by Chris Ritter
Last Sunday morning I had a difficult conversation with the good people of Geneseo First United Methodist Church. I felt it was time to share with them that our denomination is experiencing significant discord. Divisions run deep and have now reached the point of crisis. In fact, our top bishops indicate that we will soon of necessity be configured much differently than we are today. Decisions are now being made that will affect us all.
Like many pastors, I have shielded the people I serve from many of the goings on in our denominational life. I chose to exclusively accentuate the positives: “Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world and we have an amazing structure dedicated to getting that done. We are providing disaster relief, eliminating malaria, equipping pastors, deploying leadership, and growing exponentially in some of the poorest parts of the world.” There is too much core work to do in Jesus’ name to waste time being outraged over the extremism of the fringes. After all, it was only background noise. So, over the years, I was silent. Why waste time with the latest from Bishop Sprague (back in the day), Amy DeLong, or the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice when we could talk about reaching the community with the Gospel, equipping leaders, serving the poor, and raising up the next generation? I was selectively mute… whistling my way past the graveyard of our denominational dysfunction.
I consider myself a Centrist who wants nothing other than to be a faithful and fruitful United Methodist pastor. I have preached only once in my 28-year ministry on the topic of homosexuality… and then only because people were asking. An optimist by nature, I worked on the national level for the cause of unity as I put forth several major proposals that might allow us to somehow stay together in spite of our significant differences. Surely as smart people of good will we can amicably negotiate peace without disrupting our local church ministries. Right? I could justify meeting quiet disagreement with the same.
Around General Conference 2016, the tactics from the radical edge of our church switched from passive non-compliance with our doctrine and discipline to open defiance. Our Western Jurisdiction unanimously elected a pastor in a same-sex marriage as a bishop in our church even though her lifestyle and doctrinal commitments would disqualify her from service in conferences maintaining our standards. As a general superintendent of our church, her salary is supported by the apportionment giving of faithful UM’s. It is hard to see this any anything other than a fractious group choosing the thumb their noses at the collective discernment of our church.
In such times of upheaval and public rebellion to the good order of our church, silence equates with consent. For this and other reasons, I recently joined the Wesleyan Covenant Association, an organization that believes that the UMC is on target with its biblical doctrine and Christian ethics. Every church has a doctrinal and disciplinary framework. If this is not centered firmly on scripture and the unanimous witness of Christian tradition, we are set adrift and are unable to throw a lifeline to our larger culture. WCA is forming to support ministry in step with our stated UM values.
Our WCA Council is hearing from many pastors who have been silent and, like me, realize they no longer have this luxury. Of the 1,800 people gathered in Chicago for the WCA inaugural event, some 80% were clergy. Many of these acknowledge it is time to have “the talk” with their congregation and leaders. Here are twelve points I shared from the pulpit with the folks I love and serve:
- I LOVE THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH. I was born into Cache Chapel UMC, baptized at its UMC altar, accepted Christ and answered the call to ministry at a UMC camp, was educated in UMC seminaries, and ordained by UMC bishops. I so believe in United Methodism that I dedicated my whole life to it as well as the life of my family.
- WE HAVE GREAT ROOTS. Methodism started as a revival movement in the Church of England under John Wesley in the 18th Century (First Great Awakening) and swept across the American landscape in the 19th Century (the Second Great Awakening) under the leadership of self-sacrificing, horse-backed, circuit-riding preachers. In the 20th Century, we became “mainline” and respectable. By the Mid-20th Century we began to decline in the US. In spite of decline, no expression of Christianity in the past 2,000 years has provided as beautiful a synthesis of personal and social holiness as Methodism.
- WE ARE A GLOBAL CHURCH. All seven Mainline churches in the USA have faced divides over human sexuality as this topic directly corresponds with how we are informed by Scripture and culture in shaping our practices. Unlike other Mainline churches, we are a global church and will soon have most of our membership outside the USA. This has kept us more in line with Christian practice worldwide. (This is a very good thing.) There is little doubt about the direction of the main body of United Methodism.
- DIVERSITY (A POSITIVE) HAS BECOME DYSFUNCTION (A NEGATIVE). Being the second largest Protestant denomination in the USA, we are quite diverse and have regional differences. While diversity of practice can sometimes be a strength, disagreement on the nature of Christian discipleship is unworkable in a church that names “making disciples” as our central mission. We must agree on this if we are going to have integrity and be effective.
