Non-conformity, far from being just about protest, creates space for transformation within The United Methodist Church–and may be our best hope for transformation.
Non-Conformity with the Majority
Throughout United Methodism in the past month, the pushback against the actions of General Conference that harm minorities (LGBTQ persons and women) has a name: non-conformity.
- Non-conformity looks like New England, Desert Southwest, California-Pacific, California-Nevada, and Pacific Northwest conferences passing “Acts of Non-Conformity” that state in various ways that they will not comply with the prohibitions against LGBTQ inclusion in the Church.
- Non-conformity looks like several conferences passing resolutions in support of (and joining, in some cases) the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, from which the General Conference divested of its voice when women’s reproductive health is being discussed.
- Non-conformity looks like multiple conferences in the West and North Central that have nominated LGBTQ candidates for Bishop, with elections to be held in July.
Non-conformity is not some secular idea: it comes directly from Jesus. As Rev. John Helmiere, pastor at a new church plant Valley and Mountain in Seattle, explains in his prologue to the passed legislation in PNW:
Trusting in the Author of Life who makes no mistakes when creating her children, inspired by the nonconforming Christ who taught us to defy oppression in all its forms, and led by the Holy Spirit who continually liberates us from our addiction to law and into a life of grace, the PNWAC as a body affirms our commitment to a radically hospitable church.”
But make no mistake: the purpose of these actions is more than protest.
The purpose is to create space for a new vision of the Church to breathe.
Carving out Creative Space
Arthur Toynbee was a British historian who coined the term “creative minority”: a small segment of a church or society whose outsized influence transforms the whole. John Allen, Jr., in his book The Future Church, uses the term when writing about the diversity of groups within the Catholic Church:
Toynbee believed that when a civilization goes into crisis, its prospects for recovery are dependent upon its creative minorities—subgroups which, because of their passion and vision, exercise influence beyond their numbers. For that to work, these creative minorities must have a solid sense of their own identity and a strong degree of internal cohesion. (page 58)
The key is “solid sense of their own identity and a strong degree of internal cohesion.” Progressives within The United Methodist Church may not have had this sense for most of the 80s and 90s when the Traditionalists were coming into their own. However, from the 2000s on, progressives have both these qualities in increasingly powerful ways, resulting in actions such as the named acts above.
These creative minorities may be statistically insignificant, but given the amount of vitriol lobbed at the Western Jurisdiction which holds less than 8% of United Methodist membership, then we know that the creative minorities are working. In the midst of crisis, it is the creative minorities who will strongly influence if we continue towards chaos or community.
Side note: Little wonder that caucus groups such as the IRD regularly use wedge issues like sexual ethics or polyamory or even calling theological school madrassas in order to try to drive apart progressives. When we are divided, we are not as strong. Realizing this is their purpose (riling up the base and dividing the opposition) gives clarity to their writings and inoculates Progressives to their actions.
Our Traditionalist Predecessors
In a connectional church, all sides learn from one another. It is without irony and only with gratitude that one of the models for this discontent and desire to create space to create something new can be traced, actually, to the now-dominant Traditionalists.
Since the 1980s, the Traditionalists were the ones who refused to participate in the mainline United Methodist Church and created their own parallel structures.
- For decades, conservative evangelicals operated parallel denominational resources without oversight or accountability. 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), they 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.
- For decades, churches that were considered conservative evangelical have withheld their church tithes, and one of the Top 100 churches has withheld them for two years–with no consequences. Who exactly is upholding the Discipline? It’s important to note that withholding apportionments was originally part of non-conformity legislation, but progressives wisely removed it.
- 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.
And yet we see that it worked. Partially by their carving out of their own regions and institutions alongside and within United Methodism, they strengthened their slim-majority perspective into the dominant majority perspective.
In all these ways, we thank our predecessors for teaching us the value of creative minorities. While the tactics will be different, it is further evidence that the progressives are a minority voice in the Church.
So if the current Traditionalist majority complains about non-conformity actions, they only need to scroll back about 30 years, and they’ll see themselves in the mirror, dimly.
The United Methodist Church would be best to let these acts of non-conformity stand and allow these annual conferences to live out the Gospel in their context.
The stage is set for the United Methodist Church to do what its parent Church of England could not do: absorb the gains of the movement. Author Brian McLaren says the best institutions absorb the progress and advancements of the movements within it:
Effective institutions consolidate the gains of a movement.
Brilliant ones keep the movement alive.
Anyone remember President LBJ calling MLK Jr to “turn up the heat” so that he could pass civil rights legislation?
Creative Minorities have the potential to keep the movement alive and ultimately make United Methodism a far stronger force in the world than it was at the beginning of the 21st century. A Church with a Wesleyan DNA, progressive social policies, and an evangelical spirit can overcome the winnowing ahead–and be more just in doing it.
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