In Wesleyan theology, there’s an emphasis on both orthodoxy (right thinking) and orthopraxy (right practices). The newest umbrella caucus group in The United Methodist Church appears to be, by their beliefs, a version of orthodoxy, but controversy emerges when we look into their practices. By examining their literature, 2016 inaugural event presentations, and the makeup of their leadership, we can better understand that while their beliefs may be biblically-grounded, their practices are more deeply shaped by negative trends in American culture.
A Partisan America
Reams of paper have been printed and billions of pixels have been lit up to examine how American political culture has become more polarized.
In 2012, the Pew Research Center updated its 25-year study of the public’s political values, finding that the partisan gap in opinions on more than 40 separate political values had nearly doubled over the previous quarter century…the median (middle) Republican is now more conservative than nearly all Democrats (94%), and the median Democrat is more liberal than 92% of Republicans.
In American politics, the Center is an increasingly narrow slice of the population as the expressed beliefs of the party leadership and rank-and-file find less and less in common with “the other side.” Here’s a 60 second video that illustrates that divide well. We see this in the inability of Congress to effectively govern as the dominant party refuses to compromise, and we see that it may be because they cannot find enough in common anymore to seek compromise on.
American culture is to segregate. As Bill Bishop presciently wrote in in 2008:
We’ve built a country where we can all choose the neighborhood and church and news show — most compatible with our lifestyle and beliefs. And we are living with the consequences of this way-of-life segregation.
As American culture becomes more divided, who in the Church will reach across the aisle in testimony to unity and working together, and who will stand apart? Who will be the Big Tent, and who will set up a pop-up trailer in the parking lot, saying the Big Tent is folly?
The Culture: The Wesleyan Covenant Association
It is from this perspective of partisanship in American Culture that we see the Wesleyan Covenant Association is not what they present to be. Now that the inaugural event has taken place, the obfuscating of objectives of the Wesleyan Covenant Association shows that some narratives have fallen short.
First, the WCA was not formed in response to General Conference 2016, or to the acts of non-conformity, or the Bishop’s Commission, or to the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto. Rather, as Convener Rev. Carolyn Moore states, this group has been in the works for a year (and their website was registered 05/02/2016, weeks before any of the above happened). Far from being inciting events, the named events were useful scapegoats for a group that began long ago as a result of the growing partisan divide.
Just as housing, politics, television programming, online news sources, and individual churches become more divided and polarized, we see the WCA’s conveners, elected leadership, and supporters come heavily from the anti-gay culture warriors of the past 40 years. And yet their branding and speeches try to position themselves as a broader coalition (even claiming to be “centrist“–an interesting strategy which we’ll examine later!) Speaker after Speaker at the WCA inaugural event used phrases like “biblical standards” and “orthodoxy” and “rejection of culture” instead of just saying “exclusion of LGBTQ people from full participation in The UMC.” As I predicted, they didn’t even say the word “gay” from the pulpit, except for a reference by Dean Jerry Kulah of Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia.
In rhetoric and from the pulpit, the WCA claims to be broad and inclusive of conservative evangelicals who have not previously participated in partisan politics in The UMC. But in practice and in composition, the WCA continues the dividing and the eroding of the (actual) centrist qualities of The United Methodist Church and reflects the culture around us more than the biblical call to unity.
The Counter-Culture: The United Methodist Church
Far from the ideological narrowing of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, we see that United Methodism is built to resist this partisan culture and is more necessary now than ever.
The United Methodist Church’s predecessor bodies were founded at the birth of the American experiment, so its beliefs and practices are strongly influenced by American culture–and some pockets were more influenced than others. In every great social issue of concern, American Methodism has been both part of culture and standing against it. Women’s equality, racial equality, slavery, and temperance movements have found faithful Methodists on either side, though only one side ultimately yielded the Spirit’s presence over the test of time, and will do the same with LGBTQ inclusion today.
However, in the practices of The United Methodist Church, we see that The UMC resists the partisan divide through our connectional nature, our global polity, and our forcing of the ideological echo-chambers of megachurches to support smaller churches. Even the most progressive churches in the most progressive conferences have significant diversity, and likewise across the aisle. At meta-church levels, people work together in mission and ministry even though they do not often claim similar persuasions. And bringing the international perspective to the table is both fruitful and a condemnation of efforts to divide and conquer.
Proponents of the WCA point to the Reconciling Ministries Network as being a divisive group that they have modeled their congregational affiliation polity on. That’s not the case: the RMN churches are named that way as safe havens for LGBTQ folks who want to attend church without being beaten up for their identities. It’s about protection of people’s safety, not hyper-partisanship divide. The same claim cannot be made by conservative evangelicals, who are the majority of The UMC across the board.
It is this witness of unity that is messy and falls short, but it is ultimately a necessary witness against a culture that wants to divide, segment out, dissolve connections, and to live like the marketing segments we are treated like. We are called as a people to examine what is dividing us without cause, and how we can resist the culture of partisanship in better ways than the Wesleyan Covenant Association regurgitates it.
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