Two Visions for the future of the #UMC [1of3]

The Hamilton/Slaughter Letter and the Schismatic 80

Recently, there’s been one dominant narrative about the United Methodist Church: that it is better apart than together. The narrative states that schism is better than tenuous unity, and that all of our suffering is because of our stubborn insistence on unity. This has been the drumbeat of some Traditionalists since at least 2004, but it has reached a crescendo since 2012, and included some Progressives in it as well. It’s been all that the press and pulpits and anonymous press releases have narrated back to us. That narrative ceases being the only one today. Because a counter-narrative has taken root among the people called Methodists: one that believes we are better together, but only if we get better together.

The Open Letter

Rev. Adam Hamilton and Rev. Michael Slaughter, two leading evangelicals and pastors of two of the Top 5 UMCs, have penned an open letter that calls for a way forward through this conflict with integrity and unity. I would call the Hamilton/Slaughter Letter an extension of the Hamilton/Slaughter Amendment that the two made on the floor of General Conference 2012. Their amendment that day was not an orchestrated political maneuver, but was a response to the divisive tactics and open pain that the debate over LGBT inclusion was having on the body. They offered up an “agree to disagree” amendment–which was a first coming from evangelicals–and it was narrowly defeated. That brings us to today’s letter. Here’s what Hamilton/Slaughter have learned:

We believe that the question of homosexuality is virtually irresolvable at General Conference. Maintaining our current position will force progressives to continue to violate the Discipline as a matter of conscience. Reversing the position at General Conference would force hundreds of thousands of our conservative members to leave the denomination as a matter of conscience, with devastating consequences to many of our churches, and in turn, to our shared mission and ministry together. We believe there is a better way forward than the current impasse or the division of the United Methodist Church.

There are other unity initiatives coming from other areas (like North Georgia, Tennessee, Holston, and Mississippi), and while I appreciate the sentiments, seeking unity without a strategy is seeking shallow unity. In my opinion. In contrast, this letter has specific action steps that it is recommending to study and craft legislation for:

  1. To move the permission for same-gender weddings to the local church
  2. To move the permission for LGBT clergy to the Annual Conference

We’ll analyze the action steps in a followup post. But in the meantime, the reality is the letter doesn’t really call for anything that people haven’t already called for. However, its appeal is that it reminds us that the mission to which we are called means we must overcome the wars of our fathers rather than ignoring them:

We believe the world needs a vital United Methodist Church now more than ever. In an increasingly secular age, the world needs churches that can make an intellectually sound case for the gospel, proclaim a faith that touches the heart, and call Christians to action seeking to help our world look more like the kingdom of God…By moving the decision-making regarding homosexuality to the local church, we hope to end the rancor, animosity and endless debate that divide our denomination every four years at General Conference. What we propose would allow conservative, centrist and progressive churches to come to their own conclusions regarding this important issue and to focus on how best to minister in their own communities. We will be bound together by what we share in common, rather than posturing to impose our will upon one another in areas where we are so deeply divided.

The Stark Contrast with the Schismatic 80

The contrast between the Hamilton/Slaughter Letter and the press releases of the Schismatic 80 is striking.

  • One sees an irreconcilable diversity of doctrine. The other sees a unity of mission and a diversity of expression of that mission.
  • One hides their signatories to incite fear in our bishops. The other is open and honest about all the participants (and it actually has women in the letter, unlike any missives from the Schismatic 80).
  • One makes threats about finances. The other doesn’t claim to withhold apportionments.
  • One seeks to disembody the body. The other wants all the differences to be kept together in one body with many expressions.
  • One looks at our history and seeks to repeat schism. The other  looks back and remembers that “United is not an adjective.”

I could go on. But the choice is now clear for the UMC:

  1. One vision wants to turn back the clock to a hegemony that will not stand the test of time. As the Pew Research shows, the tipping point is already past and a schismatic coalition of like-minded people (centered in the South) is the only way to perpetuate their beliefs beyond a few more decades. By using fear and economic intimidation, their leadership hopes to buy some more time at the expense (and intentional pain) to the global body that will sail past them eventually.
  2. The other vision recognizes that we are a diversity and wants to honor that by allowing for diversity on this topic. If a local church doesn’t want to do same-gender weddings, they don’t have to. If an annual conference wants to ordain LGBT persons fully, they are allowed to. Annual Conference boundaries would keep “unwanted” clergy from serving across conference lines (just as they do today), and Jurisdictional boundaries would keep permissive Northern bishops from serving in the South.

Both visions name the reality that we are, in practice, a divided church. But the vision cast today reflects a UMCom poll that found “More than 90 percent of respondents said The United Methodist Church should not split over issues related to human sexuality.” Also, the vision offered today maintains connectionalism, honors the current reality, and allows all of us to serve Christ through the Methodist tradition, united in what really matters, and honoring diversity when we are not yet of one mind.

