Wesleyan Wisdom: Bad news can be good, if it stirs faithful courage

Something about a recent editorial by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye. To me, it suggested a parallel between the state of the Republican Party and the state of our denomination.

Donald Haynes

Donald W. Haynes

Ms. Noonan began: “Viewed a certain way, the 2012 election can be seen as a gift to Republicans wrapped in ugly paper. The wrapping looked like a hostage note with a message scrawled in crayon: ‘We hate you.’ But inside was a gift, and the gift was time. The party was given the opportunity, when it is still strong, to hold [a] fresh, open-the-windows debate. . . . Everyone, from the establishment to the base, just took a serious shock to the system. . . . Right now everyone’s open to the idea of change. The party can either go the way of the Whigs or they can straighten up and fly right, get serious, make their philosophy feel new again. . . .”

Much of that language could also apply to the United Methodist Church. Consider what we leave for posterity as we look back at 2012. Is this not a wake-up call?

• The 2012 General Conference’s rejection of the bishops’ and study committee’s Call to Action.

• The 2012 South Central Jurisdictional Conference’s support of involuntary retirement for a bishop, and the subsequent rejection by the Judicial Council of the SCJ Conference action.

• The advice of Western Jurisdiction bishops to disobey the law of the church—law that they vowed to support when they were consecrated.

• The Judicial Council striking down General Conference’s decision to withdraw from “guaranteed appointment” because we cannot afford it.

• The closing of all Cokesbury stores.

• The move of Saint Paul School of Theology from its campus to a local church.

• The close of two UMC-affiliated colleges.

• Delayed maintenance on thousands of our church buildings.

• Downsized staffs, unfunded budget items in a majority of our local churches, and an increasing loss of money church-wide, forcing some very hard decisions about the “cost of doing business.”

• The alarming average age and Anglo complexion in UM congregations, and continuing drops in membership and attendance.

Those traumatizing developments should force United Methodists to do what Ms. Noonan says the Republicans must do—“hold a fresh, open-the-windows debate,” or go the way of the Whigs. Do you remember the Whigs? Divided by their position on slavery, they abandoned incumbent U.S. President Millard Fillmore of New York in favor of another Whig, General Winfield Scott of Virginia, and lost the 1852 election so overwhelmingly that the party disintegrated, the southern Whigs moving over to the northern Democrats, while in the north the Republican Party was created by 1856. The Whigs were defeated by their own myopia and cultural compromise. Could the UMC be headed down the same path?

There is an adage that old generals send young men to fight with antiquated war manuals. Remember learning as schoolchildren how the regimented British redcoats in the 1770s fought “European style,” lining up their soldiers in rows with orders to “fire and fall back”? Meanwhile the American frontiersmen were firing long rifles from behind trees. We won, they lost. Similarly, are we holding on to old denominational structures and paradigms while independent “upstart churches” reach more young people and build more racially diverse congregations?

Ms. Noonan says, “Organisms that survive a shock are often able to see their surroundings more acutely [and adapt to them].” OK! We can do this! But will we? Or will our long cherished methodological legalism and revered Book of Discipline be twisted into the noose that hangs us? Can we have an “open-the-windows” debate without resorting to name calling, stereotyping and caricaturing? We must “get real,” or we could indeed go the way that New England Congregationalists and Southern Episcopalians went in the face of the Second Great Awakening (c. 1800-1850). Methodism had 3 percent of American church members at the time the Republic was founded; by 1840, we had 34 percent plus the numbers of the Evangelical, United and Brethren churches.

America today is not in a tranquil frame of mind. There is no spirit of compromise or mood for listening in any dimension of our culture. Likewise, the Wesleyan “catholic spirit” which was the watchword of theological liberalism for generations has eroded. Historic fundamentalism was unbending on issues of doctrine and biblical literalism; now there is a liberal fundamentalist-type posture that is unbending on social justice issues. There is also a group of “structural fundamentalists” who insist on “protecting our heritage” in areas such as guaranteed appointment, even if we close the churches that those clergy would serve! We now seem to relish in-your-face, finger-pointing arguments. Cooler heads must prevail.

