I was in Chicago on Friday (October 7) for the first meeting of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a group of evangelical United Methodists “committed to the Wesleyan expression of orthodox Christianity.”
As an evangelical United Methodist with conservative theology and a high view of Scripture, I am undoubtedly part of the target audience of this new group. (For United Methodists who know me, follow me on social media, read my writings or listen to my podcasts, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.)
But as an editor of a website that publishes content from across the theological spectrum, I also tried to observe the meeting from the perspective of someone who might not share my theological views.
The first impression I got was that this event didn’t have the political vibe of General Conference or even annual conferences I’ve been to. And that’s understandable. Most of the people in Chicago were on the same page on major points of theology and on the most divisive issues in our church right now (e.g. homosexuality, accountability). When there’s nothing big to fight over, it’s easier to let down your guard and trust people.
The one-day conference was interwoven with worship, led by Mark Swayze of The Woodlands UMC. Often when I’m at a United Methodist event (especially General Conference), worship feels more like the National Anthem at a baseball game. Something we do before we get down to the “real business.” I didn’t feel like that in Chicago. Worship seemed integral to the event.
I don’t want to give the impression that the meeting was apolitical. The possibility of schism and the Council of Bishops’ Way Forward Commission were certainly part of the backdrop of the gathering, and the attendees, by acclamation, approved the Chicago Statement to the Bishops’ Commission after all. Rob Renfroe, President of Good News and one of the organizers of WCA summarized the association’s views this way: “We are not here to promote schism. But we are certainly not here to be naïve either. Change is coming to the United Methodist Church. We all know that. The bishops know that.”
For the most part, however, I sensed that the overriding theme of the meeting was a desire for a 21st century Wesleyan movement, not creating a new denomination or even trying to preserve an existing one.
Don’t misunderstand… there were without a doubt some people in attendance who are frustrated with the current state of the church and would create a new denomination right now if the choice were theirs to make. But the position of the WCA is to wait for a plan from the bishops before trying to make those kinds of decisions.
There were United Methodists there from the African continent as well as representatives from the Methodist Church of Great Britain. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas was in attendance too, as were some United Methodists from the progressive wing of the denomination.
It was a fairly low-pressure event, although there was one point where one of the speakers asked everyone who affirmed the purpose and belief statements to stand. Those who were at the conference kicking the tires, observing or who wanted to read the statements more carefully first may have felt a little awkward.
The WCA invited people to become members during the lunch break and it’s my understanding that the response was so overwhelming that there weren’t enough sign-up forms.
The conference ended with Holy Communion, led by Bishop Robert Hayes and Bishop Mike Lowry.
One speaker mentioned that she overheard someone say, “Sometimes annual conference is like getting a root canal. But this meeting is like a party.”
Indeed it was.
And that got me thinking.
Whether our denomination divides or finds a creative way to keep the various expressions of United Methodism together under one big tent remains to be seen, but this gathering offered a small glimpse of what it might be like to have a church where most everyone shares a common mission, has similar theologies and doesn’t spend a significant amount of time and energy fighting culture war battles. I suspect a conference at the other end of the theological spectrum would offer a similar glimpse for progressives.
And once you catch a glimpse like that, it’s not easily forgotten.