by Chris Ritter
I just read “Methodism a ‘Big Tent’ from the Beginning” by Glen Alton Messer II. This historical analysis is one of a growing number of recent statements making the case, seemingly, for solving our current divisions by further expanding our tolerance for diversity of belief and practice. If a big tent is who we United Methodists are, why not go… bigger?
I primarily want to delve into Messer’s historical claims, but first let me say a word about the current project of re-defining Methodism. The energy around finding a new definition seems to emanate from those who find themselves drifting outside the established one (which is something like “churches, clergy, and conferences operating according to the Book of Discipline of the UMC“). Having failed to change our covenant by the established means, some are selectively ignoring that with which they disagree as they are shielded regionally from accountability.
The question before the church is: What happens to those conferences, churches, bishops, and pastors that can no longer pretend to abide by the Discipline? The answer some are proposing is to let them be. If we only widen the definition of baseball, the guys running around the field with hockey sticks can still feel part of the game.
Calls for a big tent are nothing new in the UMC. There was a day, however, when this was some way tied to mission. We were to have a big, diverse church so that we could reach more and diverse types of people. These recent calls seem not to be about others but about us. Can we all stay in the same institution so we can continue to “be together”? Thom Rainer recently released data that indicates the most common factor in declining churches is an inward focus. Pair this with data from Pew Research that indicates the UMC is nearly the least ethnically diverse denomination in the United States. When our institutional unity is primarily designed to serve us and not our mission, we lose inroads into the larger culture. I predict that accommodational unity, as opposed to missional unity, will only cause us to whiten as we widen. A bigger tent certainly does not guarantee there will be more people under it.
If the unity Messer and others propose is not about covenant or mission, neither is it about theology. He notes that there are already many theologies under the United Methodist tent. What, then, defines our church? He claims we are united by a “sense of a cooperative relationship with God… United Methodists tend not to see people as objects upon whom God acts; but as persons whom God loves, guides and helps to grow.” As near as I can tell, this is his proposal for the central supporting pole for the new, wider, Methodist tent. Devoid of Christology, I see nothing here that a good Unitarian could not celebrate.
Messer’s commentary (and those like it) reacts to something happening in the church that is hard to miss. A main branch of United Methodism is coalescing to chart our course from declining Liberal Mainline American Protestantism to a vibrant global orthodoxy. Africans, Asians, U.S. Evangelicals, former EUB’ers, Holiness Methodists, Charismatics, Institutionalists of the right and center-right, law-and-order Moderates, and Catho-Methodists are forming a workable governing majority. Rev. Jerry Kulah, Coordinator of the UM Africa Initiative and Dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia stated the agenda succinctly from the floor of General Conference 2016:
Our game plan is focused on ensuring that The United Methodist Church is a vibrant church that is biblically committed, Christ-centered, evangelistically functional, Holy Spirit empowered, and vision-driven.
This unity is threatening to those who are committed to a different focus. After all, the emerging UM mainstream may well prove unwilling to divert its focus to accommodate dissension from the Western Jurisdiction and other defiant annual conferences. The playing field is becoming defined as the United Methodist Church vs. those who are writing their own ministry and ordination standards. It will only become more difficult for those willfully ignoring our rules to make the case for why they should continue to have a voice in shaping them.
Attacks are already rampant upon the not-yet-formed Wesleyan Covenant Association. WCA represents a coming together of otherwise diverse United Methodists who together read and interpret scripture as it has classically been read and interpreted. Thanks to the election of Bishop Oliveto and other examples of Progressive overreach, the WCA is attracting many principled folks from the center like Jorge Acevedo who will be keynoting the October 7 WCA organizational event in Chicago. One moderate evangelical mega-church pastor texted me recently to say that he had both joined the Confessing Movement and accepted a nomination to a WCA leadership position all on the same day: “I tried to hold the middle ground until there was nothing left to hold.”
The Council of Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward will do their work in the midst of all these recent developments. Whatever the commission proposes, it will eventually face a General Conference predominantly constituted by folks committed to global orthopraxy. While I expect that my own Jurisdictional Solutions for a compartmentalized Methodist tent will be duly considered, the election of Bishop Oliveto as a General Superintendent makes these and other unity proposals more difficult to enact. The COB Executive Team hinted that a special General Conference 2018 could be in the works. The commission will have its hands full as it works to make sure United Methodism’s Golden Anniversary is not celebrated in divorce court.
Now to Messer’s historical claims…
METHODISM AS A BIG TENT FROM THE BEGINNING?
Messer’s first assertion is that John Wesley “amalgamated pre-existing groups of people seeking after holiness into the Methodists he helped organize and lead.” It is true he went to extraordinary lengths to do this very thing. Methodism was primarily inaugurated through the preaching ministries of George Whitfield and John Wesley. One was a Calvinist and the other an Arminian. Wesley was a natural choice to lead the entire, diverse enterprise as Whitefield was often away in America and did not possess the organizational genius of his co-laborer. While there were two distinct groups, the practical methods and goals were the same. A constant topic of early Methodist conferences was whether and how these two branches could further unite.
