At this year’s Wild Goose Festival, an annual progressive Christian gathering, participants were invited to hear from a panel of liberal United Methodist clergy discuss the future of United Methodism. The break out session was hosted by the Rocky Mountain Conference (RMC), an annual conference within the UMC’s Western Jurisdiction and whose hotly-contested bishop is Dr. Karen Oliveto, an openly partnered lesbian.
The Wild Goose Festival is meeting July 12-15 on a sprawling campground in Hot Springs, North Carolina. Overwhelmingly white and Mainline Protestant, participants are here to pursue “faith-inspired social justice” and stand in “solidarity with the marginalized and the oppressed,” acknowledging their privilege and power, of course.
On Friday morning, I joined twenty or so United Methodists for RMC’s session titled, “Living into a New Reality as United Methodists.” Panelists included Rev. Margaret Gillikin, District Superintendent for the RMC’s Trinity District, Rev. Tom Henderson Owens and his “partner” Ann, both serving as clergy within the Western North Carolina Conference, and Andy Millman, Young People’s Ministry Director and Mission and Ministry Project Coordinator for the RMC.
Under a tent sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, Millman introduced the discussion with a brief overview of the UMC’s 2016 General Conference, calling it “very messy” and claiming “there was harm that was caused.” He explained that the Council of Bishops tabled all conversations regarding sexuality at the 2016 General Conference and created the Way Forward Commission to develop recommendations put forth at a special UMC General Conference in February 2019.
“We did have those conversations about sexuality at the jurisdictional conference in the West,” Millman proudly declared. He then expressed his celebration of the Western Jurisdiction’s 2016 election of Karen Oliveto. However, the UMC’s official rules explicitly forbid “self-avowed practicing homosexual clergy” and her status is currently being challenged.
Millman confessed Oliveto’s election was “pretty jarring for a lot of people” and lamented that the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), a caucus group promoting traditional Wesleyan beliefs and practices, “became much more vocal.”
This session seemed less a discussion on the future of United Methodism and more praise of Oliveto. Gillikin reminisced on witnessing the controversial election, gushing, “It was the most powerful Pentecost moment of my life to be witness to the Bishop Oliveto’s election.”
Gillikin, too, expressed her frustration with the traditional WCA caucus group. The RMC District Superintendent alleged that the WCA coached church congregants within her district to express opposition during a visit by Oliveto. “Literally having a room full of people, probably a hundred who had WCA talking points—and we know they were WCA talking points because it said WCA at the top of the piece of paper,” she said.
Within one month after Oliveto’s election, Gillikin claimed, “some folks left their church angry and in a huff.” She further noted many of those people returned to their congregations “because their love for their faith community and love for their brothers and sisters in Christ was greater than their hate.”
For Ann Henderson Owens, the answer to moving forward in United Methodism is simple, though a bit vague: “The answer is to live in love.”
This simple motto of inclusion did not stop Ann from expressing her disapproval of the WCA’s traditional message. Thoughh a bit unclear, she expressed further concern over the lasting effects of a schism. “I worry if there is a schism within the United Methodist Church,” she cautioned, “for the WCA to become a definite thing, because that means there are people who we don’t have a connection to, we do not have a way to give them voice and give them life because we are not united.”
“There’s nothing more Jesus-like than staying with others,” agreed Tom Henderson Owens, an Iliff School of Theology alum. He warned the UMC must not succumb to schism as other mainline denominations. If this happens, he said Methodists risk losing their social relevance and will fail to “uncover the true will of the Holy Spirit” and “the true potential of justice and inclusion that lies before us.”
The session ended with a very brief Q&A. One of the more interesting questions was raised by a professor of Methodist history and polity who asked Millman what he should say to his students about the UMC’s current divisions. Millman, who works with youth, answered, “The Book of Disciple is not the Bible.” This response received hearty laughter and “yes’s” from the audience.
I was one of two non-Methodists in the small crowd. Still, it was disheartening for me to hear such open defiance of a historic denomination’s doctrine from its clergy. Like so many other Christians watching from the outside of United Methodism, I anxiously await the outcome of the 2019 General Conference. In the meantime, we can only pray the UMC upholds traditional Christian teaching.
“In between now and February I don’t expect it to be easy, y’all,” Gillikin acknowledged. “There’s going to be a lot of blood sweat and tears.” On this, we can all agree.Google+