Surely there are those who cherish Methodism more than they revel in a win/lose approach to issues that threaten to divide us. Or are there?

Surely, no wag can say of us what is often said by British Methodists: “Come weal or come woe, our status is quo.” Or can they?

Surely our episcopal leaders and Judicial Council members will listen to the legislative branch. Or will they?

Surely annual conferences will rise above caucus politics and the old “boys/girls club” membership in electing General and Jurisdictional Conference delegates. Or will they?

Surely, the connection will not strangle, close and sell off small membership churches that have so loyally supported the connection in both apportionment payments and appointment of pastors. Or will they?

Can we be bold?

For a century or more, scholars from the “philosophy of religion” school insisted that John Wesley was not a theologian. Albert Outler rescued our founder from the coal bin by creating the term “folk theologian” to describe him. Robert Cushman unearthed the term “experimental divinity” in Wesley’s own writings, and Thomas Langford unearthed another helpful term: “practical divinity.”

Wesley, the Oxford don, preached to miners, factory workers and people living from hand to mouth. He exchanged the grandeur of Gothic chapels for open sewers, pubs, mine shafts and factory gates. His was a theology fired in the furnace of 18th-century reality. Indeed, this is why he did the previously unthinkable in Anglican polity—ordaining Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey as deacons, “setting aside” Thomas Coke, and instructing them to ordain Francis Asbury when they arrived in America. On the day Wesley said, in effect, “I turn you loose on the continent of America,” Methodism was no longer just a reform movement in the Church of England, and became the most prominent shaping influence on American religious culture.

Can we be bold at the beginning of a new year? Let’s ask some bold questions:

• Local churches, even small ones, have been faithful stakeholders who pay the bills and support clergy who are sent to them with no consultation. Can we give them a stronger voice in who their next pastor will be?

• Can the annual apportionment be a contract that is negotiated between two Christian bodies (annual conference and local church), rather than a “franchise tax” that is imposed without negotiation?

• Can we honor the upcoming 275th anniversary of Aldersgate by requiring every church that has a five-year record of declining attendance to adopt a thorough revitalization process, with “everything on the table”? This would not be a one-size-fits-all bag of tricks. Funds spent by the church to pay outside coaches for on-site work would be “apportionment credits,” deducted from the annual conference benevolences. If the result is to add generations to the life of that church, it is a good investment!

• If a conference plans to close a local church, sell the property and transfer the money to the District Mission Society or some other connectional fund . . . STOP! Those faithful United Methodists have paid for the deed and deserve it. Can we develop a whole new paradigm by which they are given their property and responsibility to provide their own pastor, in exchange for remaining a UMC affiliate and retaining the essentials of Methodist grace theology? (It is to be hoped they would secure their pastors from the ranks of retired Methodist clergy, lay speakers and local pastors who increasingly may not have appointments.)

• If bishops wish to continue in the episcopacy after two quadrennia, are they willing to adopt a new paradigm of term episcopacy—running for eight more years after having been elected “on faith” to serve their first two quadrennia?

United Methodism must not wallow in the slough of despair. As an “organism,” we received our shocks in 2012. Let us recognize our new surroundings more clearly and adapt to them. Let’s flesh out anew Wesley’s exciting term, “experimental and practical divinity.” Let us—by God’s grace—renew the movement, or our last funds will only buy monuments to mark the place where United Methodism once stood.

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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The membership numbers to national population that I came up with are: 5.2% in 1840 and 2.5% today.
Listen to the Local Pastor and perhaps the United Methodist church won't disapear into another or several other denominations – which is where it is headed now…

circuit rider
circuit rider

Your columns never fail to resonate with me. As a licensed local pastor with a two-point charge three counties away from my home and four from my secular job I struggle to provide meaningful pastoral care to my small congregations. I cannot fathom how our "connectional" denomination justify continuing the marginalization of it's smaller churches even when they have been faithful in paying their apportionments since their inception (1874 in our conference). I was an unwilling party to the closure of two churches in our conference before joining the ranks of clergy. Since then, I feel my primary directive is… Read more »

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