Whom Christ Sets Free: A N.E.W. Vision for Methodism

This article is featured in the The Future of Methodism (Feb/Mar/Apr 2020) issue of Circuit Rider

by Rev. Jay Williams, Ph.D. (he/ him /his) + Joy L. Butler (she/ her /hers) + Cameron Overton (he /him /his) +  Rev. M Barclay (they/ them/ theirs) + Kyle Walden (he/ him/ his) +  Rev. Alka Lyall (she/ her/ hers) + Rev. Alex da Silva Souto (they/ them/ theirs) for UM-Forward.org

* * *

The Spirit of our God is upon us, because the Most High has anointed us to bring Good News to those who are poor...to proclaim liberty to those held captive...and release to those in prison — to proclaim the year of our God’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-4, The Inclusive Bible)

Failure of Imagination?

Let us, for just a moment, imagine liberation. As people called Methodists, might we envision faith-full human flourishing? As Christians, will we embrace the full Gospel of Jesus Christ? As followers of the Way, will we claim a love ethic that empowers the oppressed and outcast?

Now we admit: Imagination is hard. As humans, we struggle to see anything other than what we are used to seeing. We rarely give ourselves permission to dream beyond what we have grown accustomed. We do not permit ourselves the possibility of thinking differently than what we already think we know.

But still, let us try to imagine. And let us imagine liberation, that vision at the heart of the Gospel of Christ Jesus of Nazareth and the prophecy of Isaiah. There, in the holy scriptures, we find a clear vision of freedom from oppression and injustice and evil. And as people called Methodists, we proclaim this Gospel truth in our baptismal covenant and we commit to resist, reject, and repent of these sins.

Yes, as “water-washed and Spirit-born” people, every day we strive to embody the good news of liberation, because liberation is a way of being in the world — a way of following Jesus — a way of showing up that empowers and centers the marginalized, rejected, and disinherited. Liberation is being called to freedom, to flourishing, to living the abundant life as those set free from oppression. 

And, to be clear, liberation is not a form of post-Christian anarchy — it is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, liberation is the sanctification of Wesleyan grace and holiness. At the intersection of personal piety and social salvation, liberation is experienced. Yes, liberation is Spirit-filled Good News that inspires an anti-oppression, empowerment evangelism. The N.E.W. Plan seeks this liberation and offers a different narrative of what is possible for the UMC in this moment.

From Condemnation to Celebration of LGBTQIA+ Persons and Ministries

The painful reality is that The United Methodist Church officially condemns LGBTQIA+ persons and curses their ministries. The authors of the N.E.W. Plan call the church beyond mere inclusion and instead call for the celebration of LGBTQIA+ people[1]. As those who advocated for the Simple Plan (special 2019 General Conference), we declare that simply removing harmful language from the Book of Discipline is no longer bearable. By adopting vicious and punitive measures, the special General Conference radically altered our denominational landscape. As heirs of Christ, LGBTQIA+ people are ‘entitled’ to be loved fully — and not merely tolerated. The constant, repeated, and unrelenting assault upon LGBTQIA+ bodies and souls declares that we are not ‘good Christians.’ And worse still, the anti-LGBTQIA+ posture of the UMC actually denies the humanity of queer persons by deeming a whole host of people unworthy of love, companionship, and ministry. We invite the UMC to reject this evil.

While we cling to the “foolishness of the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 1:18), we are not naïve. For decades now, The United Methodist Church has been engaged in a war of attrition; no one is moving. Not only is infighting bad for the UMC “brand,” but it actually ruins our moral authority and witness as church in the world. This battle continues to inflict irreparable harm upon queer and trans bodies and the Body of Christ. Believing that the divisions within The United Methodist Church are due to deeply-seated differences of Christology, hermeneutics, ecclesiology, and ethics, the N.E.W. Plan calls The UMC to acknowledge what is irreconcilable. 

"Liturgies from Below" by Claudio Carvalhaes. Order here: http://bit.ly/LiturgiesFromBelow

It is time to admit that there are different Christianities in The United Methodist Church. Although all United Methodists claim the Wesleys as our denomination’s founders, United Methodists have fundamentally conflicting views of what it means to be a Christian. If the UMC’s mission is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” then the real question before us is: What if we can’t agree on who Jesus is? What if we can’t agree on whom Christ sets free? 

“Big tent” Methodism has become a liability. We are broken. Instead of continuing harm that does violence to the Body of Christ, we call The UMC to set itself aside. True to the covenant prayer of the Wesleys, we yield our allegiance to a single denomination for the sake of faithful employment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And then, we might reimagine our future ministries and missions. Inspired by the early church (particularly the Council of Jerusalem) and informed by church history (with seasons of unification and seasons of separation), we choose to part ways, commending each other’s ministry to the grace of God (Acts 15). 

