If Progressive Methodists cannot imagine life outside the Wesleyan perspective, then there is nowhere else for them to go except to continue to reform the United Methodist Church.
The Worst Case Scenario
While Schism is a trendy topic these days in United Methodism, the potential for expulsion may be even greater. An earlier post gave rise to this question in social media interactions:
If the United Methodist Church’s current conservative majority legislates out progressive voices, like the Southern Baptist Church did to its moderates in the 1980s, where do the minority group of progressives go?
The question comes not only from progressives, but also the three most common courses of action “helpfully” suggested by Traditionalists to get rid of Progressives from The UMC.
Let’s walk through the three options most commonly offered.
1. Go Join Another Wesleyan Church!
Q: Why don’t you join another Wesleyan denomination instead of United Methodism?
A: In the Wesleyan section of the Christian family tree, there are many branches. Wesleyanism encompasses Methodism, Nazarene, Pentecostalism, Free Methodism, the Salvation Army, and many other smaller denominations. In fact, the World Methodist Council encompasses 80 denominations with 8 in the continental US alone. There has historically been some movement (schisms, mergers, and transfers) of individuals and churches between these denominations.
So if the conservative majority continues to legislate against the progressive minority, why don’t progressives leave and join another Wesleyan denomination?
The answer may not be easy to hear: no American Wesleyan denomination allows for LGBTQ inclusion. The closest is our neighbors to the North as United Church of Canada churches can officiate same-gender unions on a church-by-church basis
through the Affirming Church program. (edit per comments: Any United Church congregation can choose to officiate the wedding of same sex couples). But the large American swath of Free Methodists, Nazarenes, Pentecostals, etc do not allow for it. Even expanding the fuller Wesleyan circle to the conversations between Wesleyan Holiness churches over the past few years yielded zero churches for full inclusion.
Seeing where United Methodism lies on the spectrum of Wesleyanism gives a clearer response to the question: The United Methodist Church is the closest to the progressive edge of Wesleyanism (and by extension, all of Evangelicalism), and it is in many social and theological areas. It is primarily in the area of LGBTQ inclusion where it is far behind, only incrementally ahead of other branches of Wesleyanism.
2. Go Join another Like-Minded Denomination!
Q: Why don’t you leave and join with other like-minded progressives in other denominations?
A: The historical form of this is “if you affirm the gays, get out and join the UCC” which has admittedly been a standard practice for decades. Many of my LGBTQ clergy friends have found open ministry in the UCC and Episcopal denominations (and now Presbyterian/Lutherans too), and I’m glad for them.
However, such a course of action would mean ceding the entirety of Wesleyan thought away from progressive values. While other denominations will facilitate the Wesleyan perspective, it is not systematically taught and lived out across any progressive denomination. Yes, I affirm other denominations’ own integrity, and their own understanding of Truth. But they do not have what I claim as my lens and do not cherish my Wesleyan lens the same way that the United Methodist Church does.
I refuse to give up Wesleyanism and to cede the entirety of Wesleyan thought away from Progressive values. I believe Wesleyanism has more potential than being wedded to social policies that will not stand the test of time.
3. Go Start Your Own Denomination!
Q: Why don’t Progressives leave and start their own Wesleyan denomination?
A: Here’s the most common refrain these days: progressives should leave and form their own version of the Methodist church. This will likely become the chorus line for the Wesleyan Covenant Association: either the non-conforming progressives leave or we will.
While we cannot control what non-compatible traditionalists might do to make it a forced choice, we can reflect on what we do as progressives.
I feel it would be unjust and unhelpful to ghettoize Methodism further and remove progressive voices from international and local discussions in the successor to United Methodism. As articulated over and over on this blog, schism does not solve the problem within Wesleyanism and removing a progressive voice would lead to more harm–not less–for the average Methodist.
Indeed, one has only to look how other minorities have faired in the Episcopal Church turmoil: the breakaway Texas faction of the TEC stopped ordaining women altogether and set back decades of equality. If progressives leave to form their own Wesleyan denomination, it is not inconceivable that clergy women would become endangered, as it just happened in 2013.
Further, another Wesleyan Church broke off over slavery and left the Methodist table only a year before a radical transformation in the Church. It’s a historical note that is heart-wrenching in retrospect as that denomination never was able to infuse their values into the greater Wesleyan tradition. May we not be so hasty either.
Exerting Privilege amidst Antagonism
In conclusion, with the knowledge that The UMC is, oddly, the most progressive form of Wesleyanism, some answers to those typical questions become more clear: there is nowhere else that embraces Wesleyanism and progressive thought more than the United Methodist Church—even as it continues to deny LGBT inclusion. It’s our church too: why are we continually pushed to give it up?
So for the answer of what to do, I need to name my privilege. As a straight white full Elder serving in a progressive conference, I am called to use my privilege to advocate for a better church than the one I was baptized and ordained into. That’s my choice, and one I call other persons of similar privilege to exercise.
But I don’t blame LGBTQ persons who are unable to serve in this tradition. We have story after story of courageous LGBTQ persons and those who practice LGBTQ inclusion through Biblical Obedience…but I know there are an equal number of folks who need to leave for self-care. I wish them nothing but happiness and do not question their choice.
For those that have the privilege and ability to stay within the United Methodist Church, my hope is that they stay in the struggle for the future.
The Call to Knit Together
I believe the world will be bettered by a Wesleyan perspective that embraces the whole of humanity. And I believe the Church will be bettered by those ecclesial objectors and progressive insiders who stand firm and advocate from within the United Methodist Church, changing hearts and minds one person, church, conference, and continent at a time.
I know perseverance works because of our history. The Wesleyan world is bettered by those progressives who did not leave the UMC over women’s ordination and now we are the largest American denomination that ordains women. Across the world we ordain women. And the same arguments in our past against such actions are recurring again today against LGBTQ Inclusion.
So we stay. We advocate. We agitate. We pray. We talk. We coexist. We persevere because one day the Church and World will find the same value that I do in a Wesleyan theology that is fused with progressive understanding of the human condition and lived out in missional ways.
And when that happens, I want you in that Church. Standing next to me.
Thoughts? Thanks for reading and your shares on social media.
Note: portions of this post came from this 2014 blog post.