By Walter Fenton
April 2, 2019
For some time some United Methodist traditionalists have said a plan of separation is the only healthy way to resolve The United Methodist Church’s long and damaging debate over its sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and its ordination standards. Some progressives are beginning to add their voices to that call.
In a lengthy and learned essay well worth the time to read, the Rev. Dr. O. Wesley Allen, Jr., a professor of homiletics at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, says a “split is not only inevitable, it is necessary.”
Rather than thinking of a UM Church separation as a divorce, Allen draws the analogy of siblings needing to move on after the death of their parents. “Shifting the metaphor… allowed me to think of the denomination celebrating (even if the celebration had a melancholy tone to it) the potentiality of the futures of our different movements while we continue to be in conversation around our common heritage and look for ways to share resources and join forces in certain kinds of ministry (e.g., disaster relief) without demonizing each other.”
In fairness to Allen, a self-identified progressive, he first called for separation in a Christian Century article shortly after the UM Church’s 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was at that conference that a delegate smashed a communion chalice on the floor of the convention center to register his outrage over the church’s reaffirmation of its sexual ethics; that bishops invited LGBTQ protesters to demonstrate on the floor of the conference; and when the late Rev. Bill Hinson called on the conference to consider an amicable separation. Hinson’s plea was a genuine and heartfelt one, but as Allen notes, “the vast majority of those on the left and in the denominational bureaucracy would not even engage in such a conversation” in those days.
But other progressives have now joined Allen. The Rev. Darren Cushman Wood, pastor at North United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, writes, “In the United Methodist Church, the burden is on us progressives to leave. And it should be. General Conference after General Conference has drifted rightward on the issues of sexuality and the most recent General Conference confirmed that direction to the point of no return.”
In a plea to his fellow UM progressives, Wood writes, “Our kinfolk in the Western Jurisdiction seem to be bent on standing their ground. They might have the luxury of doing that because they are, for the most part, protected by the checks and balances in our polity. But for those of us outside the Western Jurisdiction we have no such protection. I am a pastor of a [Reconciling Ministries Network] Congregation in Indiana. They need to consider the impact their (in)action could have on churches like mine.”
To buttress his call for progressives to separate from the UM Church, Wood cites a recent article by the Rev. Dr. Jack Jackson, a professor at Claremont School of Theology (Claremont, California) and the Director of its Center for Global Methodism. Jackson says, “The hopeful option is for progressives to form a new progressive Methodist denomination.”
Citing the shift of UM Church membership to Africa, Eastern Europe and the Philippines, where staunchly traditionalist views are in the ascendancy, Jackson maintains progressives can either spend their time fighting an uphill and potentially losing battle for power in the UM Church or pour their energy into starting something new and hopeful.
“Fighting is simply no longer an option if the progressive goal is a vital missional community that welcomes all numerous visions of human sexuality,” he writes. “The next four to eight years will be painful ones for the denomination no matter which path progressives choose. But a decision… to welcome and encourage conversations on a generous separation will give progressives and traditionalists alike the chance to pursue their distinct missional visions and offer hope for a truly vibrant future.”
And even some bishops are coming around to the idea of a negotiated settlement. Bishop Sue Haupert Johnson of the North Georgia Annual Conference said in a recent article in the Washington Post, “We’ve either got to figure out how we go together [with same-sex marriage], or how we separate.”
Haupert Johnson, who has said before that she leans evangelical in her theology, is progressive when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics, teachings on marriage and its ordination standards. In the Post article, she said, “How do we go about this in a way that you know is of God, led by God? . . . How do we sense that the Holy Spirit is leading the church now? . . . If the Methodist church has to get leaner and nicer, I’m all for it. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the pettiness. I’m tired of the fighting to win at all costs.”
Her exasperation is reminiscent of what my colleague the Rev. Rob Renfroe and I wrote in our book Are We Really Better Together? “We [need to] admit that we are two different churches and… decide that we don’t want to fight any longer. We don’t have to demonize each other. We don’t have to have victims and villains. We don’t have to have winners or losers. We don’t have to ‘be at war.’ We just have to admit that we are not able to pursue our differing visions of faithfulness together and set each other free” (p. 103).
The Wesleyan Covenant Association welcomes the growing number of voices calling for a multiplication of Methodist expressions to emerge from the UM Church. Few from any part of the church desire to repeat the experience in St. Louis, Missouri, at the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. WCA leadership is involved in conversations with recognized leaders in the centrist and progressive parts of the church to make such multiplication a reality. Rather than tearing the church apart, now is the time to address the present reality to create hope and opportunity for all who love Jesus, but who have irreconcilable differences on the essentials of how we are the church.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is a retired clergy member of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference and vice-president for strategic engagement at the Wesleyan Covenant Association.