Therefore, the N.E.W. Plan proposes that the UMC “take heart” and claim the courage to do a difficult thing and dissolve itself. Although some have argued that dissolution would be ‘disastrous’ and is practically ‘impossible’, we believe that death precedes Resurrection and, even though we are in Holy Saturday, all things are possible through Christ Jesus. Instead of haphazard disintegration of the connection through inevitable disaffiliation and financial breakdown, we propose intentional, measured dissolution.

In order to live into this future, the 2020 General Conference would establish a Transitional Council that would govern the dissolution process in a just, shared, transparent manner. While other plans (i.e., The Protocol and The Indianapolis Plan) present pre-determined terms of separation, the N.E.W. Plan proposes a pathway that has not already been ‘worked out’ by a small, selectively-chosen group. Our proposed process values the integrity of openness and mutual accountability. Rather than prioritize urgency, the N.E.W. Plan offers a measured response to our intractability. The Transitional Council would recommend a Plan of Separation to a special General Conference held prior to 2024 — and while the Council is doing its work in the light of transparency, there would be a moratorium on charges, complaints, and trials related to LGBTQIA+ persons and ministries.[2]

Toward the Abundant Life of Human Flourishing

The N.E.W. Plan envisions a vibrant church living the Gospel and uncompromising on Jesus’ love ethic of full inclusion and affirmation—a church set free from injustice, oppression, and discrimination. It builds the beloved community of the kin-dom at hand. As its authors, UM-Forward leaders are called to make a faithful future irresistible: creating and shaping a way of collective flourishing, intersectional justice, transformative healing, and liberating love. In particular, we lead the church into celebration of queerness and the holiness and beauty of Persons of Color + Queer + Trans folks (POC+Q+T people). We advance the liberation of the marginalized, particularly POC+Q+T, through intersectional justice. Our theology and ecclesiology is well-articulated in “Loved and Liberated”: A Proclamation from Our Movement Forward Summit (May 2019).

In this light, we strongly believe that there are actually four — and not three — key expressions of United Methodism: liberationist, progressive, centrist, and traditionalist. While some believe that “the left” is of one mind, our analysis offers a much different view. At its roots, progressivism finds incremental change acceptable as a way forward. We must learn from U.S. history and the ways that institutional racism is embedded in the logic of progress. In particular, the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s), the Works Progress Administration (1935-1943), and post-World War II welfare programs benefited some at the expense of others. During these ‘progressive’ periods, white Americans gained extraordinary economic and political advantages while African Americans were being lynched and segregated under ‘legal’ regimes of Jim and Jane Crow. We, the authors of the N.E.W. Plan, are discontented with delusions of progress. We yearn for liberation. And through the N.E.W. Plan, we move forward to perfection in a way that does not settle for incremental change, compromise, and gradualism. 

Some have also argued that homophobia, transphobia, and heterosexism can only be addressed once racism and white supremacy have been remedied in The United Methodist Church. Unfortunately, this is the same misguided “wait-your-turn” argument that black men made toward black women during the Civil Rights Movement. Womanists, however, would not allow the experiences of African-American women to be subjugated by “race men.”

Today, we cannot allow toppling cis-heteronormativity and patriarchy to be a “wedge issue” that divides the disinherited and marginalized. As Audre Lorde has forcefully asserted, there is no “hierarchy of oppressions.”[3] As a result, the N.E.W. Plan claims that because we are connected to one another, we must also see the interlocking intersections of injustice. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Racism, sexism, classism, colonialism, ableism, and homo/transphobia share a common logic — oppression. Yes, the Spirit of the Most High is upon us, and it’s time — past time — to release the captives.

So, what if we took the Gospel of Christ Jesus of Nazareth seriously enough to live into Jesus’ love ethic of full inclusion?

What if we pretended, for just a moment, that our primary allegiance is not to a denomination but rather to the truth of the Gospel? Because as 18th century theologian G.E. Lessing made clear: the “religion of Christ and the Christian religion are two quite different things.”[4]

And the good news is that it does not have to be the way that it is — a still “more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) is possible. Might we, then, not succumb to “weak resignation” and fall victim to small thinking? 

During this moment in time, failure of imagination is sin that conforms to the corrupt powers of this present age. Since we have spent so much time fighting, perhaps now it’s time to invest in flourishing — empowered and guided by the “God of Grace and God of Glory.

[1] Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual. The “plus” stands for related communities and nonbinary expressions of gender and sexuality.

[3] Audre Lorde. “There is no hierarchy of oppressions.” Bulletin: Homophobia and Education. Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1983.

[4] G.E. Lessing, “The religion of Christ” (1780). In H. Nisbet (Ed.), Lessing: Philosophical and Theological Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge) pp. 178-179.

comments powered by Disqus