Currently the United Methodist bishops are discussing proposals for the February 2019 General Conference about the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. Last week, United Methodism’s Wesley Theological Seminary hosted a conversation about modeling “respectful disagreement in community” around “conflicts of conscience.” Assistant Professor of History of Christianity and Methodist Studies Ryan Danker offered this reflection:
The debate that has roiled the United Methodist Church is a conflict not only about truth telling and covenant, which would entail the topic of “conscience,” but something fundamental to Methodism, something that constitutes its DNA.
We have within the UMC competing and contradictory visions of holiness of heart and life.
Yet holiness is the fundamental organizing principle, the trajectory, and the goal of Methodism, even in its modern forms. Wesley founded a movement to “spread scriptural holiness across the land,” and that same drive was retained by both the EUB and the Methodist Church. Holiness is at the heart of Methodism. It is our DNA. In fact, it’s the reason we exist at all.
So because of this, the basic question of what a Christian life looks like is fundamental to Methodism.
As Methodism matured into a church this core DNA remained, and ordained persons were held to standards of behavior and truth-telling based upon it. Before one is ordained they have to swear before God and the conference that they will abide by the covenant that binds United Methodists.
Within the last few decades a newer vision of holiness (and I do think that there are Wesleyan emphases within the progressive wing of the UMC, even if they have reinterpreted the language of Wesley) has arisen and within that vision is calling for the ordination of persons in same-sex relationships and marriage services for persons of the same gender. This is done in the name of inclusivity, embrace, and a concept of the Church as a place of radical welcome. It is, however, a departure from traditional Wesleyan norms as it has redefined key Wesleyan understandings of basic biblical terms such as love, welcome, sin, conversion, and salvation.
Redefining shared core terms, however, is the end of unity. Professor of psychology, Jordan Peterson, has written that, “shared belief systems [make] people intelligible to one another.” We have become unintelligible to one another while talking about what makes Methodism Methodist.
As I have told progressive friends, I get it. I see their argument. And, I can see that it also stems from Wesley’s radical call for any and every sinner to “come to the Gospel feast.” One key difference is that it does not call for the transformation of persons away from sin as traditionally understood, but rather toward a community of radical welcome (which is itself a form of transformation).
Much of this stems from radically different approaches to the scripture, if not entirely divergent approaches to the ordering of authority. In a non-Wesleyan fashion, many have made experience the primary source of doctrine, rather than scripture.
What has happened, however, is that the Church does not agree with this newer concept of holiness.
But what do we do about conscience? Persons who oppose the Discipline do so because of deeply-grounded conviction, just as those who support it do so out of a profound desire to be faithful and to “hold fast to that which we have received.” Both visions seek to love everyone.
To a Wesleyan believer, whether left or right, holy living is not optional. Perfect love casts out sin, but if we don’t know how to define sin, what is being cast out? What are we being saved from? And what is the empowering grace of God healing?
In the name of this newer vision of holiness, some have decided that they are no longer bound by the Discipline or the Judicial Council. This is schism. Let’s not mince words.
Some have turned away from their ordination vows. They’re tired of the battle. I get it. So am I. But they have undermined the truth-telling ability of the Church, torn our common covenant, and brought into question their own ability to tell the truth.
Some are calling for a “local option.” This is a denial of Methodism itself, not only structurally as a connectional body, but a denial of holiness, that relativizes the Christian life based on geography or local interests.
Wesley flatly denied this approach in his sermon “Catholic Spirit.” Leeway was to be given for opinions and manner of worship, but not to basic questions of how a Christian is to live. He writes against those who “are for jumbling all opinions together,” and writes, “you have quite missed your way: you know not where you are.” He describes an indifference to opinions as “a great curse, not a blessing; an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism.”
With competing visions of holiness based on a departure from shared core language and values, together with the church’s mandate to speak to the truth, we are in a quandary.