Wesleyan Wisdom: Must the old order fade, or can we embrace the dawn?

Recently I saw the film version of Les Misérables, a moving portrayal of the fading of the old order and the rising of the new. At the barricades in the streets of Paris, the young and restless lost and the old order prevailed for another day. But the forces for change had a battle cry: that however black the night, it would soon yield to the dawning of a new day.

Donald Haynes

Donald W. Haynes

I cannot support a division of United Methodism. However, divisiveness, acrimony and socio-theological elitism continue to erode our numerical and financial strength. Long ago a prescient Lyle Schaller warned us of the silent vote of those who walk down the aisle and out the door for their last time, never to return. More than 700,000 have made that walk in this young century.

Only God can measure spiritual strength, but it is a sad excuse when anyone sees sinking quantity as a sign of deepened spiritual quality. In my generation’s early days of numerical decline, it became quite fashionable to applaud loss of membership as an indication of the “purification of the church.” Those pastors spent a career of leaving churches smaller and weaker than they found them, yet moved on to larger churches, took advantage of the free-enterprise economics that they had vilified, and now enjoy a rather plush pension. Sadly, my generation also has seen thousands of their biological children and grandchildren leave the church of their family heritage.

One sad streak of paranoia seems to pervade both conservatives and liberals when they caucus. Both stigmatize the grassroots organizations, the annual conference luncheons, the financial backing and the overall influence of their theological opposites. Each feels disempowered, outmaneuvered and disrespected.

United Methodism has declined from almost 11 million U.S. members at the time of formation to well under 7.7 million today. One must ask in honest candor if the major “glue” of the United Methodist Church today is the property “Trust Clause” and clergy pensions. If so, then our unity is not in Jesus’ prayer “that they all may be one” (John 17:21), but in “the things of this world.” To quote Lyle Schaller once again, “the ‘ice cube’ is melting.”

In the recent movie, Lincoln, Steven Spielberg depicts so vividly the meeting of President Lincoln and Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens on a boat on the Potomac River. If peace could have been agreed on in the winter of 1865, thousands of battlefield deaths and maybe an assassination conspiracy could have been avoided. But Stephens balked when Lincoln insisted that the South would have to abandon all laws that institutionalized and legalized the heinous system of human slavery. The South sacrificed because “keepers of the keys” refused to open to a new world. When you wait too long to change, history passes by you.

Diana Butler Bass in her recent book, Christianity After Religion, documents that we are in a “time of endings.” She also points to streaks of a new dawn and calls it a “time of awakening.” John Wesley’s genius was that he saw in 1784 that political colonialism and the old order of churches had faded. Yes, he died an Anglican priest, but he bowed to the reality of history by ordaining two lay preachers and empowering them to ordain Francis Asbury upon their arrival in America. He saw the time of endings as also a time of awakening! A member of the old order, he “set aside” Thomas Coke as an old order bishop who was to lay hands on a new order lay preacher named Francis Asbury! He embraced the dawn! Can we?

I am being asked by dozens of email writers, “How does Aldersgate relate to our local church’s revitalization?” I am writing a book-length manuscript that is a “playbook” on local church revitalization. The hope is that its publication will coincide with the upcoming 275th anniversary of Aldersgate (1738-2013). In the book, I call for the reform but survival of much of the “old order”—a connectional polity, members of annual conferences supervised by a bishop and “presiding Elders.” The local church lay leaders would be “Stewards.” They would be defined as “those who love the church and are capable of administering its spiritual and temporal affairs.”

Itineracy would be preserved, but not in its present form. The “base of the pyramid” would be empowered; pastors and Stewards would be stakeholders regarding appointments and longevity. Most importantly, the vital breath of Aldersgate’s “experimental divinity” would be prayed for and preached in the spirit of Moravian Peter Bohler who said to Wesley as they walked the 43 miles from London to Oxford in April 1738: “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

There is a latent spiritual power dammed up in United Methodism. Some of this spiritual power and energy is in the Council of Bishops, some is in the personnel of the general boards and agencies, some is in the seminary faculties, and much of it is in local church clergy and devoted laity. As Isaiah writes to his people in Babylonian exile, “Look to the rock from which you were cut and the quarry from which you were dug.” (Isaiah 51:1)  The prophet promises that if they do that, “the desert will be like Eden and the wilderness like the Lord’s garden. Happiness and joy will be found in her—thanksgiving and the sound of singing.”

Wow. . . . Picture that for your local church. Picture that for a session of “holy conferencing” at charge, annual or quadrennial settings in the years ahead!

Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: dhaynes11@triad.rr.com.

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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