Commentary: Seeking the expulsion of progressives from the #UMC

by Rev. Jeremy Smith*

Editor’s note: Earlier today UMR published as response to the following article by Tom Lambrecht of Good News. We reprint Jeremy Smith’s original post in full with the permission of the author.

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As culture embraces marriage equality, Conservative activists in the United Methodist Church are pushing out the perceived source of all things bad: Progressive Methodists.

Seeking the Source of Discontent

Rev. Jeremy Smith

Rev. Jeremy Smith

A popular article in my networks the past few weeks has been “After Losing On Same-Sex Marriage, Conservative Christians Find A New Enemy: Progressive Christians.”

In the months surrounding the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage across the country, right-wing Christians have become increasingly willing to cast blame — seemingly hypocritically — on a group they have often dismissed or outright ignored: Progressive Christians, especially those who support marriage equality.

The first hints of a growing front against liberal Christians came in May, when a coalition of conservative churches in Fountain Hills, Arizona publicly ganged up on a local progressive Methodist community. Unhappy with the church’s teachings, eight congregations launched a campaign entitled “Progressive Christianity: Fact or Fiction?,” a coordinated teaching and preaching series that included op-eds, a half-page advertisement in a local newspaper, and a massive banner with “progressive” written in jagged red letters and hemmed in quotation marks.

I thought that this anti-progressive sentiment was not evident in my denomination of the United Methodist Church, as we’ve lived together in diversity for almost 50 years.

But this past month, I realized how bad it might actually be.

Bartering for Progressive Expulsion

I recently heard a story that really disturbed me…and I’m pretty savvy about the dark side of Methodist church politics.

The story goes that in the South Central Jurisdiction (annual conference withheld for privacy reasons), a conservative member met with a progressive member of their annual conference, saying that conservative traditionalists were willing to compromise on removing the incompatibility clause (the line that says homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching). That’s great…but in exchange, they wanted mutual support of another action: the elimination of the progressive Western Jurisdiction.

This is a perfect example of the above article: when the waters have shifted in favor of one progressive goal, some folks want to just plug the well of progressive waters under the guise of protecting the “covenant” (whatever that is).

Side note: you can read that one AC took this anti-WJ sentiment to actual legislation!

Who leaves or who is cast out?

Over the past 10 years, for folks seeking to divide the UMC, the rhetoric of “who leaves” has shifted from “the Conservatives want to leave” to “let’s make the Progressives leave.”

From the 1980s to as late as 2006, the rhetoric of conservative traditionalists in the United Methodist Church was to “let us leave with the property.”

  • I was present at the 2004 General Conference when amicable separation was first mentioned at the national meeting, asking for the conservative churches to part ways with the wayward denomination.
  • The entire last chapter of Dr. Thomas Oden’s 2006 book Turning Around the Mainline is a proposal (though a faulty one) on how conservative churches can beat the trust clause. Dr. Oden is currently a board member at the Confessing Movement, was active in Good News and chaired the IRD board for a time.

But since 2006, the rhetoric has shifted to “let’s let the progressives leave.”

  • This is the premise of the A&W schism plan promoted by Dean David Watson ofUnited Theological Seminary and Professor Bill Arnold at Asbury Theological Seminary–neither of which are significantly populated by progressives in their faculty or student body. You can read Hacking Christianity’scoverage of this plan here.
  • Furthermore, it was the professed stance of the Good News movement when Rev. Hutchison was removed from a United Methodist pastorate and his former congregation began considering leaving the UMC. Here’s the quote:

    Good News said in a statement that the congregation should be permitted to leave the denomination with its property and assets. “We believe the exercise of the trust clause to hold congregations within the church is a poor foundation upon which to build church unity,” the group said.

As you see, paralleling the shift in popular opinion on marriage equality is the shift in rhetoric from conservative abandonment to progressive expulsion, exacerbated by online trolls who talk up maximum punishment for every “covenant” violation.

Turnabout is Fair Play?

The conservatives that I’ve seen engage this article have pointed out that they have been oppressed by mainline liberalism for decades and that it‘s time for the progressives to feel how it felt.

But that’s not how the story was in the United Methodist Church. Instead, conservatives created their own parallel denomination alongside the UMC which was tolerated, not excommunicated.

As researched earlier this year, conservative traditionalists began creating their parallel reality within the UMC a long time ago. Through the Mission Society (1984 parallel to the General Board of Global Missions), Bristol House Books (1987 parallel to Abingdon), and the RENEW network (1989 parallel to UM Women), they created their own parallel structure that provides books, women’s fellowship, and missionaries for congregations to support outside of United Methodist oversight, accountability, or connectional leadership.

However, they did this by remaining Methodist and remaining in the Church–and these parallel structures were not destroyed by the mainline, and in fact continue today (except Bristol Books which closed this year) and the GBGM is even doing joint efforts with the Mission Society.

There’s little parallel between the perceived treatment of evangelicals and the treatment today of progressives. When the conservative activists created a parallel reality within United Methodism, they were not kicked out of the church. And yet today when progressive annual conferences and even jurisdictions act within Methodist polity (not paralleling it!) in a different way, the expressed desire is to kick them out and cast them off.

That’s not turnabout–that’s just mean.