In 1749, the Wesley Brothers met in conference with Calvinist Methodists Whitefield and Howell Harris at the New Room in Bristol. They agreed to salve divisions by only speaking and believing well of each other. After a theological negotiation, they developed a conciliatory plan to begin moving both movements under the canopy of The United Societies. They were,
- To preach neither for nor against predestination, irresistible grace, or final perseverance in absolute terms. Also, they agreed not preach Christian perfection is absolute terms.
- To avoid using the terms that would throw fuel on the fire of the theological controversies dividing the two camps. They would simply use the language of scripture whenever possible.
- To “use each other’s expressions, mixing them with our own, as far as we can honestly.”
- To continually “maintain that man’s whole salvation is of God, and his whole damnation is of himself.”
- To continue “to press on toward perfection, in the holy law of love, by universal inward and outward conformity to the life and death of Christ.”
In spite of good faith attempts to unite the theologically divided camps under one tent, these efforts failed. It is a long, painful story. The end result was Wesley and his Methodists going forward under a theologically and methodologically unified banner without the Calvinists. They ultimately chose a unified movement when efforts at a big tent collapsed. Today, “Calvinist Methodists” seems somewhat oxymoronic.
Messer’s other primary historical argument for a big tent is that
during the history of American Methodism, there are many examples (especially during the first half-century of the Methodist Episcopal Church) of members — and even preachers — with irregular beliefs. Sometimes preachers caused great concern when they deviated in their understandings of basic doctrines.
Messer notes that these theological deviations were met with loving correction and disciplinary measures were only used as a last resort.
What is missing in Messer’s argument are historic examples of theological deviation providing strength to the movement. Instances of loving tolerance for those who are theologically confused can hardly stand as an endorsement of theological confusion itself. His argument actually seems to make the opposite point. When pastors and laity are in error, it is our tradition to correct them lovingly. If they will not be corrected, we release them for the sake of the Church and the Gospel.
Let me close with my own example from Methodist history…
About ten years into the Methodist Revival, Methodism faced a crisis of leadership. The Wesley Brothers realized that preachers and leaders had been accepted that were not well aligned with them in terms of theology or practice. The early days had attracted leaders from many religious traditions and this big tent was threatening forward progress. A concerted effort at correction was implemented. (This is well documented in “Purge the Preachers: The Wesleys and Quality Control” by Richard Heitzenrater in Charles Wesley: Life, Literature, and Legacy, Epworth Press, 2007.) A system of annual conferences was implemented in 1749 to insure uniformity of belief and practice. Each preacher afterward admitted received a copy of the Minutes, a doctrinal and disciplinary standard, inscribed as follows: “So long as you freely consent to and earnestly endeavor to walk according to the following rules, we shall rejoice to go on with you hand in hand.” A preacher’s copy of this proto-Discipline, signed by John Wesley, served as ministerial credentials in the movement. Leaders could expect to be examined annually when they conferred together. This matched the quarterly examination each Methodist received to authenticate their serious pursuit of holiness. (Those not in step did not have their tickets renewed and were refused entrance into meetings of the United Societies.)
The Wesley Brothers recognized that more than a gradual approach to accountability was needed if the movement was to be preserved through the crisis of misaligned leadership. Charles wrote, “Unless a sudden remedy be found, the preachers will destroy the work of God.” In the early 1750’s, Charles led a group of leaders on a “circuit of inquiry” in which he went throughout the connection and cleaned house, sending many preachers back to their previous secular employments: “My most important concern is to purge the Church, beginning with the laborers.” John Wesley, likewise, turned out several licensed exhorters and returned many preachers to their previous trades. The housecleaning of the 1750’s was not without pain, but it was recognized as a necessary step to maintain the integrity of the work and position the group for future effectiveness. Growth accelerated following the purge.
I am not recommending a similar purge of United Methodist Church. It is not clear that such a thing is even possible under our present polity. The bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward seems to me to be an attempt to avoid an adversarial approach in favor an amicable structural solution. This is to be commended. But I would like to use the above example as one of many possible proofs that the founding goal of Methodism was never to create a big tent, but to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land. When it came to theology and practice, a big tent was actually more often found to be a barrier to the mission than a help.
Our history teaches us, paradoxically, that bigger tents may hold fewer people. I ask you to pray for the Commission on a Way Forward, that they can bring forth a fair plan that honors the integrity of the divergent positions at work in our church. My hope is that we can stop putting forth sloppy big-tent-ism as a solution to our serious, real, and deeply-rooted divisions. The very purpose for a tent is mobility. I am joining the Wesleyan Covenant Association because I am excited to be part of further defining the main body of United Methodism that is poised to overcome our present distraction with tent design and reengage with the mission field.