Dear Adam (Hamilton) and Other Centrists,
When I wrote, recently, about my conviction that the current United Methodist Church needs to divide, I don’t think I made sufficiently clear that I recognize this admission as a sign of failure. Sometimes, the most sincere and committed people cannot find a way out of their disagreements. I’m convinced that we’ve come to such a point.
I also have been thinking, though, were we – hope against hope – to resolve our differences, what would need to happen? I try my answer to that question in the hopes that it may open up a different sort of public forum than typically happens. I have not been privy to private conversations among top leaders, so this is my attempt to bring to light some topics that don’t get sufficient attention in the wider public conversations, which has led to the conditions we now face.
So, what would need to happen were we to move in the direction of staying together rather than separating? This question raises another one: where do centrists draw the line on what is core for UM faith and practice? What beliefs do you consider necessary, therefore required to be a Methodist in good standing? This question has implications, not only for United Methodist identity, but also for our place within the larger ecumenical body, something I fear is not getting sufficient attention in the heat of our disagreements. Where do centrists draw the line on core doctrines?
Our church has argued fruitlessly, in spite of many sincere attempts, over scripture interpretation and the best use of the Quadrilateral for discerning how to resolve the thorny issues that have demanded so much of our attention. Everyone who has been watching knows the very well-worn paths that proponents have taken in debate. We cannot resolve those matters using the tools we’ve been using, and, as I am desperately trying to convey, we have more basic questions to answer.
Centrists, among whom you, Adam, are primus inter pares, often protest that you share orthodox beliefs with traditionalists, only disagreeing over denominational policy (marriage, ordination) and polity (one church plan, regional conferences). I hear this frustration in your recent response to Tom Lambrecht, which, of course, generated his reply. You claim – and I accept – your orthodoxy of belief. Taking you at your word demands that I or someone ask you these questions that I’m asking. Where lie the boundaries? Any definition of “orthodox” logically requires boundaries. However wide we draw the circle, there is still a circle. Even a really big circle has an inside and outside. We therefore must talk about boundaries. Where are they? And why there? Tell us.
Once clearly stated, we must have consequences for breaching them. Otherwise they are pseudo-doctrines and our mission is impossible to identify. Without enforceable doctrinal standards, virtually any activity can be claimed as in keeping with our mission. Therefore, along with clarifying our doctrinal core, we need effective disciplinary action for members of our connection who deny that core, either openly or in practice. What do you think is an appropriate response for someone who shows unwillingness to uphold our doctrines and discipline? If we do not answer clearly and act resolutely, we will remain a denomination with no integrity, not worth bothering about.
Over the years (I have grown old while the UMC has had this argument), whenever I have raised the question of doctrinal boundaries, I have encountered resistance from the same quarters, who resist by raising the specter of misuse of power. I’ve been told ad nauseum that people who claim the orthodox label are only interested in control. People who talk about power all the time are the ones most interested in power. It’s hypocritical to charge someone with making power moves while one is making them. If orthodox centrists are willing to affirm and live their loyalty to the core doctrines of the faith, you ultimately will have to stand with traditionalists in resisting the resistors of our doctrinal standards. The only other viable option to insisting on adherence to them is to separate and let competing orthodoxies play out accordingly.
I could see some truly refreshing possibilities opening if every faction within United Methodism recognized and admitted that a denomination must have doctrinal boundaries. We thereby would have a common starting point for talking about which doctrines we as a denomination believe are central to our faith and work. Indeed, it would mean that we truly resolve what was not resolved in 1988. Could (should) a United Methodist clergy be in good standing while teaching an adoptionist Christology and practicing forms of neo-pagan spirituality? May a United Methodist preacher on Sunday preach that YHWH is God on and on Wednesday defend the use of tarot cards as a legitimate practice for Christians? Can I remain in good standing if I claim to be a United Methodist Santerian?
These questions, as far-fetched as they may sound to many, illustrate what inevitably happens in a denomination without clear and enforceable boundaries. Yes, far more basic than our fights about sexuality, we are turning a blind eye to an almost incomprehensible and certainly incoherent diversity of beliefs all embodied in concrete locales and called “United Methodist.” Too much in popular culture, we United Methodists are known as the denomination in which you can believe anything and be United Methodist. It shows our condition, right here, right now. Please correct me, if I’m wrong. So far as I can see, we have no effective means of making sure that United Methodists uphold and teach the core doctrines that we say we believe and we clergy promised to uphold and proclaim. Until we face this demand honestly, we run the risk of being superfluous to and maybe even adversaries of the mission of God, who is, we need to remember, the final bar of judgment.
What, then, are the core doctrines that centrists are willing to contend for? If centrists and traditionalists have any chance at understanding one another and finding common cause on any endeavor, present or future, the questions I’ve asked need your answers. I am confident you have them.
In my own small way, and with whatever influence I may have, I am committed – as I have been since I joined the ranks of United Methodist clergy – to work for understanding in what we United Methodists share in doctrine and practice. Once more I ask, then, where do you think the doctrinal boundaries lie? What are the non-negotiables? What lines will you not cross? How will you use your considerable influence to defend and uphold the faith once delivered?
In all sincerity, I pray for you and for us all, a blessed, holy, Spirit-filled Easter season.