The Progressive Moment?

“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.”

Gandhi (attributed)

Progressives are in Stage Three of Gandhi’s (attributed) theorem above, having been ignored for a long while, and then ridiculed by the smarmy IRD for decades. While the Southern Baptists got to this same stage and successfully excommunicated the moderates and progressives, the United Methodists likely won’t get to that stage due to our more complex connectional structure…but efforts like this make me wonder.

They make me wonder if the reigning conservative activists remember that we really are best when we work together. I’ve served in annual conferences where my perspective is in the majority and where my perspective is deeply in the minority. In both places I see the strength of our connection as well as the energy that comes from the margins and the creative minorities in those places. We should be encouraging creative minorities, not allowing the majority to silence or kick them out.

It takes a left wing and a right wing to fly, but it takes them working together to soar. My hope is that the conservatives follow the Wesleyan tradition of both wings rather than the monoculture approach of the Southern Baptists–to the benefit of all of Christianity. I yearn for a United Methodist Church that has the evangelical zeal combined with a relevant social witness that is a headlight to culture, not a tail-light behind it. I yearn for a church with the same freedom of thought as freedom of innovative action–truly, one that is better together.

Let’s continue to yearn together until the Spirit brings something new. It may be scary to the power-brokers on both sides of the aisle–but it may be a new way forward together.

Thoughts?

*Rev. Jeremy Smith is a United Methodist Elder serving as Minister of Discipleship at First United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon. He blogs about faith, young clergy issues, technology, internet theory, and geeky topics at HackingChristianity.net.

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12 Comments on "Commentary: Seeking the expulsion of progressives from the #UMC"

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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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Riley Case
Guest
The United Methodist Church is facing a serious crisis, one that will not be solved by next year’s General Conference, no matter what the conference does. Appeals to “love” and “unity” must be based on some common understandings of our covenant life together and at the moment those understandings do not exist. No one at the moment is arguing schism, at least as that word is commonly understood. But there are churches and individuals, both progressives and traditionalists, who are talking about dis-affiliation, not the same as schism. Individuals are already leaving and a few churches also. There is a… Read more »
Wes Andrews
Guest

I think it would be more accurate to say that the progressives are doing their best to push out those who trust in Scripture.

Wes Andrews
Guest

Riley, the progressives don’t embrace the concept of respect or honor. They want their way and the ends, for them, justifies the means. They will hold the properties hostage over those UM church communities who wish to move away from the Progressive Dominated Methodist Church.

Kevin
Guest

The progressives are not going to leave. They are going to continue to engage in disobedient practices which will continue to undermine the discipline. Therefore they must be forced out.

Alan
Guest
Jeremy, your article is biased and not accurate. First you reference the United Methodist Progressives and then the others pastors as “trying” to force progressives out. The flaw in your article is not one of them is a United Methodist. Second how can you avoid articles like this: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mercynotsacrifice/2015/08/18/disrupters-witnesses-and-bridge-builders-three-different-tactics-in-the-struggle-for-justice/ and this one: http://www.rmnetwork.org/newrmn/help-wanted-8-martyrs/ You are not being fair or accurate. Finally, I think most conservatives are voting with their feet and leaving instead of trying to force anyone out, so that the ones left are mostly the clergy, both conservative and progressive fighting the battle along with some die hard… Read more »
Bruce Davis
Guest

I’m thinking the Gandhi quote to could apply to Donald Trump, as well. We do live in interesting times.

Mary Page
Guest
Hmmmm Most of this battle is generational. How much of the Millennials and Mosaics are participating? Are they on the sidelines waiting? I think we will have social justice. I hope we keep the best parts of Wesleyan thinking. I am not so sure we will keep some of the structuring for large groups and the culture of the time that facilitated Methodist growth.Ten years most of us baby boomers will be on our way to that great cloud of witness. So what will be the battles then or will there be any? I can tell you when I share… Read more »
James
Guest
Tough to read articles/op eds like this. Not all progress is “good” or “bad.” Not all change is “good” or “bad.” Most is a combination of both. The umc and the country have changed in lock step over the last lots of years. As moral traditions get challenged and “we” become callused to the changes, those changes become the norm. So then, “we” have “new” moral compasses by which to determine what direction “we” will go and so society continues to evolve. “Left wings and right wings” flying together is an interesting concept. Seems that one side or the other… Read more »
Keith Dager
Guest

So complaining about being deleted will be deleted…

Charles Harrison
Admin

Dear Rev. Clunan, we only moderate when discussions get out of control or when people are attacked. We don’t censor ideas or opinions about ideas. We turned off comments for awhile because the personal attacks were out of control and because multitudes of our readers ask us to. We publish commentaries from all viewpoints. Thank you for your understanding and patience.

Charles Harrison
Admin

Mark, again, we don’t lean in any direction. When we publish things from all perspectives, we hear from other various perspectives that we lean in some direction. UMR does not however. We have banned people from all perspectives who attack others. We are not partial. Thank you for your understanding and patience as we continue to make this a safe place for discussing ideas and opinions.

doug Widdowson
Guest

admitted conservative asking an honest question ( at least I hope it’s honest!). Can you, Jeremy, speak a bit more about how the progressive churches/annual conferences are acting within our polity?

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