- THE LORDSHIP OF JESUS INCLUDES HUMAN SEXUALITY. The UMC has a wonderfully balanced and biblical statement on human sexuality. We believe everyone is a person of sacred worth. We decry violence against anyone based on their sexual orientation. We believe that our sexuality must be baptized, along with everything else about us, under the Lordship of Christ. We believe that sexual discipleship is expressed in responsible self-control: celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage. Based on Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 19, we believe that marriage is the enduring union between one man and woman. All UM clergy must support Jesus’ definition of marriage in their pastoral practice and example.
- SECULAR VIEWS ON HUMAN SEXUALITY ARE INFLUENCING THE CHURCH. Around the time our church began to decline numerically in the USA (1960’s), it was obvious that many of the values of the Sexual Revolution were being imported into the church. We saw this first in our seminaries and other institutions of our denomination. For at least forty-four years, debates on human sexuality have raged at our general conferences. Because we are a large denomination that meets only once every four years to set our direction, things tend to move at a glacial pace. There has slowly developed a dissonance between the grass roots of our church and our ivory tower institutions. If I wanted to make you mad, I could detail some of the controversies that have erupted over the years. My goal, however, is not to add heat but light. I want you to understand where things stand.
- CONFLICT OVER HUMAN SEXUALITY IN THE UMC HAS REACHED A BOILING POINT. There was hope among some coming to General Conference 2016 in Portland that they would be able to ride the wave sweeping American culture and change our positions on human sexuality, including the definition of marriage. By the second week of General Conference, it was clear this was not going to be the case. In fact, legislation was coming out of committee that would have served to better enforce our current positions. There were troubling rumors of a church split being negotiated behind the scenes. In response, General Conference invited our bishops to intervene and form a commission. All legislation on human sexuality was put on hold. In the meantime, all parties were called to exercise prayerful restraint for the cause of unity.
- DISAGREEMENT HAS BECOME DEFIANCE. In spite of calls for restraint, disagreement has now erupted into defiance. Several annual conferences have indicated they are creating their own ministry and ordination standards in direct conflict with the ones in our Discipline. In July our smallest and most defiant jurisdiction unanimously elected a person in a same-sex marriage as a United Methodist bishop. This person testifies she has personally conducted fifty or so same-sex weddings that directly contradict the teachings of our church. Bishops vow before God and the church to uphold our Discipline. While there is a court case pending that may speak to the validity of her election, she is in office and the connectional giving of every UMC congregation pays her salary.
- TWO INTRACTABLE POSITIONS ARE AT WORK. Those unwilling to live by the standards of our church are just as unwilling to leave it. And, apart from the dictates of their own consciences, they don’t have to. Because of how our church is structured, clergy serving under sympathetic bishops can break covenant without consequence. Many of those opposed to our Discipline see themselves on a social justice crusade and they will not stop until the whole church is converted to their point of view. This is all happening as the only body empowered to make our rules is becoming more global (and socially conservative) every four years.
- CHANGE IS SURELY COMING. The President of our Council of Bishops admits that there is nothing likely to keep the United Methodist Church in the configuration in which it now stands. Change is coming and decisions will have to be made. The very fabric of our denomination will either be cut or torn. There is the hope that any division would not be complete and that we would continue to coordinate together on things like disaster relief.
- FAITHFUL UNITED METHODISTS ARE TAKING A LOVING STAND. There is a new organization called the Wesley Covenant Association that formed on October 7 in Chicago. WCA aims to draw together those who support the doctrine and discipline of our church and want to do vibrant ministry together in keeping with our stated values. WCA is not a new denomination. It is, rather, a member-based community of warm-hearted Wesleyans who want to navigate through these contentious times faithfully and together. WCA is committed to strong ties with our global church so that we restore our outward focus on biblically and socially conscious ministry in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Here is a video that explains the work of WCA (I showed this video during worship).
