by Chris Ritter
It was none other than John Wesley himself who first penned the words “agree to disagree.” This deceptively simple little phrase was evidently a favorite of George Whitefield whose death in 1770 occasioned Wesley’s use of the expression in a eulogy for his fellow Methodist.
Wesley and Whitefield had ministries that were turbulently intertwined. The two alternated as friends, detractors, partners, and adversaries. It was Whitefield that first involved Wesley in that “vile” habit of preaching outdoors. The two later clashed publicly and viciously over theologies of predestination and free grace.
A once unified Methodist movement split into separate organizations that first blasted and later blessed each other, finding ways to share some degree of coordination. Whitefield, the better orator, was eventually outdone by Wesley, the better organizer. But the two evangelistic enterprises successfully paralleled each other for many years. Calvinist Methodists were particularly strong in Wales where today they help comprise the Presbyterian Church.
Next year, United Methodists will (I expect) finally agree to disagree over the topic of human sexuality. We may do so, like Wesley and Whitefield, by moving into separate but affiliated organizations. If a majority of United Methodist bishops have their way, we will continue to disagree within the current institutional structure, moving the conversation down to the conference and local church levels. Our differences, they say, are not worth separating over. Human sexuality need not be a church dividing issue.
The issue, however, is not so much sexuality as the nature of Christian marriage. Behind this reside large areas of theological and ideological incongruence flowing from divergent understandings of Scripture. Letting everyone just do their own thing does not fit in our polity which is anything but a la carte with regards to apportionments, clergy deployment, and superintendency. Our institution already struggles to justify its hierarchical, authoritarian, and bureaucratically top-heavy design as its theology, message, and moral practices have become plural.
In a system wound as tightly as ours, the price of unity under the One Church Plan would often tax the conscience. Traditionalists, who feel bound to uphold the New Testament definition of marriage, will nevertheless be forced to financially endorse a rival vision.
The theological issues that caused an organizational split between Wesley and Whitefield were not the first-order theological concerns that define Christian orthodoxy. They each subscribed to the historic creeds and preached repentance leading to salvation by grace alone. They also shared almost identical ministry strategies and each maintained ordination in the Church of England. But Wesley, who held in his name a whole string of Methodist preaching houses, was not going to see them taken over by Calvinist Methodists. In fact, the first Methodist Doctrinal Standard was the one placed in the “model deed” attached to these properties. Here Wesley defined his brand of Methodism to insure that the buildings erected by his fund-raising efforts would not be taken over by Methodists of other theological stripe. He was a preacher of free grace and was not going to provide a venue for the preaching of predestination.
Wesley and Whitefield were different sorts of Methodists and this led to separate organizations. It helped their friendship to approach this frankly and honestly. The two movements divided the mission field so that there would be maximum impact and minimum opportunities for friction. Good fences made good neighbors.
For us, the alternative to this approach is an open-ended, intramural, zero sum game.
Consider the cuckoo. Some species have the habit of laying their eggs in the nest of other birds (such as wrens.) Though the eggs might look a bit different, the wrens will usually brood them along with their own. The insidious part is that the cuckoo eggs have a shorter incubation period. The cuckoo chick hatches first and instinctively kicks the wren eggs out of the nest. The unwitting hosts spend the next weeks caring for the young cuckoo until it flies away to start the cycle over again.
When supporters of the One Church Plan say we can all live together harmoniously in the current structure, we Traditional Methodists hear the call of the cuckoo. Many of us already feel like we are too often tending someone else’s theological egg. In spite of several glowing examples of shared accomplishments by our pluralistic denomination, what is currently hatching in the U.S. branch is antithetical to what we have been working to incubate. Progressives rejecting the institutional compromises in the One Church Plan have similar concerns.
Two of the plans in the Way Forward Report respect the deep theological differences in our church by offering differentiated conferences, episcopacies, and funding… amidst continued cooperation. Only the One Church Plan does not. (I have sketched some additional suggestions to avoid needlessly blowing up the church.)
It seems like General Conference 2019 should begin by acknowledging that we are different sorts of Methodists and, like Wesley and Whitefield, organize appropriately. This doesn’t necessitate a full separation. But being a Traditional, Evangelical, or thoroughly Progressive United Methodist should not also require being a sucker.
The two most important figures in early Methodism found ways to have hearts of peace toward one another in spite of sharp theological differences. Now it’s our turn. Honesty, love, and mutual respect are keys to claiming the appropriate boundaries we need for future cooperation.