Sara Anderson offers her first-hand observations from the initial launch event for the new “Uniting Methodists” group. For further analysis and factual overview of this caucus within the UMC – which is basically a coalition of liberal leaders of denominational agencies, activists affiliated with other liberal caucuses, and Adam Hamilton and some of his disciples – I encourage you to click here.
Sara is an IRD board member and United Methodist living in Fort Valley, Georgia. She has served as Chief Operating Officer of Bristol House Publishing and on the board of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Around 200 (and 60 online) Uniting Methodists met in Atlanta November 13-14 promising bringing together United Methodists with varying viewpoints. The group’s literature, handed out to registrants, stated: “The Uniting Methodists Movement was formed to give voice to these faithful United Methodists and to speak up to urge the church not to divide over disagreements about same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ persons. Instead, the movement will find ways to allow all people (whether they see themselves as centrists, progressives, or traditionalists) to remain in one church, engaging one another in earnest ongoing discernment while making room for their differing convictions of conscience.”
However, represented among those leading from the front of the room at this launch of Uniting Methodists was a partnered lesbian on staff with the Reconciling Ministries Network as well as Alex da Silva Souto (an activist in the Queer Clergy Caucus who helped lead closing worship). Attendees included various liberal activists, some of whom I had seen at General Conference during Church and Society committee meetings.
North Georgia’s Resident Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson brought greetings, saying the way forward involved “affirmation of the Triune God, not in a theology of sexuality.” She also added that “John Wesley went out of a rigid church structure.” The bishop also encouraged those present to “be loving and disagree respectfully.” But during this group’s November 13-14 initial “Uniting Conference,” hosted by Rev. Olu Brown’s Impact Church in Atlanta, there seemed to be a whole lot of dividing going on.
Despite promises of inclusion, not a single speaker at the meeting or any of the gathering organizers stood up for the Traditionalist position (the United Methodist Church’s official affirmation of orthodox Christian teaching on sexuality).
In a video presentation at the beginning of the conference, Walter Fenton, vice president for strategic engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) and a former Good News staff member, voiced the Traditional perspective. I soon gathered that the WCA was considered the horned and cloven-hooved enemy by many attendees. One pastor who sat at my table during a breakout session described the WCA as “organized hate.”
Fenton’s suggested the church should have respect for the UMC’s traditional teaching and polity instead of defying both. Fenton suggested a “gracious exit for those who could not live with the UMC’s biblical standards. He also urged patience with the Commission on a Way Forward. “The debate has gone on too long,” he said. “Most people are fixed on their positions. We should await the will of the specially called General conference.”
Fenton’s deliberative statements in a number of segments were always followed by those of a female seminary student, also on video, who works at the famously liberal Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. The woman appealed to the church to “allow people like me to marry,” and said that though the process of confirmation studies when she was in sixth grade, she came to believe she was a lesbian. She challenged the group to “face injustices against LGBTQ persons” and urged attendees to remove accountability rules for clergy.
A third person, Rev. Justin Coleman, pastor of University Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, commented (via video) on the speakers’ statements after every segment and generally supported the progressive perspective of the second speaker. He reminded the group that “the laws of the land have changed” regarding marriage. At one point he stated, “Think well of the New Jerusalem. Don’t segregate the City.” He later added, “Non-negotiables create idols,” referring to the firm stands for the orthodox faith by traditionalists.
During a panel discussion called, “Here I Stand,” three pastors gave testimony to the progressive position. Stan Copeland, pastor of Lovers Lane UMC in Dallas, called himself a Traditional compatibilist, meaning he was willing to allow changes in the discipline while supposedly holding a traditional theological understanding, a seemingly impossible tightrope to walk. He spoke of a lesbian couple attending his church who wanted to “marry” quickly because one woman had received a serious cancer diagnosis. Rev. Copeland bemoaned the fact that, because of UM policy, not one of the congregation’s eight pastors could “marry” the couple, and the couple could not be “married” on the church campus. Copeland said he called some members of his congregation, and eight people offered their homes for the nuptials. Copeland attended the wedding but did not perform the ceremony. He said that the next week he told the congregation about his decision, “and I got a standing ovation.” He then added, “Pastors, you will find that your congregations are much more progressive than you think.”
