Editor’s Note: See also Part One: “Seven Blessings and Seven Bumps: Traditional Methodists and the Protocol“
by Bob Phillips
OK, I am not part of the progressive/centrist tribe for the purpose of this discussion. That said, anyone who refuses to acknowledge and work at combatting confirmation bias turns his or her integrity to toast in dialogue with those with whom major differences exist. One can be neither a bridge-builder (pontifex) nor a peacemaker for Christ when the views of the “other” are misstated, mis-represented or ignored. So, consider the following suggested blessings and bumps for Progressives/Centrists in response to the Feinberg Protocol.
- The plan brings an end to head-butting over sexuality. “Peace. Be still.” The birthing of two expressions of Methodism under the Protocol will place the increasingly vicious kerfuffle over homosexuality in the rear-view mirror. (Yes, this works for both groups).
- The plan offer a way for a gracious new birth of two expressions of the faith that cannot otherwise live together. Sniping, litigation and a Methodist version of the religious “Hundred Years’ War” gives way to an approach that enables the Progressive/Centrist (P/C) wing of the US church to retain all the boards, agencies, schools and institutional status quo of the existing denomination. No P/C church or pastor need fear being driven out of the denomination they love. The loss of some (not all) traditional members and resources will call for re-formation, but that was inevitable and now can be conducted without habitual conflict.
- The plan offers a fresh vision of the ministry of justice for the church. LGBTQIA+ issues no longer will be denied. Large justice will be served. Women’s reproductive choices, rooted in their Christian consciences, will be affirmed. The unjust treatment of peoples present and past, ranging from reparation for the church’s complicity in Native American and African slavery to the current oppression of the Palestinians, will receive a voice currently muted or denied. Immigration justice will be clear.
- Growth can begin. Aspects of official church teaching and practice, while helpful in some Bible-belt subcultures, have been harmful in large and largely unchurched portions of the country. New forms, style and content for church planting and revitalization finally will be available without criticisms or opposition. Urban Village, the Miofsky ‘Gathering’ model and other progressive new church plant models can occur without objection or obstruction. The genius of the centrist spirit in much of Methodism can flourish in reaching people who seek Christ but are wary of insistence for a total buy-in on secondary issues. “At all opinions that do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think” once again will a word and deed reality.
- The plan opens the door to the 21st century. There is integrity and deep spirituality in realizing that people can interpret scripture differently and yet still love God and the Bible passionately. Fresh theologies birthed from the human experiences of this century and refracted through scripture now can have full permission to speak through the schools and pulpits of the church. Queer, womanist and liberation theologies now can gain a larger hearing, while not silencing more traditional views.
- Freedom of conscience is protected and affirmed. Those progressives whose conscience cannot abide remaining in a church with any restrictions on LGBTQIA+ inclusion will have seed money to birth a truly and totally progressive church, a Methodist version of the Metropolitan Community Church. Those who agree and disagree over same sex marriage or the ordination of LGBT as clergy, often called centrists, likewise are protected. Others talk of inclusion and diversity; this plan enables both.
- The seminaries are united behind this vision. With one possible exception, all the seminaries of the church are fully onboard with LGBTQIA+ rights and issues. All but one publicly denounced the outcome of GC2019. All are committed to producing quality and effective clergy for this century. All reflect diversity, both in theology as well as matters of gender, race and ethnicity. The 30% of the student body of Iliff School of Theology that is LGBTQIA+ (statement of Iliff President Wolfe) will no longer be automatically excluded from ordination because of their sexual orientation or gender identities, but will be evaluated like any other ordination candidate. The future leadership of the church is in good hands as all the seminaries remain the primary source for leadership.
- Insanity is repeating the same act while expecting different results. The Protocol creates a legacy UMC very similar to post-separation Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal expressions. Their numerical decline accelerated; the PCUSA predicts its membership will go from 2.5M in 2000 to 1.1M in 2020. How can we avoid accelerated decline?
- Defaulting into an “AFUMC,” ‘America First UMC.’ Virtually every global edge of growth for Christianity, including Methodism, flows from African, Latino, Korean and other Asian expressions, and all are firmly traditional in theology and their understanding of marriage. An outcome that produces an overwhelming American, white, Western, middle-aged, affluent, college educated church would be a painful and public contradiction to a church that prides itself on inclusion. Beware lest the policy of inclusion includes everyone who agrees with “inclusion,” and no one else, especially from the global church. Labeling such Christians as ‘not yet evolved’ or unsophisticated doesn’t help.
- The ministry of Ka-Ching. Gallup and Pew research suggests that of Americans who tithe their income to charity, 80% are self-avowed, practicing evangelicals. Added to the US cultural dynamic that millennials are disinclined to pledge or give at the proportional levels of other generations, the financial challenges facing a P/C Methodism can hurt. And owning the Methodist Building on Capitol Hill, which is worth millions, is useless unless the building is sold, which would raise a myriad of other issues.
- Pressure on the Progressive/Centrist alliance will strain it. Will centrist churches and clergy that are ok with other churches and colleagues performing gay weddings and having an openly gay/lesbian, non-binary, or drag pastor but who reject such behaviors for themselves find pressures to conform? If rejecting same sex weddings and sexually active LGBTQIA+ clergy truly is the moral equal to those who rejected integration or women’s rights, how will progressives comfortably live alongside those whose views reflect bigotry or backwardness, even if unintentionally held? The line between toleration and condescension can be hard to draw and harder to maintain.
- Where will the boundaries be redrawn? Some conference Boards of Ordained Ministry are omitting vows about ‘celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage.’ Ashley Boggan Dreff, in her scholarly study of the modern United Methodist battle over sexuality, (Entangled), sketches alternatives to evangelical “rule-based’ morality in shifting standards regarding premarital sex, ‘fidelity’ in committed relationships, the nature of marriage, abortion, the nature of parenthood, non-binary sexual identities, affirmation of bisexuality and similar edgy issues, with queer theory underscoring her study as “the launching point through which to understand all other aspects of society.” Will centrists become the new fundamentalists as such issues unfold in uncomfortable ways?
- What is the gospel? Dreff comments that, “American United Methodists are all evangelical in that they desire to spread the gospel” (Entangled, p 4). What is the gospel in a church where clergy are free to believe or disbelieve the atonement of Christ (cosmic child abuse), the resurrection (resuscitation of a corpse), the virgin birth (when Joseph or someone else first had physical sex with Mary to produce Jesus), or Jesus as Lord (defined as a way, a truth and a life but not the only way to God). When does the name of Jesus cease to be “the name above all names” (Phil 2) and become a gumby toy bent and stretched to fit any definition? Has anyone actually seen an experiential conversion?
- Paying the freight. Receiving the infrastructure/boards/agencies makes sense, since nearly all staffers are P/C Christians. How does a reduced church pay those bills? Who goes, who stays, what gets cut, and who will bear the bad news?
Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference
Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews
Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution
Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)