Uniting Methodists

September 26th, 2017

Imagine it’s Christmas and underneath the tree there is a package with your name on it. The paper is bright and colorful. The bow is beautiful with just enough glitter that it sparkles in the glow of the lights on the tree. With packaging like that, you can hardly wait to see what gift your parents have picked out for you.

Imagine that you open the package and what’s inside is the same catcher’s mitt your parents gave you last year. The catcher’s mitt that didn’t fit and you chose not to use. In fact, it’s the same mitt your parents gave you four years before. Imagine how disappointed you would be.

Imagine that and you are imagining “the gift” Uniting Methodists have given the church. The packaging is beautiful. There’s a new name, a new look, a new website and some new faces. What’s not new is the solution Uniting Methodists offer to resolve the problems that divide United Methodists. In fact, it’s the same solution they brought to General Conference last year and four years before that. The same solution that was rejected by the majority of delegates at both Conferences. Now, repackaged and glowing, it’s under our tree again, presented as the latest and greatest idea for saving the unity of the church.

What’s also the same are some of the unconvincing arguments that have been used previously to promote “the local option.” For example, many pastors, some of very large “centrist” congregations, have said to me, “Our lay people disagree on whether we should ordain and marry gay persons, but they get along and remain in the same congregation, loving each other and doing the work of Christ. Why can’t the denomination do the same?”

When pastors say this, I never know if they aren’t deep thinkers or if they think I’m not. I always respond, “So are some of the pastors on your staff marrying gay couples and some not? No? Then your congregation is not handling the issue the way you’re proposing for the denomination. What would happen in your congregation if you began to marry gay couples and other pastors on your staff refused to do so? Your people would pick sides and become divided. Maybe not all, but many. And a large number of your people would leave your congregation.” That’s exactly what would happen if the same old local option was approved, regardless of the packaging.

What’s also the same is the certainty by some of our pastors that they can create a compromise without involving the two sides who are most dissatisfied with our current situation — the progressives and the traditionalists. The Reconciling Ministries Network and the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus have denounced the Uniting Methodists solution as unjust and doing harm to LGBTQ+ persons. It’s clear they cannot accept it. The Wesleyan Covenant Association and Good News have stated that they cannot live in a church that allows its bishops, pastors and churches to promote what they believe to be sinful. But just like those previously pushing the local option, the leaders of Uniting Methodists felt no need to ask either group for input on a compromise that they (the progressives and the traditionalists) are expected to accept should it pass. “Here’s last year’s catcher’s mitt, Son. I know it doesn’t fit and you didn’t like it last year, but that’s all you’re getting this year. Deal with it.”

What’s also not new is the lack of transparency exhibited by the “centrists” and now the Uniting Methodists Movement (UMM). What’s off-putting, actually galling, is the UMM’s claim to be “clarifying.” To be so, its leaders should be clear about their ultimate goal. Many who support the UMM, including those with the highest profiles, are working for this compromise to hold the church together until the consensus changes and all pastors are expected to marry gay persons and all annual conferences ordain practicing homosexuals. As one told me, “It’s just a matter of time. The culture is changing. Young people don’t even know why we’re having this discussion. They are the future, not older folks who want the current position.” What UMM is proposing is not a compromise that resolves our differences; it is a strategic ploy to hold the church together until the church’s position changes altogether.

If there’s nothing new to see here, why the new push? Why repackage the same old ideas in hopes that many people will think they’ve been given a new gift?

It could be that the leaders of the UMM have learned nothing from the past. It really has not sunk in that such a “reasonable” idea, presented once again, would not be appreciated and accepted. Maybe the Africans will change their minds. Maybe evangelicals will deny their principles. Maybe LGBTQ+ advocates will accept what they believe to be injustice. And what has been rejected before on several occasions will be embraced not as the same old catcher’s mitt, but as the lovely new gift we have always wanted.

A very different rationale is possible. The bishops’ commission, to resolve our problems, will have to present a plan that puts enough distance between progressives and traditionalists that both sides can support it. That could mean letting both groups exit the UM Church and form new denominations. Or it could be a plan that maintains some kind of unity, but allows for Disciplines with different positions regarding marriage and ordination. The commission was charged with resolving our problems. The past tells us that we cannot continue what we have been doing and the local option will not pass in 2019 with the same delegates who rejected it in 2016. That means a plan that creates some form of distancing/separating is necessary.

If the church is to divide into two or three different groups, each new entity will want to take as many churches, pastors and people with it as possible. The “middle” group will want to reach as many center-right and center-left people as possible. How do you do that? You present yourself as Christ-centered, mission-minded, open-hearted and willing to make room for everyone which is exactly what the UMM website does. (Honestly, the leaders of the UMM whom I know personally are as they describe themselves. We simply disagree profoundly on the inspiration and the authority of the Bible.) Those who are center-left will need to ask themselves how long they will put up with injustice. Will they believe joining the UMM is a pragmatic decision to step into the slow arc of history that is moving in the right direction? Or are they joining a group of pastors who are willing to accept injustice for who knows how long because to promote change right now would disrupt and divide their churches?

Those who are center-right need to be very clear that what the UMM is offering is no compromise. And it will not stop the fighting, at least not right away. The ultimate goal is to change the church’s position regarding sexuality and it will happen. Those leading the UMM know it will happen. Once evangelicals leave or have become sufficiently distanced from the “centrist” body, they will no longer contend for the traditional view. It may take some time, but the centrist position will eventually become thoroughly progressive. You don’t need to be a prophet to make this prediction. You simply need to look at every other mainline denomination and see what happened when the evangelicals left. But before the position changes, there will be continued debates, protests and acrimony. And many people in center-right churches will grow even wearier than they are now and leave. And when the position changes, center-right pastors will have to decide if they can remain in a church that allows bishops and pastors to promote what the Bible teaches to be contrary to God’s will. If they cannot, the best time to decide not to remain with the centrists is now. Not after you have joined the UMM because it seems safe and reasonable only to watch the inevitable drift to a progressive position you cannot abide.

If you liked last year’s catcher’s mitt, you’re going to love the UMM. But if you’re looking for something new under the tree, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

Rob Renfroe is president of Good News and the author of The Joy Stealers, A Way Through the Wilderness and The Trouble with the Truth, all from Abingdon Press.

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