After much anticipation for a while, the Revs. Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter have released a statement proposing “A Way Forward for a United Methodist Church” amidst our current internal theological struggles.
The 56 original signers appear to largely consist of folk ranging from strongly progressive to “moderate.” For the sake of their PR purposes, we can expect statement proponents to describe the latter as being much more theologically traditionalist than they actually are. One disappointing exception is former Asbury Seminary professor Steve Harper, whose views on homosexuality have recently shifted leftward. Of course, we should remember the nuances and limits of such broad theological categories, and keep in mind that people’s theological perspectives are often not static. Someone known to be strongly orthodox some time ago may have become very theologically revisionist today (and vice-versa).
In any case, the plan in a nutshell is for the UMC to capitulate to secular Western cultural values on sexual morality by basically adopting the same standards of the Episcopal Church, but expect that, somehow, this would work out better for us in terms of ecumenical relations, global partnerships, and internal membership implosion and defections.
Make no mistake, this is no “compromise,” but a completely one-sided call to reward the bullying, any-means-necessary tactics of the protest caucuses who have been destructively breaking our communal covenantal standards, forcibly hijacking church leadership meetings, and even refusing to pray for the mainstream of the UMC.
The signers of this liberalizing statement appear to either not understand or not care that the definition of “compromise” is actually not “you concede to us everything we demand while we concede nothing to you.”
No wonder this “way forward” was quickly supported by folk like the Reconciling Ministries Network’s communications director and Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) directors Neill Caldwell and Laurie Hays Coffman!
Common sense says that behaviors that are rewarded will be repeated more often. Thus, this statement is a recipe for our church to increasingly have its key decisions made according to whichever faction is willing to be the most aggressively forceful and the most ethically unrestrained in demanding to get its way, regardless of who or how many they hurt in the process. This would in turn lead to a great many more of the people our pastors are called to care for being hurt and disgusted by United Methodism. Thankfully, victims of such bully-rewarding church governance generally will not resort to fighting back with the same unprincipled tactics, even if that is what denominational leaders, encouraged by Hamilton-Slaughter and company, say is the only way to advance one’s concerns in the UMC. But such wounded members may (as I have seen happen) either leave for another denomination or feel so hurt that they decide “drop out” of church altogether.
And after removing an authoritative, denomination-wide commitment to follow what Scripture, two millennia of consistent Christian tradition, and our own United Methodist doctrinal standards have to say relevant to moral standards for sexual self-control, this plan would impose on annual conferences and local churches across the denomination the same divisive debates, with likely similar placard-waving disruptions and protests, over what policies they will have. This would spread our painful conflicts out as widely as possible in the UMC, and directly impacting and hurting the people in our local churches as much as possible with draining, emotional, relationship-shattering congregational conflicts. (For Exhibit A, just recall how the sexuality conflict Frank Schaefer brought to the congregation he formerly pastored has devastated, divided, and shrunk that faith community.)
Furthermore, the proposal to let everybody do what is right in their own eyes would dramatically move our global denomination away from the connectional ethos that has long defined United Methodism and towards a more contract-of-convenience congregationalism.
Any honest observer realizes that going the way of the Episcopal Church, as this plan proposes, would lead to the United Methodist Church transforming into something that a great many members and congregations around the world cannot be a part of, believing their own faithfulness would be at stake.
The statement does pay lip service to tolerating (for now) some orthodox congregations and annual conferences who may remain, just as the Episcopal Church still has a dwindling number of marginalized orthodox congregations and dioceses. But it was unclear how long this will last. In a 2005 smear campaign against a faithful Christian pastor, Ed Johnson, liberal United Methodists were rather unanimous and vehement in making clear that for them it will ultimately be unacceptable for the UMC to allow a SINGLE little congregation in rural Virginia to have its pastor minister in a way that compassionately welcomes all people while upholding biblical standards on homosexual practice.
It seems worth noting that while the UMC is a very global church, all of the original signers are in America, and over half in Texas. Why exactly does this very non-representative group of people believe that in calling the church to radically change its values to conform to one moment in time in their American culture, they are wiser than the collective wisdom of two millennia of very consistent Christian tradition and the overwhelming consensus of the global body of Christ today? The statement never makes clear.
But this reminds me of one noted United Methodist theologian who recently said that when a distinguished minister or theologian claims to know more than Jesus about what marriage is, he will stick with Jesus. May our United Methodist Church, throughout its connection, do the same.