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Happenings Around the Church: The Newsletter of the Confessing Movement (within the United Methodist Church USA)

TIME FOR A REALITY CHECK—THE GAP

By Riley Case

Is the United Methodist Church in trouble? In February 2019 a special called General Conference is supposed to lead the church in a “Way Forward.” What is hoped for is some plan that the conference will adopt that will bring the United Methodist Church together around commonly shared beliefs and values. From the beginning, The Confessing Movement has questioned whether this is possible. The differences in the church are too great. However, because of our love for the church many of us have put on a hopeful face; we have cooperated with the process. We have sought to be faithful in prayer. Now it is time for a reality check. 

Check #1. Barring some unusual turn of events, the United Methodist Church has not yet strayed so far afield that it will turn its back on 2,000 years of church history and long-standing moral codes to reverse its position on such matters as the definition of marriage and its teaching on celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage. Despite the fact that this is precisely what a majority of U.S. bishops is proposing through its lobbying for the “One Church” plan, it isn’t going to happen. By some strange twist of logic these bishops believe that by removing all negative references to homosexual practice in the Discipline the church will live together in peace. United Methodism as a whole is too much committed to the Bible and our Wesleyan heritage to suddenly abandon that which we have identified as a part of historic Christianity.

Check #2. If this is true, then it is time to have some discussions about a serious problem in the church, namely the disconnect between institutional leaders and rank and file UMs. The institutional leadership of the church is simply not understanding the depth of convictions of its own constituency, including and especially with that constituency outside the United States. We appear to be living in two worlds. We talk past each other on the meaning, for example, of Christian unity. 

The disconnect is not a new thing. Perhaps it is better to call it the Gap. I became painfully aware of this one week into seminary years ago. I was a student pastor and I realized there were two different worlds, the churches on my circuit that I loved and cared for and the seminary. It was a national election year and in a poll 88% of the seminary faculty identified as Democrat. I don’t think my churches would have polled 88% Republican but they were certainly more conservative than liberal in their politics. And in their theology. And in their Biblical interpretation. And in their moral values. We had pledged in those days to abstain from alcohol and tobacco. Many in the seminary community honored that pledge,but many did not. So there was a Gap. 

 

Later, as a part of Good News, I was involved in a series of conversations with Curriculum Resources persons on Sunday School material. The philosophy at that time was that one size fit all. There was no theological or cultural and educational diversity. Institutional conformity disallowed anything but denominationally produced progressive literature, film strips and even hymnals. Meanwhile, numbers of local churches were in rebellion over whether the material they were supposed to use was appropriate. So in our conversations we would talk about the Gap.

The 1972 General Conference gave progressives everything they asked for with the exception that an amendment from the floor of the conference had added to the statement on human sexuality: "The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching." Of course the phrase would need to be deleted at the 1976 GC. However, in the April 1976 issue of Interpreter magazine, a major article reported that on the basis of 13,000 responses from UM clergy and lay “United Methodists across the church are more conservative—both theologically and sociologically—than the church’s programs.” Only 20% of the laity supported a four-year study on homosexuality. 75% of the clergy and 79% of the laity opposed gay ordination. Less than 40% of the laity supported continued support of the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, and Consultation on Church Union (COCU). Thus, the Gap. The incompatible phrase was not deleted. In fact, stronger language was added to the Discipline.

In 1980 a major effort was made to overturn legislation passed in 1976 that church funds would not be given to groups advocating support of gay groups as well as the statement on not condoning the practice of homosexuality. UM News Service reported that the major agencies and caucus groups, with the exception of Good News, supported the changes. In addition, a new advocacy group, the Coalition for the Whole Gospel, formed to advance the progressive agenda. As for those who opposed the agenda, like Good News, the following was written by The Social Questions Bulletin published by M.F.S.A.

Religious fundamentalism, with its moral absoluteness, its other worldliness, and its holy war mentality, also thrives in a climate of fear and uncertainty. The wedding between militant fundamentalism and reactionary politics is a natural and occurring one.

