Is the new organization a mere reaction to a General Conference that should have gone 100% Traditionalists’ way, or a gathering coalition marching towards schism? Context matters–and history indeed repeats itself.
Echoes of 1843
In 1843, a group of Methodists broke from the Methodist Episcopal Church because it was not moving fast enough from slavery. They renamed themselves the Wesleyan Methodist Church. These folks broke off only one year before the Methodist Church broke up into the MEC and the MEC South over the issue of slavery in 1844. The North and South segments of Methodism would remain apart until a 1939 merger. The Wesleyan Methodist Church never rejoined the Methodists and is now called The Wesleyan Church. They were ahead of their time–affirming women’s rights many decades before civil society affirmed them–but did not grow into the societal influence of their parent denomination.
I share that story because whenever a smaller segment of a larger denomination makes strides towards schism, it would be good to remember our history and not move quicker than the following years would have been kinder to.
In 2016, a mere 2 years before a major denominational showdown over LGBTQ Inclusion, we see that a new association has begun, called the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The WCA is an organization that solicits congregational and individual affiliation in order to claim support for their belief that LGBTQ persons are not to be fully included in the life of The United Methodist Church.
And the question being asked is whether this group is a prelude to schism…or something else entirely.
History Repeats Itself
When I heard about the Wesleyan Covenant Association, I shrugged and said “It’s more of the same.” That’s not to say it is harmless or not something for progressives to pay attention to. Rather, all I’m saying is it is expected because it fits within our history and current context.
The 1980s were a time of great power-building and great expressed discontent by traditionalists in The UMC. 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 small, counteractive group to UM Women), traditionalists created their own parallel alternative structure that provides books, women’s fellowship, and missionaries for congregations to support outside of United Methodist oversight, accountability, or connectional leadership. (see more here)
But the odd thing is that these concentrations of resources and divestment from official structures came about at the same time that they gained legislative control of The UMC. Why would these alternative structures form and siphon traditionalist dollars, missionaries, and energies away from The United Methodist Church that they were beginning to control?
The same situation is happening today. The 2012-2016 period has also been a time when Traditionalists have been very busy organizing alternative organizations–at least on paper. The Methodist Crossroads (2014), Seedbed (2012 – which later took the ashes of Bristol Books under its wings), New Room Conference (2014 – to sell Seedbed books & promote their speakers), some other group that lasted only 2 years (what was it?), and now the Wesleyan Covenant Association (2016) all came about during the same time period that the support for LGBTQ Inclusion stayed at the same minority status or fell slightly lower in United Methodism.
Why are these organizations cropping up just as it is becoming more clear that the Traditionalists are running The UMC? Why wouldn’t they be throwing their resources into The UMC now that they can no longer hide that they run it?
Incompatible with United Methodism
For one answer, I appreciate Rev. Tom Berlin’s articulation that there’s a break within Traditionalists in The United Methodist Church. He uses the distinguishing term “compatibilist” to determine how likely a Traditionalist is to live with people who do not believe as they do:
Traditionalist Non-Compatibilists: People in this zone are satisfied with the current restrictive wording of the Book of Discipline on same-sex marriage and the ordination of people who are practicing homosexuals. They want to see the church live out what they feel are obvious prohibitions in Scripture regarding homosexual acts. For them it is an issue of personal holiness. They are concerned that if these passages are compromised, all passages related to practices of sexual ethics and personal holiness will be compromised. Their concerns about change are of such importance to them that they would rather be in a church where all agree on these matters than feel personally compromised by a church with a diverse view on human sexuality.
Traditionalist Compatibilists: These people hold traditional views on human sexuality but understand that other pastors or churches would like to have the option of offering marriage ceremonies to same-sex couples. Some Annual Conferences want to have the ability to ordain people who are practicing homosexuals. While they do not want to be forced into performing such a marriage, they can live in a denomination where this occurs, understanding that there are many issues beyond this where they find unity in our connection.
By this articulation, we see that the 1980s alternative structures and the 2010s alternative structures both have diverse means and goals but share (intentionally or not) a common message: “true” traditionalists are Non-Compatible and cannot be part of the Methodist Middle anymore. As Tom Berlin has articulated, this WCA group would attract the “Traditionalist Non-Compatibilists” while putting pressure on Compatibilists to come over their way or else they are accepting UMC apostasy of “big tent” or “life in diversity” hogwash.
So while the rest of the denomination is looking for ways to live together, these organizations are encouraging, resourcing, and amplifying the one segment of United Methodism that doesn’t believe they can live together.
Traditionalist RMN? Nope.
“If there hadn’t been a Reconciling Congregations Program movement, there would not have been a Transforming Congregation Program movement.” – Robert Kuyper, founder of TCP
While some have drawn parallels between the WCA and Reconciling Ministries Network, they have several distinct differences in structure alone that negate any comparison between them.
- Membership fees. The WCA charges membership fees, whereas RMN merely asks for donations. Since the first missional responsibility of a congregation is to pay their apportionments, criticism is justified of a church that pays WCA membership fees but is not 100% paid on its apportionments (or withholds them entirely like a North Georgia congregation).
- Creedal Belief Structure. The WCA requires assent to a creedal list of beliefs, whereas RMN does not, trusting that diversity of theological beliefs lead to a reconciled church open to LGBTQ persons.
- Voting Delegates. The WCA functions more like an annual conference gathering with voting delegates from member churches, whereas RMN operates as a professional non-profit with a board of directors, audits, etc.
These three differences negate any comparison between the two organizations. Finally, using Berlin’s categories, RMN supports the full spectrum of Compatibility, whereas the WCA is firmly in support of Traditionalist Non-Compatibilists.
An Unclear Future
Will the WCA be successful? I don’t see why not, numerically at least. There are many more churches that are conservative than progressive in The UMC (since 1984, 782 communities and 33,000 individuals have affiliated with RMN), though many will choose to be more big-tent than non-compatible. And since the WCA people have the same names from the 1980s structures to today, there’s little question this group may come up with significant numbers by the 2018 special Conference or the 2020 Conference.
But my word of warning for Wesleyan Covenant Association is don’t push too hard too fast. Whenever I work with churches to join the Reconciling Ministries Network, I encouraged them to initiate the conversation only when it is clear they have 60% support. Else, if a vote is 51/49%, that leads to a lot of hurt feelings and perhaps lessens the membership/attendance of that church that hadn’t done the heart-changing work beforehand. I’d hate for congregations to be harmed by WCA advocates who only get 51% vote and see their congregations, like 1843 Wesleyans, become purer of heart but lesser in spirit.
As for me, I’ll be watching how this organization shapes up leading up to their October 2016 meeting, and then we’ll see if they are a gathering storm of strength, or a reactive aftershock from a General Conference that inexplicably sought a way forward together, compatible or not.