A guest post by Bob Phillips*
Recently a group of clergy and lay leadership in the denomination have created a new organization to engage the larger church during the Way Forward process. The “Uniting Methodist” movement has much to offer as well as challenges to face.
When the formation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association was announced in 2016, Rev. John Harnish, an effective and respected pastor, offered a blog in which he expressed concerns about the agenda, purpose and impact of the WCA. His insights were helpful to me, who had not yet joined the WCA, in clarifying what truly matters most for our denomination as it lives into a most intriguing future. About the same time Dr. Philip Amerson, former President of Claremont and Garrett Evangelical seminaries and a friend, addressed “An Open Letter to Friends in the WCA.” The letter contained five essentially rhetorical questions but also helpful in discerning what is wise from what is purely knee-jerk in possible reactions to denominational turmoil.
In the spirit of John and Philip, I offer the following affirmations and cautions regarding the formation of the Uniting Methodist movement. As a WCA member I am aware the first casualty for integrity when affirming those with whom there is disagreement is the hypocrisy that ‘damns with faint praise.’ Since such antics are obvious when attempted and reflect only insincerity on the part of the perpetrator, I shall seek to avoid that particularly noxious sin!
Affirmations for the Uniting Methodist Movement
- The board for the group is first rate in the best of ways. I have used with spiritual profit and gratitude the wisdom of Mike Slaughter, Jim Harnish and Adam Hamilton, as have many in our denominations of all theological stripes. Tom Berlin is highly regarded in his conference where my daughter also serves as an elder. I met Lonnie Chafin and Dave Nuckols during North Central Jurisdictional events, and found them both solidly committed to working to shift church teaching on aspects of human sexuality and cordial and gracious in their interactions with those who affirmed existing teaching. These are good folks with a track record of service to Christ and the church.
- The board contains some superb leaders from the administrative and institutional wing of the church. The current and prior CEOs of the Publishing House, a former Presidential press secretary, the President of one of our official seminaries, and a district superintendent represent a good deal of institutional heft. That’s fine with me.
- The first three core statements reflect a solid, positive approach. The commitment to make disciples as part of a unified church, to join personal and social evangelism and witness, and to affirm the Doctrinal Standards and Theological Task of the church as stated in the Discipline are balanced, constructive affirmations crucial to any healthy future for the denomination.
Challenges for the Uniting Methodist Movement
- Is the movement basically a single-issue lobby group? Nearly every United Methodist church that affirms or rejects same gender marriage or the ordination of ‘self-avowed practicing’ homosexuals and lesbians have this in common: decline. Possibilities exist for spiritual revival and renewal that is desperately needed in the US church. Pushing the re-set button is needed for institutional structure, resources, education and personnel. I encourage the UNIMETH movement not to shy away from this vital big picture.
- Is belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ a matter of biblical interpretation or biblical authority? Every doctrine is the product of an interpretation of scripture, making the approach that draws a distinction between interpretation and authority on the nature of Christian marriage a path strewn with intellectual and pragmatic land mines. Does the movement welcome those who view the resurrection of Christ as metaphorical rather than statements of truth underscored by facts such as the empty tomb?
- Do any of the board members personally believe and publically affirm agreement with the existing teaching of the church that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching?” Many on the board honestly don’t believe that statement is true, but are there board members who do believe it and will say so? To seek common ground for all sides is great, provided all sides truly are represented in the mix.
- In the press for a place in the church, the LGBTQIA movement has made strides, but the UNIMETH movement says nothing about most of those groups. Will marriage and ordination be open to bisexuals, intersex and transgendered persons in adult commitments consistent with their created nature? These also are questions for the wider church, including the WCA, and stock answers are not answers.
- How does the UNIMETH advocacy for an ‘each to their own’ approach to marriage and ordination differ from the Presbyterians? The PCUSA adopted virtually identical approaches to what is advocated by UNIMETH. The PCUSA estimates its membership will drop from 2.5 million in 2000 to roughly 1 million members in 2020. How can we do what they did yet somehow not suffer the same fate?
- What is the UNIMETH prophetic word to the Western Jurisdiction and conferences and bishops currently operating in open disobedience of the Discipline? To disagree is natural; where there are two Methodists there are three opinions…and a potluck. Disagree, yes; the crux is in disobedience. For example, Karen Oliveto’s unanimous election to the office of bishop powerfully demonstrated the absence of meaningful diversity and the marginalization of voices representing traditional United Methodists in the WJ. How UNIMETH engages and critiques such facts will greatly enhance or significantly undercut its credibility.
Neither the WCA nor UNIMETH nor the Way Forward commission nor the called General Conference have ‘the’ answers to the world of challenges facing our church. Dialogue, speaking the truth in love, admitting that no one ever comes to a meeting in order to change their mind…of such is the way to the Kingdom of the future God has prepared for the church. I look forward to hearing much more about the ideas, goals and the actions of Uniting Methodists in the months to come. And as I pray for the board of the WCA, so now I will pray for the leadership of Uniting Methodists…and not simply that God would open the eyes of “the other guys” to see it my way!
*Rev. Dr. Bob Phillips is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Illinois, with advanced degrees from Asbury, Princeton and St. Andrews (Scotland). He retired with the rank of Captain as the senior United Methodist Chaplain in the US Navy in 2005. An elder in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, Bob most recently served as Directing Pastor of Peoria First United Methodist Church prior to his retirement.