I will be attending the first gathering of the newly formed Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) on October 7 in Chicago, along with a “remnant” of orthodox colleagues in the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference. The recent election in the Western Jurisdiction and appointment of an openly lesbian bishop to our annual conference have raised the stakes for those of us who serve in the West and in other jurisdictions and annual conferences that are in open defiance of our Discipline.
I have been excited to watch the formation of the WCA as a unified voice for orthodox United Methodists. Nearly a thousand have already registered to attend the one-day gathering, but very little has been said about what will actually take place on October 7. There is great anticipation that this meeting could be a watershed moment for United Methodism, but I also sense an equal amount of skepticism that the gathering will simply be a continuation of the strategies of the various orthodox renewal movements that have been part of the UMC for the past several decades. Groups like Good News and the Confessing Movement have done good work holding the line, lobbying for traditional doctrine and discipline in the church, and acting as a voice for orthodoxy in the midst of the denominational leadership’s continuous left turns toward a progressive theological unitarianism. Recent events, however, have indicated that the time for lobbying, politicking, and voting has passed.
The General Conference asked the Council of Bishops to lead the way forward in the midst of division and they did what bureaucrats tend to do: they formed a committee. The stated goals of the Bishops’ Commission is to look at all of our Disciplinary language concerning human sexuality and determine if there is a way for our differences to either be bridged and maintain the unity of the church or, barring that, to offer a plan for separation. Chris Ritter posted a piece by Professor Billy Abraham yesterday which cogently outlines why the Commission’s work, as currently understood, is essentially dead on arrival. As he put it:
The critical problem in the mandate for the Commission is that it is pragmatically incoherent. On the one hand, it calls for a revision of every single statement of the Book of Discipline on sexuality. On the other hand, it calls for the maintenance of unity. The former represents the agenda of the progressives. It is astonishing how bold and unvarnished it is in content. Where one would have expected a more moderate mandate that would revisit the debate, and allow all sides to make their case afresh, it unapologetically tilts entirely in one direction. The latter call for unity strikes a chord with the heartbeat of United Methodism both in terms of its classical commitment to uphold unity as a crucial feature of the church and in terms of its longstanding commitment to organic unity in its work in the ecumenical movement. However, the first goal is hopelessly incompatible with the second. If the official teaching and practice of the church is changed as envisaged there is absolutely no way that unity can be preserved. Anyone with a minimum of social intelligence can see this. Such a change will make it impossible for many on the conservative side of the debate to remain within the church. The violation of conscience is so severe that they will have to secure a home elsewhere.
So far, the basic mantra for traditionalists has been to “wait and see what the Commission proposes.” I argued this position myself on the floor of the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference when a resolution was brought encouraging the Western Jurisdiction to elect an episcopal candidate without regard to sexual orientation and gender identity. I argued that such an election would precipitate a schism and that waiting for the Commission to present its work would be a more prudent course of action if the unity of the church is the real goal. Obviously, the Conference and Jurisdiction chose the nuclear option instead, thus rendering moot the work of the Commission. For those of us few orthodox clergy who serve in the West, the timetable for “waiting” has been erased. We are now serving under a rogue ecclesial entity. Some clergy, local pastors, and laity have already chosen to leave my annual conference. Some churches are already feeling the effects of loss of revenue. I have patiently instructed my own congregation to continue paying apportionments and wait for the next step, but they (and I) can only wait so long in the face of open defiance from those to whom we are accountable. I believe the time for that next step is now, and not two years from now, when the outcome is already decided.
I suspect that I am not alone in this assessment. I imagine that the nearly 1,000 clergy and laity who have booked flights to Chicago are not coming to hear more “wait and see” and “let the process work” assurances. This cannot be your father’s old fashioned renewal organization. We can no longer simply react to the actions of those who defy our theology, doctrine, and Discipline. We must be proactive given the current reality and start on a specific path to a real renewal of the Wesleyan movement. To that end, here are some things I hope to hear about at the gathering:
1. A specific plan of action. The WCA has stated that it does not intend to start a new denomination, but will “plan to work for a vibrant expression of Wesleyan Christianity within The United Methodist Church.” All well and good, but what exactly does that look like and what is the plan when the stated goal is no longer attainable?
We’ve been wandering in the ecclesial desert for more than 40 years now trying to negotiate renewal. Who’s going to finally step up, cross the river, and show us what the promised land looks like? There’s no reason to apologize for having contingency plans for when the process breaks down, as it surely will. The “schism” has already happened–now it’s a matter of doing what is best for the cause of Christ, even if that means abandoning an apostate church. Hope is not a strategy for renewal. We need a plan! Without one, or at least the beginnings of one, I’m afraid that those attending the WCA gathering will go home disappointed and the Association will falter.
2. An emphasis on Wesleyan practice as much as doctrine. The doctrinal statement of the WCA is good, classical, Wesleyan Christianity. I don’t see anything in there about renewal of Wesleyan practice, however. The early Methodist movement inculcated its doctrine via the means of grace, the class meeting, and the bands. These were the engine of the movement. Without a specific emphasis on disciple-making in the Wesleyan way, we will eventually wind up right back where we are today as a people with the “form of religion without the power.” Any attempt at renewal will need to reinvigorate the conjunctive Wesleyan theology of faith and works, piety and mercy, belief and practice. I would like to see a revival of some form of the class meeting and the means of grace as central to the WCA’s theological statements and practice.
3. New leadership. The leadership of the various orthodox renewal groups in the UMC have served us well for decades. I am personally grateful for the ministry of Maxie Dunnam, who has been a longtime leader for the cause of orthodoxy in the denomination. When I was a student at Asbury Seminary, he was (and still is) a beloved pastor to me and to many others. I also appreciate the tireless efforts of others like Rob Renfroe, Tom Lambrecht and others from Good News and countless others who have put themselves on the line throughout this long and rocky period in the denomination’s history.
But the time has come for some new leadership for this new organization–leadership that represents United Methodist clergy and laity who will carry the movement forward into a new day. New leadership can better communicate the work of the WCA to the wider denomination and world without the baggage of all the past boards and battles, however skillfully waged. We need fresh eyes that come from working in the trenches of the local church more than working the halls of General Conference. Whatever emerges from the ashes of the UMC, my prayer is that it makes the local church the locus of ministry once again. Such a vision will require new leadership that will be able to stretch existing paradigms and lead the transition to a new season for Wesleyan Methodism.
4. An open membership structure. The current proposal for WCA funding is to charge pastors and congregations “dues” for membership. I realize that these dues will likely fund staff for the WCA during this liminal period. But should membership to a Wesleyan renewal organization really only be open to those who can afford to pay? Perhaps there is a better way. I hope the WCA will consider it.
There you have it. I look forward to seeing what transpires on October 7 and am praying for God’s wisdom for the WCA, the UMC, and for whatever future he desires for us.
See you in Chicago!