I’ve been engaged on a low-level for a while with the choices offered United Methodism by two groups within the church.
On the one hand we have a group offering a local option that would allow churches and conferences decide whether to ordain people who engage in sexual activity with members of the same sex and whether to perform weddings for couples of the same sex.
On the other hand are a group calling for an assertion of church discipline and laying the groundwork for an orderly or disorderly separation within United Methodism. That is probably not how that group would describe their goals, but that is the only endgame I see.
There are other plans and suggestions out there, of course. The dean of my seminary is co-author of one plan. My bishop is author of another idea. There are others I am not listing and do not know about.
All of these plans fill me with a sense of hope and despair. I am hopeful because so many people with such passion, experience, and wisdom are trying as hard as they can to find a way forward for United Methodism that does not shatter the church. I despair, though, because this entire crisis exposes the weakness of our polity and perhaps even our model of being the church. Perhaps we would be better off to sell off everything and start over from scratch.
I have not worked out for myself where I would fall if given supreme power to decide a solution for this crisis. But I do have some thoughts and observations that I fully admit are not well formed or even non-contradictory.
1) In a speech to evangelical leaders in Atlanta, theologian Billy Abraham distanced himself from the label “politician,” while hanging that name on the leaders of the local option. The unwillingness to understand the issues before the church as deeply political is a mistake. It is also ironic for Abraham to disclaim the title politician while giving a political speech at a political gathering. I think it is mistake for we in the church to treat politics like some kind of unclean activity we must shun. Forming a kingdom people is political to the core and shying away from that truth is to cede the contest to those who understand this.
2) I wonder if evangelical churches, which have often have tried to keep the larger connection at arms length, are handicapped by their focus on the local. The very energy that has made them effective also cuts them off from influence and networks of good-will across the connection. These have to be built outside the connection rather than through it. I wonder if some evangelical leaders have done such a good job of insulating their congregations from the influence of the larger connection that they now find it hard to create leverage within it. (This is really more a question than an observation, as I am not that well informed on this topic.)
3) The local option plan bears a heavy imprint from Adam Hamilton’s writing style. I don’t know the drafting process, but I’ve read enough of his books to recognize many of his turns of phrase and points of emphasis. I with only half-seriousness suggested a few years ago that we elect Hamilton as a bishop. I wonder if he is demonstrating in practical ways that he is a bishop of the church, just without the purple cloth.
4) The local option plan puts a lot of emphasis on the church being intellectually credible. It turns to this kind of concern multiple times. I’m wary of this as a major point of emphasis because in it appears to me to often work against obedience to Christ. What goes under the name of concern with being credible to “thinking Christians” often ends up being nothing more than rationalization for disobedience. In this vein, I think the way the local option plan describes the General Rules in our Book of Discipline is illuminating:
We find helpful those guidelines we call the General Rules: Refrain from evil, do all the good you can, and do those things which help you grow in love for God.
Notice here how the “Rules” are relabeled “guidelines” and praised because they are “helpful.” The third general rule — practice the ordinances of God — is reframed as doing those things that help us. My observation is that we are often poor judges of what will help us. I’m not arguing for fundamentalism here. I believe God gave us brains for a reason. But I do worry about being too enamored with being credible to the intellectual prejudices of our culture. It seems such concern often substitutes what we call “reason” — but often just seems like current popular opinion — for revelation.
5) In all this turmoil, I am constantly reminded of General Conference 2012. I remember all the lead up to the conference and all the talk about vast changes that would be implemented. I remember many of the same players working hard for the years leading up and a sense — at least on my part — that something significant would happen. Then the meat-grinder of General Conference happened and the Judicial Council vetoed what was approved. I want to believe the conference process in 2016 will be the start of a resolution to this crisis. But I find it hard to be hopeful that it will.
As I say, none of this is very organized. It is merely where I am as I wrestle with the issues and developments.
I recall in the midst of all this something John Wesley once wrote. He said we should gauge every action we contemplate by the twin questions of what will allow us to do the most good and to be the most holy.
I am trying to figure out the answer to those questions in the midst of the current connectional crisis. As I do, I notice that neither Wesley nor Jesus included “be the most comfortable” in their guide to action.