- LET’S PRAYERFULLY STAND TOGETHER AS FAITHFUL UNITED METHODIST CHRISTIANS. As a way of fulfilling my vows to support the doctrine and discipline of our church, I have joined the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The problems in The United Methodist Church will take months and years to sort out. WCA is committed to supporting the bishops’ commission with our prayers. We have also gone on record with our opposition to so-called solutions that would require moral compromise in order to retain the outward semblance of unity. As our denomination determines its path, I recommend that we remain faithful to our vows, pay 100% of what is asked of us, and network with like-minded and faithful Christians to create a fruitful future. If we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem. I will be asking our Church Council to make this local church a charter member congregation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.
Pastors, I am praying for you as you decide what to say to the people in your spiritual care. Like all congregations, ours is not completely of one mind. The people I serve communicated overwhelming appreciation, however, that their pastor shared with them the challenges we now face. It would be unrealistic to expect zero disagreement given the conflicted nature of our culture. You will remember that God has not called us to popularity but to faithfulness. The truth graciously stated is winsome and compelling. While the days ahead will not be easy, I encourage you to remember Joshua 1:9… Be strong and courageous. Have the talk.
In addition to American United Methodists’ ties to global United Methodists, there are other streams in global Wesleyan Methodism, of which United Methodism is only one part: Wesleyans, AME Zions, CMEs, Free Methodists, Nazarenes, AMEs, the Methodist church of Brasil, the Methodist church of Nepal (!), the Methodist church of Nigeria (distinct from Nigerian UMs), and more, and more. In fact when one well-meaning early Methodist headed to the Caribbean as a missionary, he arrived only to discover Methodism was already there, courtesy an industrious lay preacher. The Wesleyan Methodist movement around the world is expansive, and United Methodism is only one part of it. The World Methodist Council’s website gives the numbers – 80 denominations around the world representing over 80 million people. Wow.
I respectfully suggest: The bishop’s proposal — and General Conference’s embrace of it — is a call to unity and greater mutual understanding as we, together, look for A Way Forward. They proposed backing off new legislation for greater punishment and backing off plans for separation (or schism). Now is the time for open hearted discussion, prayerful discernment and hope. Now is not the time to mischaracterize Christians of different opinion on same sex marriage as being “unfaithful.” Now is not the time to draw battle lines circumscribing the discernment that General Conference has entrusted to the bishops and their commission.
Dave, I would “respectfully” suggest that a pause only works when both sides pause. If instead, one side continues with flagrantly disobedient actions, that is not a pause.
The connectional nature of our polity also sharpens these points because the Western Jurisdiction is either unwilling or unable to fully meet its connectional obligations so those of us who struggle to pay the full 100% then find ourselves paying for Bishops Oliveto and Talbert. That is simply unsustainable, and I would add, DISrespectful.
Thank you Davenuckols. I think you are exactly right.
It was time to have an honest and balanced talk with congregations years ago. Sounds more like you kept them in the dark and now are providing a very one sided view (encouraging WCA). I wonder how you have explained the call to serve all equally as a biblical principle? Hopefully those who are truly in the center have already engaged, or will be starting, truly balanced conversations that provide both views and engender real discussions
I respect the point that “We need to have that talk.” I teach an adult SS class. There is confusion about “what is really going on” among the members. As you admitted, pastors are avoiding the subject. Few church members even know how they voted at Conference. We need to here from the pulpit where they stand.
Chris, I appreciated your talk at Chicago. A question. In #5, I hear you saying that the WCA is opposed to divorce and re-marriage. I did not hear that at the meeting. Am I reading your statement correctly?
Thanks for the question, George. To my knowledge WCA has no statement on divorce and remarriage and I did not intend to communicate that it did. Speaking personally, I stand with most UMC clergy in saying divorce is a sin but that God’s grace is available and divorced persons can try again for “until death do we part” with another spouse. There is scripture that allows divorce in cases of infidelity. WCA has not staked out any social position distinct from United Methodism’s stated positions.
As always you are very articulate and I appreciate your comments, analysis, and concerns. Thank you.
With regard to your points 5, 6, and 7 – conflict over sexuality in the Methodist Church goes back to not the 1970’s but to 1924 and the case of Rev. Frank Tuttle of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which was about “divorce and remarriage”. (Here is my copy of the 2011 Methodist Review article that brought this to my attention: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/86411849/60-326-1-PB.pdf)
Divorce and Remarriage is the issue in Matthew 19, not homosexuality and Jesus was confronting the abuse of women by the liberal attitudes of some men of his day. Of course, you know all that. Divorce and remarriage is called adultery, a sexual sin.
