Today, nearly 2,000 United Methodists are gathered in Chicago. Some say they are gathered there to plot schism. Others don’t say that outright, but they imply it pretty strongly. These claims, of course, fly in the face of the statements of those gathering to form the Wesleyan Covenant Association. You can see what the organization says about itself by following the link to it page.
I’m not with them in Chicago. Part of the reason is because the timing is inconvenient, even if the location is not. Part of the reason is because I am waiting to see what emerges from this group, which includes many pastors I respect and admire.
As I wait and observe, I have an odd sense of deja vu. Having recently been through a divorce, it is odd to read our denominational “dialogue” these days. It has all the familiar hallmarks of a broken relationship. People talk past each other. They do not interpret each others actions with charity. They are quick to cite past wrongs and harms. When they tell the story of their shared history, the two sides tell very different tales. They characterize each other’s motives in ways that the other would not recognize. They ask questions that are not really questions but attempts to score points. They ask questions but do not really listen for the answers.
In my seminary and clinical pastoral education, I was taught a lot about active listening and “non-violent” communication. Those lessons are lost on us.
I do not write that to cast blame, but merely to describe. Perhaps our divorce as United Methodists is already a fact even if the court papers have not yet been drawn up.
I’ve been quiet about all this because I don’t think I have a lot to contribute to the discussion, and I don’t know what I will do when we start dividing up the property. Theologically, I am a traditional Wesleyan — even if that makes me a poor United Methodist at times — but I’ve taken vows at my baptism and commissioning to do all in my power to uphold the United Methodist Church. If there is a schism, I’m not sure where I will land.
So, although I have little hope that my voice can contribute much in the midst of our conflict, I wanted to write today in response to something written by a colleague in my conference. Dr. Philip Amerson asked a series of questions for “Friends of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.” Although I am not a member of the WCA, I certainly count myself a friend to many who are. So, for what it is worth, here is how I respond. These answers will be fairly brief.
Question: If “evangelical” what is the “good news” you share?
Answer: I suspect the organizers of the WCA would point Dr. Amerson to the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, and the Standard Sermons of John Wesley. My summary goes something like this: The universe and all that is in is the creation of a good, just, gracious, and merciful God who despite our rebellion against him and rejection of him has sacrificed all, coming among us in the flesh, dying on the cross, and being raised from the dead so that we might be forgiven of our sins, restored to right relationship with him, and live the life now and in eternity that God first created us to live. Jesus Christ offers these things to all who believe and by the power of the Holy Spirit works in us to destroy the power and guilt of sin, free us from the bondage of death, and purify us so that we might live in holiness now and forever.
Question: If “evangelical” why so little attention to Christian experience, to personal conversion? Why so little mention of the transforming love of Jesus Christ for persons and society?
Answer: I am not sure what concern lies behind this question. If it is directed at the WCA, the organization’s statement of beliefs links to several documents — including the standard sermons of John Wesley — which speak quite a bit about these very things. If Dr. Amerson has read those and not found sufficient emphasis on experience, conversion, and the transforming love of Jesus, I am not sure what else would assure him. The pastors I know who are most involved with the WCA has strong commitments to the very things Dr. Amerson is asking about. If there is something more behind this question, I suppose I would need it to be explained to me.
Question: If Wesleyan, why the silence about ministry with the poor?
Answer: Again, the sermons of John Wesley and the General Rules of the United Methodist Church speak strongly to this point. And again, the ministry of many of the pastors involved with the WCA appears to me, at least, to demonstrate a great interest in ministry with the poor. Perhaps, again, I misunderstand the question.
Question: If uniquely “Biblical Christian,” what is the basis for scriptural interpretation? What is the hermeneutic employed?
Answer: I assume the “uniquely” is a reference to the WCA’s statement on Biblical authority, which makes reference to challenges directed at the unique place of the Bible in the church. Dr. Amerson asks what is our basis for biblical interpretation. As a commissioned elder, my understanding is that our basis for interpreting Scripture, which we regard as the final authority in all matters of faith and practice, is grounded in a tradition that encompasses the best thinking of the church back to the apostles but is centered on a movement of the Holy Spirit that gave rise to Methodism. We find the doctrinal commitments of this movement in the sermons and hymns of the Wesleys and our other foundational documents. Our interpretation of Scripture as United Methodists is a part of this tradition and should be heavy informed by it. In addition — as Wesley did — we believe our faith is reasonable, and so starting from the truths that we affirm from scripture, we employ our reason to attempt as best we can to hold together all that we believe in a rational whole. And, to keep this brief, we look to the experience of actual Christian lives for confirmation of what we have believed. It is in the lives of Christians that our beliefs find living expression.
Like Augustine and Wesley, among many others, I interpret the Bible from a stance of humility rather than suspicion. Or rather, I attempt to do so. The temptation to place myself in a position of authority over Scripture rather than obedience to it is ever present. I fail at times to be faithful, but my goal is to treat the Bible — as our Articles of Religion require — as the final authority in all matters of faith and practice.
Question: If Wesleyan, what of John Wesley’s concern about schism and his clear guidance to learn from others who differ as expressed in “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection“?
Answer: I am grateful for Dr. Amerson’s reference to Wesley’s great work. There is a great deal in that document that would be beneficial for all United Methodists to ponder and study. It would be a wonderful thing to see our General Conference taken up by serious study and prayer over the depth and meaning of the doctrine of Christian Perfection and the means by which we might obtain the blessings of that state. However, that is not the issue at hand.
I take Dr. Amerson’s reference in his question to be to a few paragraphs at the end of that work in which Wesley offers some advice to Methodists in how to hold to the teaching of Christian Perfection in the face of opposition to that doctrine within Methodism itself and the Church of England. In his “sixth advice” to Methodists, he does warn quite eloquently about schism and division.
Suffer not one thought of separating from your brethren, whether their opinions agree with yours or not. Do not dream that any man sins in not believing you, in not taking your word; or that this or that opinion is essential to the work, and both must stand or fall together. Beware of impatience of contradiction. Do not condemn or think hardly of those who cannot see just as you see, or who judge it their duty to contradict you, whether in a great thing or a small. I fear some of us have thought hardly of others, merely because they contradicted what we affirmed. All this tends to division; and, by everything of this kind, we are teaching them an evil lesson against ourselves.
I think Wesley’s words are wise here, and I see many in our church who do not follow them. Sadly, I often see our desire to point such faults tends to be limited to those with whom we disagree.
I would, however, also direct Dr. Amerson to the paragraph preceding the one I just quoted, which might also have some merit in our consideration of how Wesley would advise us to avoid schism.
Likewise, if you would avoid schism, observe every rule of the Society, and of the Bands, for conscience’ sake. Never omit meeting your Class or Band; never absent yourself from any public meeting. These are the very sinews of our Society; and whatever weakens, or tends to weaken, our regard for these, or our exactness in attending them, strikes at the very root of our community.
Would we — for the sake of avoiding schism and learning from each other — all agree to observe every rule of our denomination? I do believe that Wesley is correct that our weakening regard for those rules has struck deeply at the root of our community.
Dr. Amerson expressed in his post that he had not heard answers to his questions. I write these answers not as a representative or member of the WCA, but as a friend and hopeful observer. I hope these meager responses might help address some of the concerns he expressed.