Guest Commentary: So where are we now?

david-watson-640x320One of my evangelical Facebook friends some time ago posted a long open letter to fellow United Methodists. The gist of it was this: The United Methodist Church, as you have known it, is gone. You may not perceive it yet, but you’d better get used to the idea, because that’s the plain and honest truth. I was really bothered by this letter, and I told her so. How could she know such things? Why would she give up on the fact that we could reach some kind of solution that would keep at least the bulk of us together?

As it turns out, she wrote that letter either in a moment of amazing foresight or prophetic insight. It’s been on my mind often lately.

At this point, division, or “schism,” as some people like to call it, is not something we can prevent. We can’t prevent it because it’s happening before our eyes. Some conservative churches are leaving the denomination. Especially since the Supreme Court decision regarding gay marriage, many progressive pastors in the UMC have entered into open rebellion against the denomination by performing same-sex marriages in violation of the Discipline and their ordination vows. For some people, Frank Schaefer and Melvin Talbert are heroes leading us into a new era of progressive thinking. For others, they are deeply misguided both in their understanding of marriage and their proper role as UM elders. Pandora’s box is open. In retrospect, this seems to have been inevitable.

The progressives who have publicly violated the Discipline in this way probably do not see their actions as divisive of the denomination, but rather as acts of prophetic witness within an unjust system. Yet when all that unites us is polity—and one would be hard pressed to identify anything else uniting us—to break the back of the polity is to divide the denomination. As the system currently stands, when bishops and other elders are no longer accountable to the General Conference, our polity has broken.

When Bill Arnold and I wrote the A & W Plan, we did so because we felt that without implementing the measures we suggested, the UMC would fall apart. Despite accusations to the contrary, the A & W plan has always been intended as a unity plan. We proposed no strengthening of the disciplinary language around human sexuality. We only insisted that those who took vows to uphold the doctrines and disciplines of the UMC should do so. There is a process for changing the Discipline that we left untouched because we believe in the process of corporate discernment within the body of Christ.

I was naïve about the ways in which people would react to this plan. The vitriol that Bill and I received was surprising, even shocking to me at first. I’ve learned a lot since then. I’m no longer surprised, or really even fazed, by vitriolic rhetoric—even when it comes from people who are friendly to me in interpersonal interactions. I get it—if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen. So be it. I have had to learn—albeit imperfectly—to love my enemies. I’m not very good at that. I’m trying to get better. I’ve also had to learn to ask for forgiveness when I’ve wronged others. I’m not very good at that, either. I’m trying to get better. Such has been my education as a blogger.

I still believe in the A & W Plan. The main reason is this: as I wrote some time back, the UMC is an entirely voluntary organization. We have a process for making decisions regarding Christian theology and practice. If you voluntarily enter into a covenant to honor those practices, you may of course disagree with them and even work to change them, but you should not simply toss them aside. There is a difference between civil disobedience and ecclesial disobedience.

Of course, no plan can prevent a division that is already happening. Even the best plan could only provide some parameters for that section of the church that is willing to live within our corporate decision-making process.

What I don’t want to see is years and years of continued rhetorical and political warfare. We must make a decision either to come together in a common witness, to inhabit a denomination with multiple (and sometimes contrasting) theological and ethical positions, or to say to one another, “Go in peace.” Perhaps the best way forward is through the Jurisdictional Solution. Perhaps it is through a division of assets. Perhaps it is through the proposals of the A & W Plan. I’ve never been enamored with “A Way Forward,” but maybe I’m missing something. I don’t know. What I do know is that we are not serving Christ, not loving one another, and not providing a faithful witness to the world through the ideological trench warfare that we carry out in social media.

There are people with whom I am in deep disagreement on many issues whom I regard as friends and about whom I care deeply. At times these relationships have been under strain. I’m sure that is the case for many people in our denomination. These relationships matter. We need a more peaceable kingdom.

All this having been said, I’m hopeful. You have to be hopeful if you’re a Christian because we believe in the power and work of the Holy Spirit. God can bring forth good out of any situation. I don’t know what the future looks like for those who currently worship within The United Methodist Church. I do know that the centuries-long renewal movement that we call Wesleyanism has not run its course. God is still doing great things all over the world. I want to be a part of that, and I want to be a part of a church that is more focused on making disciples than on the culture wars.

David F. Watson serves as Academic Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He holds a PhD from Southern Methodist University and am an ordained elder in the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

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