As culture embraces marriage equality, Conservative activists in the United Methodist Church are pushing out the perceived source of all things bad: Progressive Methodists.
Seeking the Source of Discontent
A popular article in my networks the past few weeks has been “After Losing On Same-Sex Marriage, Conservative Christians Find A New Enemy: Progressive Christians.”
In the months surrounding the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage across the country, right-wing Christians have become increasingly willing to cast blame — seemingly hypocritically — on a group they have often dismissed or outright ignored: Progressive Christians, especially those who support marriage equality.
The first hints of a growing front against liberal Christians came in May, when a coalition of conservative churches in Fountain Hills, Arizona publicly ganged up on a local progressive Methodist community. Unhappy with the church’s teachings, eight congregations launched a campaign entitled “Progressive Christianity: Fact or Fiction?,” a coordinated teaching and preaching series that included op-eds, a half-page advertisement in a local newspaper, and a massive banner with “progressive” written in jagged red letters and hemmed in quotation marks.
I thought that this anti-progressive sentiment was not evident in my denomination of the United Methodist Church, as we’ve lived together in diversity for almost 50 years.
But this past month, I realized how bad it might actually be.
Bartering for Progressive Expulsion
I recently heard a story that really disturbed me…and I’m pretty savvy about the dark side of Methodist church politics.
The story goes that in the South Central Jurisdiction (annual conference withheld for privacy reasons), a conservative member met with a progressive member of their annual conference, saying that conservative traditionalists were willing to compromise on removing the incompatibility clause (the line that says homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching). That’s great…but in exchange, they wanted mutual support of another action: the elimination of the progressive Western Jurisdiction.
This is a perfect example of the above article: when the waters have shifted in favor of one progressive goal, some folks want to just plug the well of progressive waters under the guise of protecting the “covenant” (whatever that is).
Side note: you can read that one AC took this anti-WJ sentiment to actual legislation!
Who leaves or who is cast out?
Over the past 10 years, for folks seeking to divide the UMC, the rhetoric of “who leaves” has shifted from “the Conservatives want to leave” to “let’s make the Progressives leave.”
From the 1980s to as late as 2006, the rhetoric of conservative traditionalists in the United Methodist Church was to “let us leave with the property.”
- I was present at the 2004 General Conference when amicable separation was first mentioned at the national meeting, asking for the conservative churches to part ways with the wayward denomination.
- The entire last chapter of Dr. Thomas Oden’s 2006 book Turning Around the Mainline is a proposal (though a faulty one) on how conservative churches can beat the trust clause. Dr. Oden is currently a board member at the Confessing Movement, was active in Good News and chaired the IRD board for a time.
But since 2006, the rhetoric has shifted to “let’s let the progressives leave.”
- This is the premise of the A&W schism plan promoted by Dean David Watson of United Theological Seminary and Professor Bill Arnold at Asbury Theological Seminary–neither of which are significantly populated by progressives in their faculty or student body. You can read Hacking Christianity’s coverage of this plan here.
- Furthermore, it was the professed stance of the Good News movement when Rev. Hutchison was removed from a United Methodist pastorate and his former congregation began considering leaving the UMC. Here’s the quote:
Good News said in a statement that the congregation should be permitted to leave the denomination with its property and assets. “We believe the exercise of the trust clause to hold congregations within the church is a poor foundation upon which to build church unity,” the group said.
As you see, paralleling the shift in popular opinion on marriage equality is the shift in rhetoric from conservative abandonment to progressive expulsion, exacerbated by online trolls who talk up maximum punishment for every “covenant” violation.
Turnabout is Fair Play?
The conservatives that I’ve seen engage this article have pointed out that they have been oppressed by mainline liberalism for decades and that it‘s time for the progressives to feel how it felt.
But that’s not how the story was in the United Methodist Church. Instead, conservatives created their own parallel denomination alongside the UMC which was tolerated, not excommunicated.
As researched earlier this year, conservative traditionalists began creating their parallel reality within the UMC a long time ago. Through the Mission Society (1984 parallel to the General Board of Global Missions), Bristol House Books (1987 parallel to Abingdon), and the RENEW network (1989 parallel to UM Women), they created their own parallel structure that provides books, women’s fellowship, and missionaries for congregations to support outside of United Methodist oversight, accountability, or connectional leadership.
However, they did this by remaining Methodist and remaining in the Church–and these parallel structures were not destroyed by the mainline, and in fact continue today (except Bristol Books which closed this year) and the GBGM is even doing joint efforts with the Mission Society.
There’s little parallel between the perceived treatment of evangelicals and the treatment today of progressives. When the conservative activists created a parallel reality within United Methodism, they were not kicked out of the church. And yet today when progressive annual conferences and even jurisdictions act within Methodist polity (not paralleling it!) in a different way, the expressed desire is to kick them out and cast them off.
That’s not turnabout–that’s just mean.
The Progressive Moment?
“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.”
Progressives are in Stage Three of Gandhi’s (attributed) theorem above, having been ignored for a long while, and then ridiculed by the smarmy IRD for decades. While the Southern Baptists got to this same stage and successfully excommunicated the moderates and progressives, the United Methodists likely won’t get to that stage due to our more complex connectional structure…but efforts like this make me wonder.
They make me wonder if the reigning conservative activists remember that we really are best when we work together. I’ve served in annual conferences where my perspective is in the majority and where my perspective is deeply in the minority. In both places I see the strength of our connection as well as the energy that comes from the margins and the creative minorities in those places. We should be encouraging creative minorities, not allowing the majority to silence or kick them out.
It takes a left wing and a right wing to fly, but it takes them working together to soar. My hope is that the conservatives follow the Wesleyan tradition of both wings rather than the monoculture approach of the Southern Baptists–to the benefit of all of Christianity. I yearn for a United Methodist Church that has the evangelical zeal combined with a relevant social witness that is a headlight to culture, not a tail-light behind it. I yearn for a church with the same freedom of thought as freedom of innovative action–truly, one that is better together.
Let’s continue to yearn together until the Spirit brings something new. It may be scary to the power-brokers on both sides of the aisle–but it may be a new way forward together.