(Some terms are likely in order here. For the best definitions I’ve read, see: https://pastorcalebsblog.blogspot.com/2017/11/the-central-untruth-that-unravels.html)
A panel discussion, “The Road Ahead: Reflections on the Commission on the Way Forward and Specially Call General Conference 2019,” featured four speakers: Rev. Tom Berlin (pastor of Floris UMC in Herndon, Virginia and a member of the Commission on a Way Forward), Rev. Jasmine Smothers (pastor of Atlanta First UMC and member of the Commission), Helen Ryde (a partnered lesbian and a Reconciling Network employee who was introduced as a “home missionary” and had attended Wesleyan Covenant Association meetings); and, finally, Neil Alexander (president and publisher emeritus of the United Methodist Publishing House). The panel was moderated by Rachel Baugham, pastor of Oaklawn UMC in Dallas.
Berlin, who had helpfully informed the group on the workings of the Commission on a Way Forward in a previous panel discussion, told the group that he heard a fellow colleague say that he had “gone to the dark side.” Berlin, grinning broadly, said, “It took me a long time for me to be disparaged.”
Helen Ryde, a staff member of the Reconciling Network, expressed dismay at Fenton’s suggestion of a “gracious exit” from the denomination. She also expressed frustration that LGBTQ persons were simply “tolerated” in the church. LGBTQ persons should be celebrated, she said, “toleration isn’t good enough anymore.”
Meanwhile, Neil Alexander, publisher emeritus of the UM Publishing House, said the church faced a “deep theological and ecclesiastical conundrum.” He expressed need to grow the Uniting Methodists and “accumulate critical mass” to create a “culture that cultivates holiness.”
The remarks of two of the conference speakers especially stood out.
David N. Field of Switzerland, another member of the Commission, offered two extensive lectures based on his book, Bid Our Jarring Conflicts Cease: A Wesleyan Theology and Praxis of Church Unity. Most dealt with Wesley’s views on unity, love, holiness and conflict.
As Field was speaking, the Beatle’s 1967 hit, “All you need is love” kept running through my mind. As Fields quoted from various sermons, he said Wesley fiercely condemned Roman Catholicism, but in another sermon, he praised fifteenth-century Catholic devotional writer Thomas á Kempis. A number of these allegedly contradictory sermons proved that Wesley was able to love those with whom he vigorously disagreed. Field also stressed the importance of conscience. He compared Wesley’s defiance of the Church of England’s hierarchy by preaching to the poor and working class in the fields to modern day violation of church law by performing same-sex weddings for conscience sake.
Field also had a lot to say about love as holiness. He said in second lecture that the church needed to be “a reconciling community because [Jesus] welcomed marginalized people to a transforming relationship with Christ.” He said in a Christian community boundaries “should be porous and fuzzy.” Field believes Wesley would not center the Methodist faith on doctrine or ethical standards. “The core is love God and other human beings,” he stated. “You cannot join our movement until you put down cultural artifacts,” in apparent reference to disapproval of same-sex unions. [Note: The author confirms this quote is in her notes but Field, in a comment below, disputes it came from him. If anyone has audio or video of talk, we will gladly correct if needed.] At the end of his lecture, Fields received a standing ovation from the audience.
Michael Slaughter, former pastor of Ginghamsburg UMC, north of Cincinnati, Ohio, is, like Alexander, Baugham, Berlin, and Copeland, a part of this new group’s leadership team, and is personally close to another prominent leader of the group, Adam Hamilton, who was not present. Slaughter gave the opening address on the second day. In it he described his view of Scripture. He seemed to dismiss the Bible as our authority. “What is essential,” he declared, was “Jesus.” “Jesus didn’t leave us a book, he left us a Counselor,” to interpret him to us. “Unity is based on one absolute—Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
If Scripture, accountability and two millennia of Church history can be dismissed, I guess “Love, Love, Love, all you need is love.” This seemed to be the theme of Uniting Methodists, especially in the context of LGBTQ full inclusion. Despite talk about loving those with whom we disagree, I saw little compassion for those supporting a Traditional position, no clear acknowledgement that revisionists do not have a monopoly on loving our neighbors in the LGBTQ community, and very few serious attempts to address hard questions of how breaking our promises and covenants with each other can be reconciled with shallow pleas for “love.”
One person commenting from the floor wondered if Traditionalists who had some sympathy for full LBGTQ inclusion could be included in the group so they could “grow” and be in agreement with the larger group.
It was not clear how this fit with the hymn we sang on the second day, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” I wondered what the progressive attendees were thinking as they sang, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” The love Wesley spoke of in his sermons was sacrificial, based on the love Christ showed to us when he suffered and died on the Cross. I suspect Wesley would shake his head at talk of “fuzzy and porous” boundaries and removal of “accountability rules.” This was the man who instituted class meetings and bands as a form of mutual Christian accountability. It caused one to speculate: Can this kind of undefined love be construed as the theological foundation of Uniting Methodists?