limited to widely supported evangelical reforms being defeated outside of the democratic legislative process.
Now even United Methodists who openly reject biblical teaching increasingly admit that the UMC is unlikely to change its position on sexual morality for the foreseeable future, given the UMC’s growth in more theologically orthodox regions and implosion in areas where it has pandered to secular Western culture.
Within months after the 2012 General Conference, the chief executives of both of the two main theologically revisionist caucuses within our denomination – the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) and the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) – resigned somewhat abruptly. Rev. Steve Clunn, an MFSA staffer, recalled that in Tampa, theological liberals “felt like the church was slipping away” and he had “never heard progressives talk about leaving as I heard at this General Conference.”
Such talk has continued after General Conference. In June, the New York and California-Nevada Annual Conferences, which have long been dominated by sexually liberal theological radicals, separately adopted resolutions, each of which was entitled “A Study Committee for an Inclusive Conference,” protested General Conference’s continued orthodoxy on homosexuality, and established a committee to study structural alternatives for liberal United Methodists. The California-Nevada resolution explicitly floats the creation of a new, unorthodox Methodist denomination as one possibility. True to its separatist spirit, the New York resolution mandates the inclusion of representatives of about every caucus within that conference, of which there are many, with the singular exclusion of the evangelical Wesley Fellowship.
Last fall, two widely-circulated editorials argued the time for split has come. Rev. A.W. Martin, a long-time member of both RMN and MFSA, penned “An Open Letter to Liberal or Progressive Friends” for United Methodist News Service. Martin cogently argued that at this point, “it will do the Church and our LGBTQ-friendly congregations little good to continue the struggle as it is now playing out,” so it is time for individuals and congregations unwaveringly committed to sexual liberalism to leave the UMC “in a well-planned, organized way.” Then the United Methodist Reporter published an editorial by the Rev. Jack Jackson, a professor at Claremont School of Theology, entitled “Breaking up is hard, but right thing for the UMC.” Pointing out how the current UMC “stalemate over human sexuality” is harmful and resource-draining for both sides, Jackson urged “starting a conversation for an equitable division of the UMC” so that traditionalists and progressives could both focus on pursuing their different visions of what church should be. The Claremont professor noted that the only three alternatives for United Methodists who refuse to accept the denomination’s teaching are: individually leaving for liberal denominations (which many are starting to do), brazen disobedience to United Methodist policies (which is destructive and unsustainable), and staying in the UMC to fight (which they have already tried for three decades and are now increasingly losing ground). “Time is no longer on the progressives’ side,” Jackson observed.
Of course, some of theological revisionists will continue to stay and fight the UMC. But support for such activism should wane as its leaders (who have already rejected core United Methodist theology) awkwardly scramble to articulate what they hope to accomplish. For instance, one notable leader in the liberal caucus coalition responded to the calls for schism by imaginatively proposing that the UMC could embrace homosexuality if only it would just merge with the liberalized, fracturing Episcopal Church and/or Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
MFSA’s own response was surprisingly measured. On the one hand, the old liberal caucus asserted that it “was not in favor of schism” and clumsily misrepresented the sort of separation for which Martin called. But on the other hand, MFSA quite notably worded its response to clearly avoid closing the door on the possibility of schism.
Meanwhile, the discussion continues. The aforementioned editorials and resolutions were prominently referenced as a point of concern at the first Connectional Table meeting of 2013. Both the New York and California-Nevada conferences are moving forward in implementing their explorations of church alternatives for UMC progressives.