Tuesday, October 18, 2016

An open letter to anyone in the UMC who will listen:

Forgive me if this essay is strongly worded, but I’m mad as hell at our denominational leaders for allowing the United Methodist Church (UMC) to reach crisis point. This has been brewing for decades and all the warning signs were there. The extremists at both ends of the theological spectrum have stubbornly refused to listen to each other, and no one can go ignored forever without eventually feeling betrayed.

So now we’re at the point of schism. The most liberal conferences are in open defiance of our rule of law, and our most conservative congregations are withholding funds and preparing to exit the denomination. Most of us, the centrists, are facing the prospect of a horrific decision. If the Wesley Covenant Alliance (WCA) exits the United Methodist Church, what do we do? On the one hand, I can’t leave with the WCA. I no longer share their position on same-sex marriage, and I don’t trust their most vocal leader. On the other hand, I fear that whatever is left of the UMC after the exit of the WCA will be a completely dysfunctional denomination with equally untrustworthy leadership.

Why I don’t trust the Wesley Covenant Alliance:

Rob Renfroe, President of Good News and the spiritual leader of the WCA, says:
“We believe what the UMC says it believes… and how that makes us anything but the center, I have no idea.”

But is it really true that the WCA believes what the UMC says it believes? The Good News Movement, which gave birth to the WCA, currently supports no less than 32 major amendments to the Book of Discipline. Most of these amendments relate to polity, and several are designed to help congregations and pastors withdraw from the denomination. But others pertain to our social and theological beliefs. In fact, they want to amend our Mission Statement. Our Mission is a basic paraphrasing of Christ’s Great Commission from Matthew 28. What’s wrong with that? Good News wants to add the phrase “for the eternal salvation of persons” to the church’s mission statement, “reinforcing the equal priority of evangelism with world transformation” as the goal of making disciples. I thought that making disciples was evangelism. Good News seems to make a distinction there. I find this theologically disconcerting, if not alarming.

I’m even more concerned about the personal theology of Rob Renfroe. In his online article, “Three Requests of My Centrist Friends – An Open Letter,” Renfroe says:
When you believe that some parts of the Bible never were truly God’s word – that’s not just a difference in interpretation. It’s a difference in how we see the inspiration and the authority of the Scriptures.
Now wait a minute… The Bible quotes lots of voices, and some are explicitly identified within the text as being voices other than God. So obviously there are parts of the Bible that were never God’s word… Unless one adheres to the doctrine of verbally inspired inerrancy: The doctrine that God actually dictated every word of scripture to the original writers. This fundamentalist doctrine has never been embraced by the United Methodist Church or any of its predecessor institutions. Does Rob Renfroe hold it? It sure sounds like he does. If I were thinking about joining the WCA, I’d want to know.

Finally, I find it very hypocritical that the WCA takes issue with rogue bishops who ignore the Book of Discipline, while simultaneously… proudly… announcing that some of its member churches have stopped paying apportionments. Apparently, breaking rules is breaking covenant, but letting other congregations foot the bill of denominational mission work is not breaking covenant. I forcefully disagree. It should also be noted that some of these congregations have actually been engaged in apportionment wars for decades, long predating the current theological crisis.

Why I don’t trust the current United Methodist denominational leadership:

I must admit that the WCA is dead-on when it points out that there is no reason to believe that our rogue bishops, who routinely ignore sections of the discipline, will voluntarily adhere to any future decisions with which they disagree.

Everyone who follows Judicial Council (JC) rulings knows that, at least in the United States, it has become virtually impossible to hold bishops accountable for their actions. One bishop in particular has set a new denominational record for the most decisions served against a living bishop. (Possibly any bishop in history… I didn’t read that far back.) He set that record in a single session of the JC, and has continued adding to that record since. Some of these rulings have simply never been followed. What has happened to this bishop? Nothing. But this bishop is just the most extreme example. Reading the more recent decisions, the JC is clearly becoming exasperated. It should be noted that the huge majority of these unenforceable JC rulings have nothing to do with sexuality. They run the gamut: constitutional separation of powers, due process, conflict of interest… you name it.

Just as concerning to me is the fact that the progressives in the UMC practice their own brand of Pharisaic behavior. Police officers and military personnel are feeling increasingly unwelcomed in our pews. Moving the flag from the front of the sanctuary to the back is one thing. Banning the wearing of uniforms on church property as if they were something to be ashamed of is quite another. (Yes… it’s happening.) The UMC has always had pacifists in it, but we have never been officially pacifist. If we’re headed in that direction, and it looks like we are, I can’t go there.

At this point, I doubt that anything can be done to prevent WCA members from exiting the United Methodist Church. I hope they all realize what they’re getting themselves into, but I doubt that they do. What happens to the rest of us who stay? How long can we continue to muddle along in a church that simply won’t behave? How can pastors trust their leadership when they don’t know which rules will be enforced, which unwritten taboos will be treated as chargeable offenses, and which rules will be ignored altogether?

Schism or no, the UMC can only survive if two things happen:
  1. The restoration of accountability. Bishops who refuse to follow the rules need to either publicly repent or get their credentials yanked.
  2. A reclaiming of the center, or at least a reaffirmation of theological diversity. If the evangelicals exit, this will be difficult to accomplish.

I spent my formative years in an independent congregation. I returned to my ancestral home of Methodism for three reasons:

  1. Wesleyan theology.
  2.  Institutional accountability.
  3. Theological diversity.

If someone doesn’t do something soon, we’re going to lose all three.

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