The inflammatory language of that opinion and many others is not that much different than what is being advanced in 2018. From the institutional point-of-view, evangelicals in the church were (and are) backward, hateful, fundamentalist, homophobic, and unenlightened and do not represent true United Methodism which is, of course, that reflected in seminaries, boards and agencies and progressive caucus groups. Even at that time (1980) questions were being asked whether the institutional leaders of the church were aware of the Gap, that is, the great difference between their understanding of the Church and that of rank and file United Methodists.

In 1988 the GC authorized a Homosexual Task Force made up primarily (as could be expected) of board and agency types to see if the church could find a Way Forward (though they did not quite describe it that way). The Task Force (naturally) came to the 1992 GC with a 17-4 recommendation to remove the restrictive language on homosexual practice from the Discipline. Once again there was a misreading of United Methodist constituency (the Gap). The General Conference vote rejecting the Task Force report and upholding the Discipline was 710 to 238.

After the 2000 GC Christian Social Action, the official journal of the Board of Church and Society, devoted 80% of its Nov.-Dec. issue to the horrific actions of the General Conference. By this time The Confessing Movement was on the scene, so it was attacked as well as was Good News. Of The Confessing Movement and its motto Confessing Jesus Christ as Son, Savior and Lord, the journal opined: “Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Savior of the world, and the Lord of history and the church”—the very statement contradicts “a tradition extending back to John Wesley, which not only affirms a variety of Christians within the denomination, but also respects and celebrates the diversity of world religions through which God continues to speak.” Oh yes, the Gap. Evidently the institutional leadership believed that to proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior was much too exclusive and did not represent the views of the denomination.

The teaching of the historic church on human sexuality was upheld by the succeeding General Conferences of 2004, 2008 and 2012. Again in 2016 the pressure was on to reverse the UM stand on human sexuality (which is also the historic stand of the Church Universal). Arrayed against the evangelical renewal groups, which wished to support the long-standing position of the church, were the Connectional Table (the influential agency in the church), 28 bishops and their signed statement, numbers of boards and agencies, and a strong coalition called Love Your Neighbor made up of 13 official and unofficial caucuses of the church. In addition, a number of plans and ideas from those calling themselves “centrists” or the “middle way” or the “way forward” were advocating “live and let live” policies. None of the proposed changes and compromises even made it out of committee.

Can we begin to talk about the Gap? Talks about amicable separation were already in progress in 2016. Institutional leaders were horrified. An appeal was made to the bishops to intervene. Another study. Another commission. More discussion. By a vote of 428-405 the legislation before the 2016 GC on sexuality was not brought to the floor and instead the church called for a special General Conference to find “a Way Forward” (as if the church had not been working on this for 50 years). 

The bishops (and other institutional leaders) in their proposal for a plan for “A Way Forward” have evidently not learned much from the past 50 years. They are lobbying to ditch the church’s long-established standard on sexual morality. They appear to assume that the rank and file of United Methodism doesn’t care that much about marriage and will continue to support the institution even if the church ordains gays and lesbians and conducts same gender marriages. They argue that “unity” of the institution takes precedence over all other convictions, even the commitment to Biblical standards. They would also reject all ideas of a “gracious exit” for those who in good conscience could not support the church’s new non-stance. This is called the “One Church” plan? 

Are we not learning anything?  What has changed since 2016? Is there a ground swell of support for the church to abandon long-time standards?  Is there any evidence at all to assume that the UM Church, if we pass the One Church Plan, will be different from Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, Lutherans, Presbyterians and American Baptists who are all in the midst of imploding following their abandonment of Scripture in these matters? Is there any evidence that there will not be irreparable harm in Africa if the church suddenly declares that the practice of homosexuality is not incompatible with Christian teaching, but is simply a matter of personal preference and all such practices are to be approved lest we appear not to be inclusive? 

Time for a reality check. The conference will not adopt the One Church Plan. What it will adopt or not adopt, as the case may be, is yet to be determined. Keep praying. 

Happenings Around the Church 9.1.2019

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