Only 53% of United Methodists affirm a basic doctrine of the Bible, the Wesleyan church, and church unity–but is that really a surprise?
At the 2012 General Conference, delegates who were deciding on changes to United Methodist polity and doctrine voted to add the following:
“We stand united in declaring our faith that God’s grace is available to all—that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
Sounds great, right? It’s basically a quote of Romans 8, it’s a direct reference to John Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace, and an aspirational addition to the preamble of the most divisive section of United Methodist doctrine: the Social Principles.
But the problem is the actual vote: it only passed by 53%. Only 53% of the delegates to General Conference, the representative leadership of millions of Methodists, affirmed that statement. I was at this General Conference and I vividly remember the collective gasp over such a low number affirming such a mainstay value of Methodism.
But let’s not get into conspiracy theories…maybe it was just an aberration to the otherwise sensible people called Methodists.
…Now Rises Again
But now the 53% sentiment is back in the news.
United Methodist Communications recently sponsored a survey of United Methodist pastors, leaders, and lay membership (see Heather Hahn’s coverage here). Folks responded to multiple questions that were unfortunately not well-worded. I know because I was one of those polled, and several of my Facebook friends (some of conservative outlooks) reflected similar confusions.
Nonetheless, the poll results are out, and they include this section:
Okay, so shifts in the numbers of folks opposed to marriage equality and LGBT inclusion are within the margin of error–no statistically significant surprises here.
But the last question is telling: Only 53% of United Methodist lay members who responded strongly agreed with this statement:
We affirm God’s grace is available to all and we seek to live together in Christian community.
It gets worse. The small print says that in 2014, 91% agreed with that statement…so by 2015, it had dropped precipitously by 38 percentage points. 38!
What is going on here? Why is such a basic belief of Christians in general, and United Methodists in particular, going out of style like 30-year-olds wearing bow ties?
The Halo Effect
It is important to understand the context from whence these 53% votes came from:
- The 2012 General Conference speeches made it clear that some delegates made the “God’s grace” statement into a debate over LGBT inclusion.
- The 2015 survey conducted by UMComm was mostly related to attitudes regarding LGBT persons after the Supreme Court granted marriage equality to the American people.
I think we are witnessing a halo effect of the debate over LGBT inclusion in the United Methodist Church. A reverse-halo effect can be seen as a negative judgment given to something because of what it is related to. If people are one political viewpoint or another, hearing something reported on MSNBC or Fox News will have a halo effect on whether it is credible or not.
So given those two contexts, when people hear that statement about God’s grace available to all, they receive it in the context of their own judgements about LGBT persons. When judgment is on your mind:
- It is hard to see “grace” as love instead of permissiveness.
- It is hard to see “available to all” as universal instead of conditional.
- It is hard to see “nothing can separate us” as grace instead of a lack of tribal judgment.
Little wonder the numbers are so low. When yes-or-no judgment and “sticking up for my tribe” rules the moment, the awareness of and advocacy for God’s grace goes out the window. What would be overwhelmingly affirmed in most situations is barely passed, and that’s a shame.
We Are Better Than This
United Methodists are supposed to be a people of grace. When lower classes were excluded from religious participation, John Wesley brought the Gospel to the fields and the coal mines. When Methodism became a thing, the ever-expanding pool of God’s love washed over previously marginalized groups and buoyed them towards the center. Women, ethnic minorities, and even laity were moved from the margins to seats at the table, still unequal in many ways, but better than before.
And yet I can’t help but wonder if in the middle of those acrimonious debates over women’s ordination and the Central Jurisdiction if such a sentiment as “God’s grace is available to all” wouldn’t also have barely passed by 53%.
We know that God’s grace is available to all. We know that God loves each person, and we simultaneously know that church and society are often structured against particular people groups. By working together to remove those barriers, we allow the river of God’s grace to flow. United Methodists are committed to “available for all” for people groups who have withstood the test of time and whose exclusion lies in the rear-view. It’s much harder to affirm this basic belief when judgements about LGBT persons are front and center in segments of our societies.
Like exclusions to women and African-Americans, my hope is that LGBT inclusion is soon in the rear-view as we welcome all persons to live out their call to serve God in the United Methodist Church, and to love one another in ways that reflect God’s love for humanity.
Grace Available to All*
Our very ground of being in the UMC–grace upon grace, love for all–is at risk. This should be disturbing even to Traditionalists! The longer we hold tightly to these exclusions that will not stand the test of time, who knows what Wesleyan core values will slip through our fingers.
And we know these exclusions will not stand the test of time because of John Wesley’s last words.
“Best of all is, God is with us.” When John Wesley said these, his final words, I don’t recall there being an asterisk next to “us.*” And yet when Wesley said “us,” women, African-Americans (heck, Africans in general), and laity were not equal in his Church. They were not “us” equally. Grace expands beyond the founder’s beliefs and beyond the past ages…when it is in concert with the Holy Spirit.
My hope is that that just as God’s grace was made available to all* when the asterisks excluded people, that United Methodists lead the Church Universal to a time and place when “all means all,” no asterisks needed.