Assuming that there will be some sort of major change to the structure of the UMC that may or may not include scism and knowing that the clergy, laity, and churches that constitute the WCA want to remain faithful to Jesus and the Scripture, especially concerning sexuality and sexual sin, will they exclude clergy and clergy candidates who are divorce and remarried? Will they refuse to officiate at the second marriage ceremony of a divorced person?
I realize that I have brought this up before in one of your previous posts and you graciously responded. I could go point by point as to why I don’t believe that homosexuality and divorce/remarriage are totally separate issues (I know that there are differences). Why, if we were able to settle the issues presented in the 1920’s and 30’s about divorce/remarriage, are we not able to settle the issue of full inclusion of our LGBT sisters and brothers? Why does THIS have to be the “straw that breaks the camel’s back”? We figured it out before so why not now?
Thanks, Gary. Scripture has a mixed and nuanced treatment of divorce. (There is consensus it is a bad thing. The debate is over when and whether remarriage is allowed). One would have to work much, much harder to make a case for scriptural nuance with regards to homosexuality. Remarriage can get someone back to working on Jesus’ vision in Matthew 19, in spite of their past mistakes. A same sex marriage can never conform to Jesus’ vision, which is rooted in creation and the complimentary gender binary.
All the pastors that never said anything just sat back and let it happen is the real problem, like the one pastor said in 20 years he spoke on homosexuality one time. we can not pick and chose what we preach out of the bible.
Thanks for the comment. Unless a pastor systematically preaches every verse from Genesis to Revelation, we are picking and choosing. All scripture is equally inspired. I don’t know that anyone had ever made a compelling case for the fact that it is all equally relevant. I agree that many of us took the path of least resistance for too long. Blessings to you.
You said the word, relevant.
If we believe that the foundation supporting our efforts and outreach is unity then we must agree that the timely dissemination of accurate information is it’s cornerstone.
Picking and choosing refers to skimming over or omitting those topics that are pertinent and relevant to persons, time, and place because they may be difficult or potentially divisive.
Thanks for at least having the talk, too many others haven’t.
I have only preached against eutychianism once in 45 years. And even then folks didn’t know that was what I was preaching against…
The source of this conflict is and always has been within the U.S. UMC. You mention diversity becoming dysfunction. The UMC in the U.S. is 92% Non-Hispanic White in membership. There are fewer than 40,000 Hispanic UMC members, even though Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. More than half of children under age 6 in the US are non-Anglo.
Diversity isn’t our problem. Homogeneity is. If the U.S. church were ethnically diverse, it wouldn’t be obsessed with homosexuality.
You mention secularization. What is more secular than to divide the church along Republican / Democrat lines? Homosexuality, like abortion, conveniently does just that. The factions in the UMC aren’t seeking diversity. They are seeking political, ethnic, and cultural homogeneity, just like the forces dividing our secular society.
Ethnic (non-Anglo) congregations tend to be socially progressive but theologically conservative. Many of our churches were founded during the time of division over slavery. We exist in the tension between social justice and personal holiness. If we “have the talk” it will be to tell our people that the ever-shrinking space we have in the UMC is going away, and neither side will fully accept us.
If we join the left, we will remain marginal among those who see our spirituality as pre-modern, our morality intolerant, our theology unenlightened. If we join the right, we will to choose a denomination whose organizational principle is the rejection of homosexual practice in a context that tolerates xenophobic Trump supporters (most of whom, in the UMC, sympathize with the WCA).
Some ethnic churches will choose sides based on social or doctrinal concerns only to find their “like-minded” colleagues oppose supporting their ministries through equitable compensation and appointment security. They will continue to see their white colleagues receive top salaries in churches that fail to pay apportionments and continue to experience the impunity of racial and gender discrimination, tokenism, cronyism, and nepotism at all levels of their UMC experience.
We can remove the gnat (call it homo-phobia or homo-heresy), but there’s more than one kind of gnat in our United Methodist soup. The gnat covered camel eating at our table is antagonism, the desire to have power without responsibility, authority without authenticity, leadership without solidarity, justification without mercy, grace without order, order without grace.
Wow, I am so moved by this response. I feel a call to action. Thank you for your thoughtful and intelligent comments.
