At the local crossroads of connectional quandry

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.

16 thoughts on “At the local crossroads of connectional quandry

  1. I believe the authors of the local option are borrowing from Bishop Reuben Job’s book Three Simple Rules when they talk about the ordinances of God as ways to “stay in love with God.” That was his language for explaining the third rule.

    1. But they are modifying even Job’s language. “Stay in Love with God” is not the same as “do those things which help you grow in love for God.”

      I have no doubt Job’s book is somewhere influencing the language. Job’s “stay in love” language always struck me as problematic because they presume we are already in love with God.

      In that way, the Hamilton language is better than Job’s. It speaks to growing in love rather than staying in love. But it leaves the means of grace open ended and subjective. The old language says, “These are things God has ordained for your benefit. Do them.”

      The difference is significant.

  2. The local option will only condone the church simply being a mirror of secular culture. Discipline will be exercised, else the church will either continue to decline or it will split. Seeking to stay together simply to stay together serves institutionalist interests, but that is all. If the church is to stay together, doing so must serve evangelism and discipleship.
    As to starting over from scratch, when a structure is flawed to the foundation, it is necessary to raze and rebuild if one is to have anything that will endure. Any polity will have vulnerabilities that are unavoidable.

    One of the difficulties will be the political process that will have to be negotiated in any revitalization or reinvention of the denomination.

    Another reality is the decline of denomination relevance. Local churches have less need for the larger denominational structure to provide printed materials, programming, etc. Local churches are now far more able to relate to one another along lines of evangelism, missions, service, etc. The denomination can no longer expect that local churches will just automatically give support to denominational programs. The denomination will have to make a convincing case for why local churches should work through the denominational structure rather than networking with other like minded churches to pursue lines of shared ministry.

    Leadership in developing a resolution to the problems facing the denomination will come from leaders. Some but not all of these leaders will be elected. More than likely the real leadership will come from those individuals whose effectiveness at the local level translates into their being heard and followed at the denominational level. Their practical and actual effectiveness in producing real meaningful results will prove persuasive who increasingly will make the decisions through the programs they support and the money they spend.

    More than likely any initiative that leads to actual real positive change in the church will come from the local church and not as a result of general conference.

  3. John, the nub of Billy Abraham’s address is that we have arrived at a divide of roads. We can’t travel both roads. This is a theological crisis for the global Church, of which we are NOT an insignificant part. Many moderates seem oblivious to this aspect. They natter on about this debate being internecine and only 40 years old. Patently false! Perhaps they think the UMC can become apostate and no one will notice (or care?). That would be a grave miscalculation, but we seem to be flirting with that choice. Billy is ringing a church bell of alarm…and is pointing to the way which the Church must travel to be faithful to its Lord. This is not a “local option” and it can’t be mesmerized out of existence.

    1. Gary, I’d love to have you write something about what this all looks like in your congregation and conference.

      1. Thanks, John. Alas, if I say too much about what’s cooking, I will spoil the surprise. So I must demur. Joachim Fest, who survived the Hitler years as a youth, offers this adage from his father: “One sometimes has to keep one’s head down, but try not to look shorter as a result.”

    2. I am sad that I must disagree with you about the degree of influence The United Methodist Church has in the world. In MUCH of the world The United Methodist Church is virtually unknown. I spent a year traveling the world during a sabbatical, and I was shocked to find how difficult it is to find a Methodist Church in Hawaii, Australia, Scotland, Greece (I don’t think there are any at all there!). When I informed people that I was a United Methodist minister, the usual response was, “what is that?”. That gave me a good opportunity to witness, but it was disconcerting. Then, when I arrived home in Florida and settled into a new appointment, I joined a gym. My personal trainer was a native Hawaiian, (although he had lived in Florida for years). He knew nothing about Methodism either…We ARE rather insignificant..

  4. What you describe as the evangelical focus on the local has always struck me as more of a disdain for the larger body. Is it any coincidence that so many of the churches who do elect to leave the UMC are not progressive, but evangelical? Now, I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg (the disdain for the system or the distance), but I think it is a bit more serious than just a lack of focus.

  5. At this front ,I feel the dollars and financial impact (s) will take and influence the matters. The cross roads are traveled upon currently and to minimize the confusions and aftermath as insurance companies actions employ underwriters, so will UMC.

  6. The reason that evangelical UM Churches thrive is the same reason for their distance from the “larger body.” The reason: Unity in essentials.

    The Holy Spirit is no dummy. He will not remain where He is not welcome. He certainly has no truck with the “middle way” in its liberal (progressive) garb.

    1. Well said. A drama is unfolding. There are ever-enthusiastic liberal optimists and their acolytes who are presently attaching themselves fiercely to the collapsing structure as though “this is not happening.” Evangelicals are shaking their heads in disbelief. This situation cannot continue for all the culture of promotion that swirls around it; its breath is stale. But for those embedded in conferences where the voices are becoming even more shrill, this is the time to pack and, meanwhile, “endure the clowns.”

  7. The United Methodist Church has had a default local option for decades. All that we are seeing now is that it is coming out into the open more. The liberal wings is less willing to hide their de facto doctrinal differences. If most of the members of evangelical United Methodist Churches knew what our leadership does, they would struggle to become congregationalists. Fortunately, most don’t care and we can communicate selectively with all of them to maintain unity and the connection. If you have access to seminary library, find a copy of The Seven Churches of Methodism by Robert Leroy Wilson and William H. Willimon. In the meantime, take a look at this link United Methodist Doctrine — Think location, location location,/a>. The local option horse left the barn, in a de facto sense, years ago.

  8. I’m also curious about John’s notion that “forming a kingdom people is political to the core . . . . ” I understand that our polity is totally political, and the H.S. moves theologically sound pastors to subject themselves to it, but I don’t see the Kingdom operating that way. I was involved in forming a Crisis Pregnancy Center 30 years ago, and we required unanimity on our Board. No unanimity, no action. It’s still going great guns with a 250k budget.

    1. I don’t mean voting. Politics is about deciding how we will co-exist and how we will be a group of people living together in the midst of others. Your group decided to make all decisions by unanimous agreement. That is a political decision. What I mean to say is that we engage in politics constantly, but we don’t often notice because we think politics is what we see on TV.

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