By Walter Fenton
May 28, 2019
One of the most significant outcomes of last week’s gathering held at the Rev. Adam Hamilton’s United Methodist Church of the Resurrection (Leawood, Kansas) is word that some centrists have now decided to join the resistance.
In an interview with KSHB News (Kansas City, Missouri), Hamilton noted participants at the event, called UMCNext, considered a number of ways to respond to the special General Conference’s passage of the Traditional Plan earlier this year. “One of those options,” he said, “is to stay and resist. We are going to live and be the kind of church we want to be, regardless what the denominational rules says [sic].”
This is an interesting development for Hamilton and other centrists. At one point many of them affirmed the church’s sexual ethics and endorsed its ban on same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy. Over the years they slowly gravitated to an “agree-to-disagree” position on the issues, and then recently they became advocates of what they called the “moderate and rational” One Church Plan. That plan would have allowed annual conferences to continue to prohibit the ordination of practicing LGBTQ+ clergy, permitted pastors to continue to teach that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and to refuse to preside at same-sex weddings.
But now Hamilton and some other centrists have decided they are going to resist the will of their church’s General Conference.
Many ardent LGBTQ+ advocates, who have been in the resistance camp for decades, are no doubt bemused by this development. One can just imagine their conversations: “Now that entertainment, news media, and political elites have made it fashionable, even mandatory in their circles, to support LGBTQ+ rights, our timid UM Church centrists have finally decided to join us. Now that our chances of actually passing our fully inclusive agenda are vanishingly small, they have belatedly climbed on board (hijacked?) our train. And we’re still not even sure they truly embrace the entirety of our agenda. Nevertheless, they do appear happy to style themselves as social justice warriors for the New York Times, the Washington Post or any media outlet that puts a microphone in front of them. Where were they when we needed them?”
Some LGBTQ+ advocates are probably willing to say, “Better late than never,” but others, like those who recently met in Minneapolis, Minnesota, are not. A group meeting under the banner “Our Movement Forward” issued a lengthy document that included this zinger: “The greatest threat to queer liberation is centrism, not conservatism.” Count this group justifiably wary of centrists who have just now joined the resistance. (United Methodists should read their entire document to truly understand the ultimate destination advocates of Queer theology hope to arrive at.)
Let’s be honest, today there is little to no downside to joining the resistance for UM clergy elites like Hamilton, or for US bishops and UM academics teaching at our church’s seminaries. In fact, for many of them, joining the resistance in some way or another is required if they want to continue to mix in the circles to which they have grown accustomed. So resistance veterans can be forgiven for rolling their eyes when people who just months ago were styling themselves as the “reasonable and rational middle” now assume the mantle of the resistance.
Yet some latecomers are obviously warming to the status. The Rev. David Livingstone, another One Church Plan advocate and Hamilton ally, warned last week that committed traditionalists are going to be “the first people with a hard decision to make. They need to understand that when we said in St. Louis that we would not be moved we meant it.” Well.
As committed traditionalists, we thank Rev. Livingstone for the warning, but he is about three decades too late. Veterans in the resistance and resisters to the resistance (traditionalists) made their decisions in the last century.
Ardent LGBTQ+ advocates would remind Livingstone that United Methodists like the Revs. Jimmy Creech and the late Gregory Dell resisted way back in the late 1990s when there was actually a price to be paid for resistance.
And committed traditionalists would tell him the resistance to the resistance has been around just as long – and some of them have paid a price as well. When six conservative California-Nevada Annual Conference clergy and their local churches withheld apportionments to protest a 1999 same-sex union ceremony presided over by dozens of their colleagues, Bishop Melvin Talbert hounded the six clergy out of the denomination and forced most of the local congregations to forfeit their property and assets by enforcing the denomination’s trust clause.
Incidentally, conservatives have learned that when money is at stake, bishops aren’t so fond of people who, like Hamilton, now say, “We are going to live and be the kind of church we want to be, regardless what the denominational rules says [sic].” Talbert, who has engaged in his own resistance to the UM Church without paying any price, is one of those bishops who ascribes to the motto, “What’s fine for me is not for thee.”
And now – irony of ironies – the present bishop of the California-Nevada Annual Conference, Minerva Carcano, is attempting to enforce the trust clause against the denomination’s flagship resistance church, Glide Memorial in San Francisco, lately pastored by none other than Bishop Karen Oliveto. As is well known, Oliveto is the openly lesbian, married, and longtime resistance leader that was consecrated by resisting bishops in the Western Jurisdiction in 2016; we digress, but strange things happen on the way to the Resistance.
For our part, we think resistance is an odd organizing principle for a church where no one is forced to join and all are entitled to advocate for change. Unfortunately, strategies of defiance and resistance have now reduced our options to separation, dissolution, or more fighting leading to our fairly swift demise. Resistance will only cause more harm and pain and chase more rank and file United Methodists out of the church.
Those who have so recently styled themselves as rational and moderate centrists are certainly entitled to take the path of defiance, but they should humbly acknowledge they are way late to the resistance.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.