A Future with Hope

There will be more reflections on this letter in the coming days. Do I expect the Hamilton/Slaughter letter here to be the final word? No. In the 23 months leading up to General Conference, there will be other letters. There will be caucus group proposals, proposals from coalitions of pastors, annual conferences, and many more, some better and some worse than this proposal. Do I have hope? Yes. My hope is that all the future letters seek a way to live together, rather than a way to use the LGBT debate as a lever to pull us apart. It’s a big world out there, and it is my firm belief that a unified and just United Methodist Church can take on all the world’s problems and stand united in diversity amidst a world that promotes tribalism and ghettoized placid existence. Thoughts?

PS: like Joel Watts, I’d like to say thank you to the Schismatic 80 for awakening this spirit in the people called Methodists who will–in utter opposition to the 80′s agenda–instead roll up their sleeves, find a just agreement, and move forward as a United Methodist Church.
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Comments

  1. says

    Jeremy, I think some discussion needs to be had about what this proposal would look like if it were to be practically implemented. It’s one of those things that looks and feels good up front, but then manages to turn into something very ugly when applied to real life. It would be regrettable to throw all of your weight behind it at this stage when it is almost certain to bring about an even higher degree of rancor and division. As it stands, the majority of local UMC churches are not duking this out. Rather, the clergy are the ones really going nuts for the most part (as reflected in that study you cited). If we were to implement this more strategy, suddenly the battle would need to be fought in every church rather than just the people looking at the big picture. It would tear churches apart much more than is currently happening.

    Moreover, being Methodist has a lot to do with ecclesiology. Connectionalism, not congregationalism, is our heritage. If we are to talk about what really makes us Methodist, I think their section on our shared theology fails. How many UMs really fit within the theological parameters that they set? I think a stronger case could be made that Methodists share in common a connectional and itinerant ministry, united around a shared heritage. All these things would be undone by this proposal.

    I suspect that, if it were to be implemented, we would essentially splinter into many different denominations, rather than just two or three. It would become a loose confederation, where annual conferences blatantly do not acknowledge the sacramental authority of clergy in other conferences, nor do we share any kinship with them. Also, as the Via Media Methodists warn, it would create echo chambers, where true dialogue just doesn’t happen. This plan is a short-term, feel-good measure aimed at helping everyone to feel as though they could potentially get their way, when really everyone except the radicals would be absolutely miserable a few years down the line, and local churches would be torn apart. I, too, share your desire for actual proposals and recommendations rather than diatribes. Yet I think we really need to think about their practical implementation before getting behind them.

    • says

      Jeff, thanks for your comment.

      I will be following up with specific reflections on the actual action items in the followup post (2of2). For now my only weight being thrown is onto proposals for unity with a more just polity rather than schism. More like this, please!

  2. Kenny Ott says

    Thanks for your thoughtful consideration of this controversial topic. I would like to take Jeffery Rickman’s thoughts (at least as I understand them) to day-to-day ministry level. If the UMC did adopt the Hamilton/Slaughter way, I see the hurt being multiplied. Pragmatically, if it is the local church’s decision to perform same sex marriages does that mean it is the appointed pastor’s decision? Or the leadership (Administrative Board/Council) decision? What about the next pastor appointed there; what if they believe differently than the church’s stated position? At the Annual Conference level, what if an AC decides to ordain LGBT clergy but not all the churches in the Conference hold the same belief? Does that limit the number of churches that person might be appointed to?

    I am the first to admit that I have more questions than answers and I have conflicted views on the whole issue. Nor do I believe that I have the answer. The sad part for me is that I believe we are fighting the wrong fight and even asking the wrong questions. It may be an over simplification (I am a simple man) but I believe Christ had the answer when he said the the law could be summed up in loving God with your whole being and loving others as you love yourself.

    Thanks for the discussion and I join you in praying for God to lead the UMC.

  3. says

    Jeremy – will this put us on the path of congregationalism? I know in the district I serve, there are several
    local churches who, if they had to make a “local” decision, would be split right down the middle.

    • says

      Sky,

      I’m posting tomorrow on the merits of the proposal–connectional v. congregationalism is a major component of the post. Check back tomorrow, if you don’t mind.

      ~Jeremy

  4. TODD ANDERSON says

    Jeremy
    I too see the ‘dealbreaker’ in (non UMC) congregational vs. (UMC) connectional polity.
    Look forward to your posting on the merits of the proposal based on those differences.

  5. says

    I appreciate your thoughts on the open letter (which I gladly signed yesterday) and I understand why you want to thank the “Schismatic 80.” That’s a generous stance to take in terms of engaging them. I will, however, offer that I choose to ignore the “more than eighty” because they are anonymous. If they signed their press release, I can’t find their signatures. To me, giving power to anonymity is giving power to fear and I’m not interested in something that doesn’t empower dialogue. I humbly submit my thoughts on the matter at my blog from yesterday: http://thelifemosaic.com/2014/06/04/ignore-the-anonymous-eighty/

  6. says

    Irresolvable??? That’s a new word for me and not one found in any dictionary I have perused. Nonsolvable and unsolvable, yes. The linguist in me just had to post this. :^)

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