By Walter Fenton
Doing something new is hard in the best of times.
Since its inception the Wesleyan Covenant Association believed there were only two hard ways forward for The United Methodist Church: one where its leaders rededicated themselves to teaching the apostolic, catholic, and historic confessions of the Christian faith grounded in Scripture, or one that acknowledged its differences were so deep that separation was the only way forward. The WCA set about planning for either possibility. It hoped and worked for the former, but recognized the latter was a distinct possibility, so it planned accordingly.
Most United Methodists are now familiar with the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, a detailed plan calling for an amicable division of the church. It garnered the support of bishops in Africa, Eurasia, the Philippines and the U.S., including that of Bishop Cynthia Harvey, President of the Council of Bishops. It has also drawn endorsements from Africa Initiative, the Confessing Movement, Good News, Mainstream UMC, Reconciling Ministries Network, Uniting Methodists, UM Next, and the WCA. Of course, no can say with certainty whether the plan’s implementing legislation will be adopted at the now 2021 General Conference, but given its broad and diverse support, it appears many have acknowledged separation is the right way forward.
That being the case, the WCA’s decision to engage in the monumental task of planning for a new, global Methodist church was well advised. Over its short history the association has created regional chapters around the world, prepared a draft “Book of Doctrines and Discipline,” created nearly a dozen exploratory task force groups, and has joined with other Traditionalists to create a Transitional Leadership Council to assist local churches, annual conferences, and central conferences into a new Methodist church.
Despite these important steps forward much hard work remains to be done, and what remains to be done will be even more difficult than what has come before. Millions of Traditionalist laity and clergy, thousands of local churches, and dozens of annual and central conferences will have to make tough decisions about numerous issues. And as important as those decisions will be, the way Traditionalists go about making them will be just as important. Here are at least seven attitudes Traditionalists will want to practice as they prepare for the next Methodism.
Spend more time looking forward than backward. We all learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others, so reflecting on the past is essential. However, sooner than later we need to stop focusing on old battles and spend far more time preparing for the challenges ahead. It is time for Traditionalists (and Centrists and Progressives) to concentrate on what they need to do to be a healthy and vibrant branch of the church catholic, rather than contending with other Christians.
Recognize what lies ahead will be hard. It is exciting and hopeful to consider new possibilities for a new church, but wherever we live, we Traditionalists must constantly remind ourselves we will be doing this with brothers and sisters around the world. We will all have our own ideas, but we will eventually have to make hard decisions together about what is new and exciting, and about what is mundane and necessary. Inevitably, there will be difficult debates and important votes about what is possible, what is necessary, and what must wait for another day.
Assume others are acting in good faith. We all have cherished ideas and proposals about the structure of a new church that we are convinced everyone should affirm – that’s fine. What is not fine is assuming people who disagree with us are acting in bad faith. We must resist turning people into enemies simply because they disagree with us.
We should not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. When it comes to structuring a new church we will all have ideas about how it should be structured; we might even think we have a nearly perfect plan for structuring this or that part of it. By all means we should contend for what we think will benefit a new church, but we must also remember that compromise is necessary to sustain the delicate spirit of harmony among us.
Refrain from rushing to judgment. Since we will all be making major decisions and doing new things, it is essential we not rush to final judgments about the structures we create and the work we do. We need to demonstrate patience as we navigate our way forward.
Assume we will not get everything right, right out of the box. The benefit of creating something new is the opportunity to try new ways of doing things. We should assume some new plans will work and some will not. And then we should remember that a church’s governing structure is not written in stone; there will be opportunities to make adjustments or completely overhaul plans if we discover they are unworkable.
Engage in the process with hope. It is easy to allow the frustrations of the past to undermine our hopes for the future. We should disabuse ourselves of the pessimistic and cynical conviction that all institutions and the people who are a part of them are inherently dysfunctional or corrupt. As Christians we have good reasons to believe we can repent of our mistakes, and trust that through the power of the Holy Spirit we can build fruitful institutions for the sake of the Gospel.
Great institutions are seldom launched in perfect conditions, in fact, turbulent and troubled times often require their creation. For example, John Wesley did not originally intend to start a Methodist church in the American colonies, but he and others believed circumstances resulting from the American Revolutionary War necessitated the creation of the Methodist Episcopal Church. That relatively small body of Methodists experienced dramatic growth, numerous divisions, and some reunions. In some ways those Methodist denominations marvelously fulfilled the Gospel mission, and in other ways they tragically failed and forsook it.
As we Traditionalists prepare for the creation of a new Methodist church in turbulent and tumultuous times, may we learn the lessons of both the good and the bad in our history, and keep in mind the words of Reinhold Niebuhr:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone, therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”
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.