Progressive United Methodists cannot have it both ways

March 14th, 2023

Bill Brownson’s recent article, “Put Down the Fear-Filled Playbook,” chastising me, comes in the context of a significant power differential.

He is CFO and Director of Administration for the large-membership West Ohio Conference. November’s North Central Jurisdictional Conference (where we were both delegates), showed how Brownson is now part of an overwhelmingly dominant liberal faction. He co-submitted a resolution promoting liberalized sexuality standards, which passed by more than 80 percent. The 2022 bishop elections, and the Northeastern Jurisdiction’s extraordinary refusal to fill one vacancy, showcased a nationwide, admitted litmus test in American United Methodist leadership: now no one with a traditional stance on marriage, even if they are very “compatibilist” about it, and no matter how otherwise qualified they are, could be elected bishop.

Traditionalist United Methodists and genuine moderates now wonder if the rapidly changing UMC will have any place for them—other than perhaps as second-class citizens, begrudgingly tolerated as long as they pay apportionments and stay silent. As an important aside, it must be understood that traditionalist United Methodists are not some scary, fringe faction who had little business ever being in this denomination in the first place. Rather, by accepting this label, theological traditionalists like me are simply saying that we are loyal to the historic and still-official doctrinal and moral standards of the UMC. 

I recently wrote a public lament of needless harm that many bishops have brought and continue to bring to traditionalist congregations. This offered liberal leaders an opportunity to show any beyond-lip-service generosity of spirit or loving empathy towards non-liberal United Methodists.

Like other mainline denominations’ recent history, Brownson’s response is anything but encouraging.

Of course, no bishop has time to protest every one of numerous instances of United Methodist leaders mistreating traditionalists or denying biblical doctrine about Jesus Christ. But the inability to “speak out about everything”is no reason for a bishop to refuse to ever use his or her teaching responsibility to challenge such extreme or prominent betrayals of orthodoxy or orthopraxy in the UMC. After all, bishops are less hesitant to “punch down” against disaffiliating traditionalists.

Readers can click here to see for themselves the list of specific congregation-harming behaviors he claims “rings hollow” or my constructive proposals (which he ignores) for how conference officials could make this season of separation more amicable.

I appreciate the relative transparency in the West Ohio Conference. But it is simply not true that all conference disaffiliation policies and requirements “are published and known.” For example, in the Mountain Sky Conference, disaffiliating congregations are not even informed of the amount of additional exit fees they may be required to pay until after they vote to disaffiliate, while in the New York Conference, Bishop Thomas Bickerton has informed me for the record, “We have not and will not post [the conference disaffiliation policy] on our website due to our conviction that we will not advertise disaffiliation although we respect those who choose to do so.” Such behaviors by conference officials, and increasing knowledge of the potential for sudden mid-stream changes, leave congregations feeling confused and out of the loop.

Brownson dismisses as “baseless” concerns that if your congregation chooses to stay UMC this year, you may get appointed a non-celibate gay pastor. No one can have absolute confidence what bishops definitely will do to any particular congregation over the next 20 years or so. But Brownson revealingly likens congregational resistance to such a pastor to racism or sexism. Since the UMC appropriately works to help congregations learn to accept female and non-white pastors, why should anyone expect it to not do the same for non-celibate gay clergy, when the UMC’s leadership now judges these as similar matters of non-discrimination?

Indeed, at last year’s North Central Jurisdictional Conference, a partnered gay pastor from West Ohio publicly pushed one episcopal candidate (who was later elected) to commit to “stand in the gap for queer pastors” facing resistant congregations, just as bishops have done “for African-American and women clergy.” At this same conference, delegates applauded an official speaker (the official video begins at the 1:41:34 mark) who declared that the UMC must now be “of one mind” in supporting LGBTQ liberationist ideology and called on denominational leaders to “rid faith communities” in the UMC of barriers to this agenda. 

The fact is that congregations have a historic opportunity to leave the UMC without losing their buildings, under Discipline Paragraph 2553, which expires with each congregation’s last annual conference session this year (usually no later than June, with voting and paperwork due much earlier). In my observation, every leader claiming that there is no need for congregations to rush to use this provision has one thing in common: none are strongly pushing for the 2024 General Conference to adopt any new stand-alone provision to allow congregations to disaffiliate on no-less-punitive terms after 2023. Congregations who previously tried to leave without Paragraph 2553 were often treated very poorly.

Rather than compassionately engaging with the pain of traditionalists, this leader in the UMC’s newly dominant progressive faction attacks my faith, character, and motives, accusing me of “following a secular political campaign playbook” and being “not rooted in scripture.” 

This appears to be another instance of leaders of the new United Methodism trying to have it both ways. But sometimes basic integrity and moral consistency require us to pick one lane.

Progressive United Methodist leaders, you cannot dismiss traditionalists’ well-grounded concerns and villainize us like this, and then credibly claim the moral high ground as champions of “frank and respectful Christian dialogue.”

You cannot disregard our constructive pleas for a more amicable approach, and then act as if you share no responsibility for the contentiousness.

You cannot support rhetoric and actions that are inherently intolerant of non-liberals, and then blame non-liberals for wanting to disaffiliate.

You cannot refuse to stick your necks out to defend traditionalists from mistreatment during disaffiliations, and then expect traditionalists to trust that you would treat them well or ever have their back if they stayed UMC.

And given recent history, you cannot treat traditionalists as exclusively to blame for our denomination’s divorce.

Let’s indeed “get real”: the UMC is getting the divorce liberal leaders wanted, on terms they wanted. Consider the facts:

  • Liberals pushed redefining marriage, even after being repeatedly warned that this would split our denomination.
  • Contrary to some claims, Paragraph 2553 was primarily written by Leah Taylor, a public supporter of this progressive agenda. At the 2019 General Conference, liberal delegates elevated this proposal over other, traditionalist-authored disaffiliation alternatives.
  • The “Protocol on Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” was negotiated by an overwhelmingly non-traditionalist Mediation Team. The negotiations and subsequent widespread support for the Protocol effectively pushed traditionalists into accepting deeply painful, extraordinarily one-sided concessions.
  • After these concessions were secure, liberal Protocol supporters unilaterally took an approach of saying “we are altering the deal—pray we do not alter it any further!”
  • Under the Protocol, there was a chance that many entire U.S. annual conferences, including West Ohio and Indiana, would move into the Global Methodist Church. Now that clearly is not happening.
  • It is not Traditional Plan supporters, but rather liberal-aligned bishops and other conference officials who are imposing additional punitive burdens and barriers on congregations seeking to use Paragraph 2553.

It would not kill liberal leaders to show more generosity in victory. This would mean treating disaffiliating non-liberals as they would want to be treated if the shoe was on the other foot, and talking to (not just about) and working with traditionalist caucus leaders.

Those refusing to do so do not seem to realize how profoundly they are sowing seeds of bitterness, destructive habits, and spiritual toxicity that are undermining the post-separation United Methodist Church’s future, far more deeply than anything from progressives’ favorite scapegoats. 

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