This is the seventh and final part in a blog series reflecting on the document, A Way Forward for a United Methodist Church
Is There a Way Forward?
We now come to the time for proposing positive, alternative solutions.
First, we must begin with the realization that we cannot legislate our way to unity and peace. This is a deeply spiritual and theological crisis, not a technical and legal one. I believe that every side of this divide will agree on the following three statements:
(1) Our communion has been impaired and our public witness is confusing to the world.
(2) Our ministerial covenant has been broken and the open defiance of the current Discipline will only get worse.
(3) The United Methodist Church is in a state of crisis which is clearly impeding our capacity and effectiveness in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Whatever proposals are finally “put on the table” must begin by calling all Methodists to a time of prayer and fasting for His divine guidance. We need clear guidance between now and 2016 so that decisions can be made at General Conference which, however difficult, will bring us to a new place as the “people called Methodists.”
Although these blogs have focused on various biblical, theological and ethical difficulties with the Hamilton proposal, we should not forget that one of the great problems with this or any solution like it has little to do with theology or Christian history; it is the challenge of brand identity. We currently have a church situation where a seeker walking through the doors of a United Methodist Church can experience dramatic contrasts. A church must have a known and trusted identity. This is a problem for both the progressives and the conservatives. The progressives would be “held back” by the conservatives who continue to fight for traditional values. Likewise, the conservatives do not have the space to create a brand identity for historic orthodoxy because of the dominance of progressive voices throughout the country and because the appointment system does not guarantee that a pastor with particular theological commitments will always be sent to a church with those same theological values.
I am not currently prepared to endorse any particular “way forward.” I think a proposal should arise out of holy conferencing before a clear avenue for action is made clear. I do think that Adam Hamilton is entirely correct in his observation that separating the church would have grave consequences. Could we really avoid the nasty and expensive lawsuits which have plagued the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians? Can any divorce of Christians be amicable? Would both groups be glad this took place 100 years from now? I do not know the answers to these questions. It may be that some form of amicable separation is what ends up happening. However, I would like to put on the table an alternative idea based on multiplication rather than division.
Possible Solution: Multiply, not Divide
One possible pathway which avoids separation would be to multiple, not divide. Under this scheme, the United Methodist Church would remain as the single title of the corporation. All pensions and general church land and buildings would be owned by the United Methodist Church. The church, in that sense, remains united. It would not only be structural, but the United Methodist Church as a whole would still be bound together by the General Rules, Wesley’s Articles, his Notes on the New Testament and his 52 canonical sermons. However, the denomination would oversee two separate Methodist movements which are under two separate Disciplines. The first would be known as the Methodist Church or the Progressive Methodists, or whatever name the progressives deem appropriate. This movement would be permitted to endorse progressive ideas and to freely change the Discipline in whatever way they believed was best for the sake of the mission of the church and evangelizing the society, as long as the change could be justified to be consistent with the founding principles of Methodism. The second movement would be designated by a distinctive name (words like orthodox, confessing, historic, and evangelical have been suggested). Whatever this Methodist movement is called, the important point is that it would retain historic Christian values and be committed to an historic understanding of orthodoxy, fully embracing the great themes of Wesleyan Christianity (universally accessible atonement, prevenient grace, entire sanctification, holy living, discipleship, and so forth).
Each of these two “arms” of the United Methodist Church would then convene key clergy and lay leaders who have been active on both sides of this struggle to write up a basic manifesto of the core values and guiding theological, cultural and missional principles which would form the fresh expression. This would not, necessarily, become part of the future Discipline of each branch, but would serve as a popular document which lay and clergy alike could read and understand. A year of conversation, reflection and prayer would allow time for each church to prepare for the vote and for the necessary judicial changes to be made so that two Disciplines could be enacted. On a set Sunday across the country (this would have a huge PR affect in the national media) every church would vote as to which expression they would identify with. Since there would be no “default” church, but two new expressions, a majority vote would have to be utilized to determine the new alignment. The members who were disappointed in the outcome of the vote in their particular church would be encouraged to align themselves with the alternative expression. Each Bishop on the current council would also be asked to align themselves with one or the other expressions of the church. All current ordained pastors would remain members of the United Methodist church (for pension purposes), but would be asked to align themselves with one of the branches (for appointment purposes). This does mean that in some cases two bishops living in the same geographic area would be providing episcopal oversight for each of the different expressions of the church. The apportionment system would be dramatically revised, focusing more on global ministry, local church initiatives and a mandatory episcopacy support fund. This could lead, over time, to whatever cooperative structures would best serve the church, including, potentially, certain structures which would effectively serve both branches of the United Methodist Church. District Superintendents would be senior pastors who would focus more on mentoring younger pastors, encouraging evangelism and overseeing catechesis and discipleship initiatives. The two Councils of Bishops (conservative and progressive) would function independently, but would be given greater authority over their respective branches than in the current structure. Both bodies, the Methodist Church and the Confessing Methodist church would be members of the World Methodist Council and both would participate in the World Methodist Conference.
There are pros and cons to this approach. Perhaps there are more cons than pros. But, in my hopeful moments, I believe this “multiplication” plan could also unleash a vigorous new wave of evangelism and church planting such that the membership losses of the last fifty years could be completely reversed in only 25 years. We must get re-focused on mission and evangelism! But the daylight is almost gone, night is at hand. Something must be done. We cannot keep pretending that our current covenant is holding. It is time for some bold action. Our Wesleyan heritage is too precious to keep traveling down the road of the status quo. If the truth were told, almost all of our churches (on both sides of the divide) have largely relinquished a clear exposition of Wesleyan distinctives. In addition, we have already experienced the “quiet schism” of millions of members who have left our beloved church. It is time for a true Wesleyan renewal to begin in the United Methodist Church. Let us pray, fast and commit ourselves to God and then, in true Wesleyan fashion, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work and, by God’s grace, forge a new future for our great movement.