On occasion, I write a post that I’d rather not. This is one. Many people are blogging about the proposals floating for United Methodist division or unity. I feel obligated to add my two cents’ worth.
With fervent sincerity I want to say how much I appreciate the bloggers and editorialists who, with generosity and restraint, have entered the lists. At the same time, I feel obligated to say a word about those who have written with more or less unveiled animus toward the 80 or so pastors who have called for division. Because I readily identify myself as a United Methodist evangelical, I feel warm friendship with many associated with Good News. They are not pariahs. They are as loyal to United Methodism as anyone I know. I do not (yet) agree with the call for amicable separation, but I want to state very plainly that I think they are acting with integrity and love as much as anyone else in our deeply contested attempts to find a way forward.
I also know that this knife cuts both ways. Some of you reading this post have heard or read hateful, ugly comments from traditionalists. I grant that point without hesitation. But I don’t think that the 80 ought to be labeled schismatics.
Looking at the list of signees on “A Way Forward,” I see, likewise, quite a few of my friends and highly-regarded colleagues. For those of us who would rather hang on to some version of the current iteration of United Methodism, it illustrates the conviction that we can stay together and leave each other alone – to some degree – on the questions of same-sex marriage and ordination. It does so on the basis of a particular belief about the trajectory of history – that an increasing number of people are accepting – and will accept – same-sex marriage.
And this is exactly why I have a problem with the proposal. I think it operates on the assumption that, given how popular opinion is changing, we can ride out the present storm and eventually the traditionalist holdouts will see things differently, get over their opposition and the UM church (minus the traditionalists who have already left) will stay together.
If I have analyzed adequately, “A Way Forward” is not at all a middle position. It is a milder version of what most of us recognize as the progressive position. (I’m not the only blogger who has noticed.) I really hope I am wrong, but if I am not, “A Way Forward” is chilling in its implication.
Regarding the specific matter of leaving things up to the local congregation or the annual conference, I have a question. Given our current connectional structure, how feasible will it be to change our polity to allow for what the proposal envisions? To accept it will require extensive revisions in structure, with far-reaching consequences. For example, Boards of Ordained Ministry will need to be given prerogatives they do not now have. Imagine the consultative process that bishops and cabinets will need to undertake. I know it can be done, but we should realize the complex results of making such changes to polity. My friends who signed the proposal: do you truly believe that we can actually accomplish the planning and negotiating necessary to make this drastic a change to our structure? How is it any less improbable than an “amicable” separation?
“A Way Forward” refers to the disciplinary paragraphs which acknowledge the local church as the primary location for making disciples. But we still regard the annual conference – formally, at least – as the basic unit of the church. What are we saying in this proposal? Is the annual conference now a secondary structure? I am a member of an annual conference who serves in a pastoral capacity in church related university. What about all the campus ministries, the Wesley Foundations? Those of us who serve in extension ministries surely must be wondering what will happen if such changes take place. I asked this question of the amicable separation group. I ask the same question of the “A Way Forward” group.
What will happen to our apportionment formulas? Will local churches have veto power over the parts of the connectional budget they do not want to support?
I just don’t see the “middle” in this “middle way” proposal.
If there is a middle, it is more likely made up of the rest of us who have not signed on to anything.