My attitude changed in the immediate aftermath of GC ’19. I saw that enforcing the rules was a practical impossibility in the face of rebellion on the part of a majority of American elites. We would do less damage by separating, somehow. Still, I wasn’t interested in just picking up sticks and leaving a Church in which my values were still in the majority and in which I had invested so much of my life’s work. I was for giving generous terms for others to leave, if they wanted to.
To my surprise, the radical progs and the organized trads saw things in similar ways. They were willing to release each other, but now the “centrists” – the bishops, the bureaucrats, the Big Names, the middling elites – looked like they would fight to keep the denomination under their control. I have finally come to believe that a general parting of the ways for everybody is the best. Dissolution of the denomination is probably too hard to achieve; devolution into sister denominations that get out of each other’s way is probably the best we can hope for.
Meanwhile, in the hotbeds of social media where the trads talk to each other, there are a lot of voices calling for us to leave the denomination, ASAP. Some of them urge us to join with existing denominations. Each has his own special slogans he is not willing to give up. Many balk at trusting the WCA or even the known evangelical Annual Conferences – but then, they have made a cottage industry out of running down everything institutional about The UMC, to which they somehow still belong.
I do not believe you can build a denomination for the future out of the most contrary and least supportive people in your coalition. If we hope to salvage something that represents the best of The UMC, then we need to know what it is that we have valued in The UMC. We can’t just be against all the right things – there has to be something we can all be for.
I realize that my experience of the church is different from many others’; that said, allow me to say why I joined The UMC, and what I have always appreciated about it. That will be my way of showing what I want a successor denomination to be. I know that I may not get everything I want (none of us will, I suspect), but I’m trying to be positive, here.
Why I am a United Methodist
I was a church orphan. My parents stomped out of their Methodist Church congregation in the fall of 1964. I was eleven years old. As a consequence, I never did confirmation class, never did church camp, never did MYF. After our abrupt departure, we attended (semi-regularly) a Baptist church where my Scoutmaster was the pastor. We were just refugees, though. So I was never invited to do Baptist youth group or Baptist church camp, either. I passed through my teen years like a ghost, religiously speaking.
I accepted Christ as my Savior in the fall of 1971, in my first semester of college. A new friend in my dorm, who had been saved via Campus Crusade the year before, organized a little dorm Bible study with several of us. He was the first person to ever seek me out and explain the gospel to me. So I gave my life to Christ one night all alone in my dorm room. I started to read my Bible, and to pray. And I started looking for what else I was supposed to do.
Church remained a mystery. No one ever invited me to church. I fell in love and got married, to another church orphan. I asked people about stuff, but no one bit on my questions and invited me to come with them to where they attended. I had a friend in the Navigators. I had a friend who was president of the Newman Center (RC); another was a Lutheran PK. Nobody could or would help us to find a place to belong.
Finally, my parents were reconciling with the (now, United) Methodist Church in their new home town. Their pastor was doing a new member class for adults and gave everybody a copy of the Doctrinal Statements from the Discipline. I read these excerpts with interest, especially the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Episcopal Church. I said to my newlywed wife, “I’d like to belong to a church that believed that.” Well, there was a United Methodist Church just a block and a half from our first apartment. One Sunday, we walked up the street and crashed the doors of that church, cold. We were tired of waiting to be asked, so we just asked ourselves. I was confirmed and my wife was baptized in that church. I may be the last person to have ever joined The UMC because of the Articles of Religion.
I went off to seminary from that church, following a lightning-bolt call from God. I entered pastoral ministry with very little experience of the church as a layperson. Most of what I knew, I knew from the official statements the church made about itself, not from tradition or slogans or factional sub-culture or the latest fads. I learned a lot of hard lessons along the way because of this, and I used to be self-conscious about the backward way I wound up in the clergy; however, I have paid my dues and continued in faithfulness, long past the point at which better-connected and better-prepared people gave up.
What I have upheld and will always uphold
In any case, here is my confession.
I believe in our doctrinal standards. Not just the Articles of Religion, but the General Rules, and also the historic creeds. Methodism is not just an evangelical form of Protestantism, but a renewed form of Anglicanism. At its best, it unites us not only with the Circuit Riders of the American frontier, but with the earnest seekers of the Methodist societies, with the great Anglican divines like Thomas Cranmer, and with the whole English Church tradition back to the reception of the faith from missionaries in the Seventh Century. The “faith once delivered” is a unity across all times and places, and being a United Methodist has allowed me to appropriate wisdom from a long line of teachers.
I accept our form of church government. I understand that the Annual Conference is the basic unit of Methodism, not the local church, and I understand why. I understand that our bishops are different from the bishops of the liturgical churches; they are elders consecrated to a specific leadership task, NOT princes of the church. Our system of accountability in a series of Conferences and in clergy session is a rich heritage. I admired our inherited system of ordination, and I grieved when the 1996 GC made a hash of it; at the same time, I would like to see ordination extended more widely beyond the confines of the seminaried elite.
I love our commitment to help those in distress – locally, nationally, and around the world. I like being part of a world-wide church with all kinds of people.
Being a member of an accidental denomination (we only became the Methodist Episcopal Church when the C of E collapsed in North America following the American Revolution), I have appreciated our humility and openness to Christians of other bodies. We work with everybody, we cast aspersions at none. While I am generally considered an evangelical (I am orthodox in theology and seek to bring others into a saving relationship with Christ), I am not a member of the evangelical sub-culture. There are faithful Christians expressing their love for Christ in many different ways.
I understand and have taught our understanding of the sacraments and of membership in the Body of Christ. I understand myself to be a “steward of the mysteries of God.” I rejoice to lead people to Christ. I do not have a private teaching or discipline about baptism or communion. Everywhere I have been appointed, I have taught as I vowed to teach.
I am not an “aginner.” I have had plenty of gripes about the leadership of The UMC, but I didn’t object to leadership, as such. I wanted leadership to lead well and properly, and I was willing to obey and be accountable. I have sought to build up, not tear down. I have eschewed factions. I wanted us all to succeed together. I have mentored many ministerial candidates.
I do not consider the folly or incompetence of leaders to be sufficient reason to break with the church. Such things will always be, and the Church has lived through worse leaders than even we’ve been saddled with. But there are certain, non-negotiable things – confessional issues, as it were. And we have reached the point where a large part of our church insists on proclaiming and practicing things that constitute apostasy – in my view. If the only way you can justify what you want to do is to cast the Scripture aside, or turn it on its head so as to make it say what it manifestly does not say, then we can no longer walk together. So, I am willing to leave the church – which I joined with my eyes wide open – but only with the greatest reluctance.
I do not want to join some denomination made up to satisfy the worst gripers’ quirks. I don’t want to join something thought up by a committee of mega-pastors to suit their empire-building. I don’t want to eschew the heritage and continuity of the church to do it some other way than the way the best of us have always tried to do it.
If I am to leave because the rest of The UMC will not be faithful, then at least I want to maintain the faithfulness I have upheld all these years – not go haring off after something that looks very different from what I am leaving. If I had wanted to follow Christ in something other than Methodism, I could have had it any time these past forty-five years. If I leave The UMC now, it is only because it has ceased to be the Methodism I thought I was joining, and which is the only kind of church I really wanted to belong to.