Renewal without Responsibility
Dr. Timothy Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. His blog has been featured before at HX, but his recent blog posts merit examination as they form a narrative of promised renewal instead of a more accurate narrative of responsibility in the United Methodist Church.
Recently, Dr. Tennent wrote with urgency about the need for a new Wesleyan movement because Methodism is so bad off:
From the North American perspective things look quite gloomy since the largest Wesleyan movement on this continent, the United Methodist Church, is in such deep crisis…The United Methodist Church has been in the death spiral for nearly a half a century, seen primarily in the loss of millions of members, the dramatic decline in catechesis, and a diminished enthusiasm about evangelism.
Previously, Dr. Tennent had written of the need for this movement because evangelicals need freedom to act:
We need to completely re-birth the Wesleyan movement in North America. Whether it is a separate movement or we are given a new name within the United Methodist Church, we must be set free to do serious evangelism, church planting, re-missionizing and catechesis. I remain convinced that we can renew the Wesleyan movement in North America in 25 years if we are just given the opportunity to do so.
Both of these posts indicate that Traditionalists and conservative evangelicals in the United Methodist Church have tried to be included but have not been allowed or free to do things as they wish.
As a Progressive who has been on the “other side” of this conversation, I wonder how can Tennent not see that Conservative Evangelicals have owned the denomination for decades and have not reached success despite their best efforts?
Bought: Successes in the UMC
One of the commentators on Dr. Tennent’s blog pointed out that:
Ever since the anti-LGBT language was introduced into the BoD [in 1972], the language has been increasingly become more restrictive and anti-LGBT. In 1988, the General Conference successfully removed pluralism as an official tenant of our faith, declared scripture to be primary, and re-wrote the theological task section of the BoD (which made it more in line with evangelical thought).
During the past few decades, the Walk to Emmaus has been viewed as wildly successful and we have them due in no small part to the effort of Maxie Dunnam. The Disciple Bible study is also viewed as wildly successful. We have recovered Wesley’s Three Simple Rules. More books have been written on John Wesley and Wesleyan theology in the past few decades than anyone can keep up with!
I know for a fact that we Asburians like to brag that our seminary graduates each year more UMs who go on to be clergy than all the 13 official UM seminaries combined! In the past 40 years, we have seen the emergence of Good News, the Confessing Movement, the Mission Society, Bristol House Books, Renew, the IRD and UMAction, Transforming congregations AND Lifewatch. All of that, but we are in the place we are as a denomination.
Simply put, counter to the narrative of evangelical oppression in the UMC over the last 40 years, what we actually see is continual ownership. Some of it is good work for the whole denomination, to be clear, but to claim that that the UMC has not been owned by conservative evangelicals over the years is simply unsupported by the facts.
Broke: Schismatic Structure
Today, traditionalists not only have the perceived majority in the United Methodist Church but they also operate parallel denominational resources without oversight or accountability.
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), traditionalists 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.
Far from the post-2012 Biblical Obedience movement inciting a schism, these structures and others like them have been syphoning off the evangelical spirit from the UMC since they began. When Dr. Tennent talks about big tent Methodism being the way to go, he neglects to point out that traditionalists propped up their own tents a long time ago.
Simply put, conservative evangelicals have had free reign over curriculum, missions, and other incentives to contribute to Methodist-tangential causes.
For Sale: One Denomination
Simply put, even with all their theological, social, and parallel successes, Traditionalists have not saved the UMC. Progressives share the blame, of course, but not total responsibility like Tennent seems to say.
While it would be convenient to be like Congress and blame only the minority party, that doesn’t apply here. Even accounting for the inequality in representation on some of the major Methodist committees, it’s a difference between 3%-10%–hardly anywhere close to a majority.
No. They bought it and broke it into two churches. And now some schismatics want to sell it.
As outlined before, schism has as its poker chip an incredible amount of money. Most of the proposals by conservative pastors for schism have the progressives losing institutional structures even if they keep their churches and pensions. The worst of the unity efforts allows Conservative Evangelicals to leave the denomination and take their buildings with them. And in the meantime, one of the schismatic churches is withholding their church tithe even as they seek to go around the connectional system to choose their new pastor.
Tennent doesn’t outright call for schism but the essential elements of it are here–and Dr. Tennent’s Asbury is well positioned to benefit from Traditionalist clergy and churches that are suddenly flush with cash. A network of Wesleyan churches freed from connectional obligations and no longer having to apologize for whatever the General Board of Church and Society has said this week? That would be a dream home indeed.
Renewal: Love it or List it?
Renewal in the UMC seems to be to step away from the group and build a bigger group that then takes over the smaller group and blames all its internal problems on the smaller group, and finally sells the assets of the group to start a new group.
And it’s really too bad. Renewal could have meant so much more.
We really are best when we work together. When the church needs some renovations and some elements are long in the tooth or out of whack, progressives and conservatives together do really great work. 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.
I love that Church and I’m not ready to list it “for sale” yet. The potential is there.
But I believe it begins with each side disclosing how they have contributed to the current situation, being honest about where the schism actually began, and admitting we have more non-negotiables in common than we are willing to admit.
Conservative Evangelicals have flipped the UMC. Let’s figure out how to love the house we are in instead of selling it and starting over.