The traditionalist outcome of last week’s specially-called United Methodist General Conference has forced liberal clergy and lay leaders within the denomination to consider what’s next. For The Rev. Adam Hamilton, the future for theologically-liberal Methodists is uncertain at this point.
Hamilton is the senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, the denomination’s largest U.S. congregation. On Sunday evening, Hamilton hosted a town hall meeting to address the future of his four-campus megachurch and the broader UMC. The gathering attracted 1,300 attendees and over 6,000 online viewers, according to Hamilton’s Twitter feed.
Hamilton began the town hall meeting with a brief explanation of Methodism and the ongoing tensions related to sexual morality. “We’ve been fighting about this for a long time,” he said before generally defining the One Church Plan and expressing his support. (The Institute on Religion & Democracy’s UMAction program has provided substantial analysis of the One Church Plan here.)
“For the most conservative wing of the church, they came out from the beginning and said ‘this is unacceptable to us and so we are not going to compromise,’” Hamilton asserted before claiming conservative Methodists requested a way out or so-called gracious exit. “As a church, we didn’t provide a gracious exit up front. We said let’s work through this first and then we can talk about what happens in the divorce. But let’s try not to get divorced first.”
The One Church Plan was the best solution to the long-standing conflict over sexual ethics, according to Hamilton. The One Church Plan “aimed at making room for everybody,” he claimed, while confessing his interpretation of the Traditional Plan was one “aimed at pushing people out who weren’t with us.” He added that it now feels like thousands of Methodist churches are being forced out of their own denomination with hurtful language.
Adding to this, Hamilton referred to a “group” that “allied allies in particular in the developing world” and “made the case that this was not going to be good for their churches if they chose to support this One Church Plan.” I assume the group to which he referred is the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), a coalition of clergy, laity, and churches that support traditional Wesleyan teachings.
Later on, Hamilton mentioned the WCA by name and expressed some appreciation for their ministry, but added: “I feel like they just took over my denomination.”
“It’s okay for it to be our denomination,” he clarified. “I don’t want it to be my denomination. I want it to be theirs too. But you just made it even harder for people and, more than that, you once more said things to people that hurt them.”
Perhaps Hamilton was also referring to the WCA too when he later said, “Kudos to them for outmaneuvering us, those of us who were [with] the One Church Plan” and that “they figured out the politics and they did it really well.”
“What do we do now,” asked Hamilton. “I’ll tell you there are Bishops who are having these conversations. There are, I think, thousands of churches who are saying we can’t continue to do this. So what do we do?”
Hamilton briefly outlined three proposals for what he thinks the next steps should be. He said the first option is to “put pressure on the system” and suggested using funding as leverage if necessary.
*UPDATE: After thinking over Hamilton’s comments and further discussion with IRD’s UMAction Director John Lomperis, I’d like to add a thought about his “pressure on the system” option. It sounds as if Hamilton is encouraging theologically-liberal churches to use money as a lever, which would impact poorer, non-white, non-American churches and communities. If Hamilton’s church used “money as a lever,” then they could potentially withhold $2.5 million in annual offerings. So was Hamilton suggesting that (richer, mainly white, liberal) American United Methodists use their superior wealth to punish (poorer, mostly non-white) non-Western United Methodists for daring to think, speak and vote differently than Hamilton wishes they would? During the town hall meeting, Hamilton said, “I am asking ‘Where are the missions dollars going that are going towards communities and or agencies or mission groups that voted to push us out of the church?’” He added, “Because why would we want to continue to fund groups that are voting to push us out of the church?”
The second option he offered is for reconsideration of the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP), which, as I understand it, would essentially replace the denomination’s current geographical jurisdictions with “connectional conferences.” This option would allow churches to choose a non-geographic conference with which they best identified, whether they be progressive, conservative, or centrist. Finally, and only as a last resort, Hamilton suggested the start of a new United Methodist Church.
“I would rather change the system from within,” he declared. But should there be no change, Hamilton declared, “I am not going to be a pastor in a church that treats gay and lesbian people this way,” to which he received a resounding applause.
Much of the discussion then shifted to Hamilton’s attempt to undermine the Bible as the authoritative Word of God in order to justify his affirmation of same-sex marriage. He cleverly noted the Bible’s description of slavery, polygamy, and violence as a reason to reconsider Biblical authority on marriage as between a man and a woman. But the Bible’s description of history and cultural context is not necessarily prescription for Christian living, as numerous scholars have noted before.
Hamilton’s reasoning for wanting to change the Book of Discipline’s language is, he said, “because I think the rules are based on a reading of the text that is not reflective of the heart and character of God.”
“So where do we go?” asked Hamilton once more, circling back to the main point of the meeting. “I’m not anxious to leave. But in the end, if nothing happens, I’m going to say we are not going to do this and make it more and more restrictive year after year. And that’s where I’m at right now.”
“I’d rather not have a divorce,” Hamilton stated. However, if it comes down to feeling like there is no room for the theologically-liberal side in the UMC then, he said, “I think we were pushed out of the church and we didn’t want to leave.”
Video of Hamilton’s town hall meeting can be watched on Vimeo, here. I encourage you all to take an hour to watch it in its entirety.
**Update: Another additional thought is regarding an odd comment regarding “gracious exits.” During his address, Hamilton said, “What the more conservative side, because they thought they were leaving, what they had worked to get passed was a ‘gracious exit,’ which if I understand—I’m not sure what got left in and what got voted unconstitutional–but if I understand it, what’s currently allowed is the payment of one year’s apportionments and you take your property with you.” Is Hamilton pinning the exit plan idea solely on traditionalists? UMAction Director John Lomperis has previously noted, “there was consensus among most commission members across the spectrum that all plans needed a gracious exit, and so the commission initially included an exit path with each of the three plans, before the Council of Bishops majority faction effectively removed gracious exits from two of the plans.” Moreover, the gracious exit petition that was passed at GC2019 was a version of a plan submitted by Leah Taylor, a liberal member of the Commission On a Way Forward (COWF) and supporter of the One Church Plan. (You can read more of Lomperis’ analysis and background on “gracious exits” here.)