I agree that it is time to talk. But one thing to bear in mind is that the BOD is a double-edged sword with regard to Licensed Local Pastors. Having no guarantee of appointments, we are a greater risk of being given the boot if accused of stirring up the already boiling pot of dissension. Apparently the same standards are not being applied across our denomination. Otherwise, many an elder would have lost their credentials long ago, which in part explains why such heretics have been allowed to roost ruling positions.
After reading your post and all the comments, here is my take as a thoroughly disenchanted United Methodist who is here because I had what now feels like the questionable blessing/dubious honor of being born into the Methodist Church. I discovered in John Wesley what I have actually been yearning for : a practical Christianity for a plain people in community with each other. This is NOT what has been clearly nor consistently offered by neither the Methodist nor the United Methodist Church in my lifetime! And based on what you and the ones who have made comment have described, it is going to be a very long time before the UMC puts the sexuality debacle to rest so that it can come anywhere close to even thinking about reclaiming a practical religion for a plain people in community with each other. In the process of becoming too respectable, the Methodist/United Methodist Church made Christianity way too complicated. It was 3 months before my 60th birthday that I stumbled into the Heidelberg Catechism and three very modern books about it and finally discovered that the triune God of holy love is most definitely a God worth worshiping and that Christianity is not rocket science–which is what it felt like in its Methodist/United Methodist ambiguity–but is actually simply unfathomable!
My daughter is lesbian and has been in a loving relationship, now martied. When the issue hits home we change our positions if we love our children. We must mature. The Bible was written by Middle Eastern men nearly 2, 000 and mrre years ago. We cannot continue literalism that is so divisive.We have scientific proof of the spectrum of sexuality now. I was baptized in a small country Methodist church, and I have been proud that the Methodists have shown compassion, tolerance and full acceptance of LGBT citizens who are made by our God the way they are.
If there is a called General conference in 2018, are the delegates limited to just the proposals from the Bishops’ Commission, or will they be able to pass any legislation as they see fit?
The enemy hates clarity
We are limited to acting on the business for which we were called unless GC voted by 2/3 majority to do other business.
oops, one more question in that area. Say the Commission comes up with a proposal. Is General Conference just limited to an up or down vote, or could it be amended and then passed?
The enemy hates clarity
I am sure we could work to perfect it. What is less clear is where the line is between amending the proposal and replacing it.
I left my Methodist upbringing for the reasons of a) abortion, b) UMW being independently operating from the church with liberal political views and UN ties, c) bad judgment on church leader/clergy discipline. Now I have been a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod member for 18 years. Human behavior regarding sexual misconduct by clergy and laity is found in any Protestant denomination; however, the discipline agreed on by the congregation nipped the problem in the bud for the benefit of the congregation in my example. The individuals were ashamed of the transgressions and as much as the bombshell hit us we really operated with Christian love to those who lost their positions in the church. The matters of same sex relationships and definition of marriage is not the distracting focus because of scriptural adherence and practice. The UMC works of outreach I admire as it is one of Wesley’s tenets. The “social justice” matters that are more secular I fear will weaken your unity. But maybe that would lead to reform to return to focus on the scriptures vs secular solutions.
You are setting up the structures to divorce yourself from the UMC and to establish your own Methodist denomination. . I am a centrist also, and I don’t want to have my intelligence insulted. You are calling us to take one side or another. As for me I am called to Love the people I am called to serve. So just like those in the Western Jurisdiction you have committed yourself to the breaking up of our United Methodist Church. To that I want no part of your association!
Rev. Mark Klaisner
St. James UMC of Appleton
Sorry you feel that way, Mark. Time is a great revealer of truth. I encourage you to stay tuned and keep an open mind. I believe WCA is holding people in the UMC that would otherwise be discouraged and leave. That is one of the many reasons I am part of the effort.
Interesting to me that the WCA reflects the UMC Book of Discipline, Wesleyan doctrine and UM polity. So, affirming these is seen as dividing the church? Sounds like WCA is reinforcing what the UMC actually is. Conversely, the nonconformists, rebellious conferences and clergy as seen as the ones holding the denominations together in unity. What am I missing here? The majority of the global connection looks much more like the WCA than the extreme views of Progressive Liberals.