Comedian Jon Stewart once said, “I watch Fox News, so you don’t have to.” He saw it as a service to his community to pay attention to the other side. In like fashion, this progressive United Methodist blogger offers the following reflections on “The Next Methodism” edited by Kenneth J. Collins and Ryan N. Danker.
The book includes articles from many academics, bishops, pastors, and caucus group leaders that seek to inform the creation of the next expression of Methodism. These articles will be best received by those in what we now know as the Global Methodist Church. Full disclosure: I received a free copy of the book “The Next Methodism” in exchange for a review.
This is not an objective review; this is a review from a progressive pastor looking into a dominant conservative effort. I’ve been a local church pastor for 16 years. So I hold both the pastoral care of my church members and the progressive perspectives as my lenses in responding to these authors.
Beginning with Antagonism
After reading it, the book is divided into two parts. The first 110 pages include five of the big names: academics who come out with bold, divisive statements and accusations against moderates and progressives, which we will name later. Starting a book with the late William Abraham is an intentional choice to repulse rather than draw in a moderate or curious reader.
The second part is the practitioners: folks who write about some on-the-ground aspects of The Next Methodism, much of which I resonated with. Whether you are GMC or UMC, a number of these articles are excellent and worth reading (we’ll get to them later, too). Scattered also through that second section are:
- Articles on sexuality and marriage that reach unsurprising conclusions for those who oppose same-gender relationships.
- Various authors write briefly about their specialty (i.e. I’m pretty sure I read all of Kevin Watson’s “The Band Meeting” article before on his blog).
- Articles on and by members of the Korean, Eurasian, and African communities that reflect on their context and their future in a new Methodist expression.
So it is a frustrating read. A progressive or someone with some objective knowledge of Methodism might reject the first 110 pages of hyperbole, but find good content in the latter 200 pages. Editor Ryan Danker, who I would say personally is not a polemical person, said to me the ordering of the book was historical: they started with early Methodist history, moved to the Americas, and broadened from there. I take that to mean it wasn’t intentional to begin with the divisive authors, but an accident of the sequencing. I take them at their word; just naming what it feels to start with saber-rattling rather than unifying substance.
Takeaway #1: The Unforgivable Sin of Methodism is the Quadrilateral
The opening pages clearly show that many selected authors believe Albert Outler, for whom they fall over each other in respect, poisoned the Methodist church with the Quadrilateral.
- William Abraham rails against the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, popularized by Albert Outler, claiming that giving authenticity to experience caused people to “lust after some experience of God that we can depend upon as a labor-saving device (12).“
- Maxie Dunnam says that the Quadrilateral “officially asserted that the UMC was not a creedal or confessional church, and that pluralism was the principle that would guide and inform future doctrinal discussions” (37).
You can read my own writings on the Quadrilateral here.
Takeaway #2: The Original Sin of Methodism was separation from the Anglicans.
The early colonial Methodists rejected connection with the Church of England.
- Ryan Danker claims that Methodism was never intended to be separate from the Church of England, which would have kept it from going astray (25) and that Wesley read scriptures like a Catholic (28) and the further Methodism strayed from either tradition “by cultural accommodation and pragmatism,” (29), the more lost we became.
- Justus Hunter claims that “Wesley’s path to renewal lay in the Anglican retrieval of the early Christian past” (48) and how much of Wesley’s concept of Original Sin was influenced by the Anglican tradition (50). As an aside, I found it amusing that Hunter rails against Boston Personalism and Process Theology, both of which are close to this blogger’s heart :-). No wonder he blocked me on Twitter!
Takeaway #3: They need Progressives as first readers
There are many times when I just clap my hands and ask “Do you even read what you are writing?” Such as:
- William Abraham spends precious sentences denying human experience by contemporary persons as authoritative (11) while at the same time canonizing the human experience of the men from whom the Councils and Creeds came. It’s a hypocritical stance and a denial of God’s sovereignty to speak whenever and to whomever God chooses to speak.
- Kenneth Collins laments that holiness without love leads to a List of Do’s and Don’ts, but good work has been done by David Livingston on how the GMC elevates “the Don’t List” higher than the UMC. They may let people dance and women grow out their hair, but the Lists remain, just with different entries.
- Bill Arnold claims, “We hear almost nothing from the institutional church today about fallen humanity and the extreme reaches of human depravity” (61), an odd claim when we have an entire General Board of Church and Society that names systemic and personal sin. It’s just that you don’t agree with their stances! Ironically, Arnold would learn a lot about societal sin as original sin from United Methodist takes on Process Theology…which was dismissed earlier by Justus Hunter.
- Eric Huffman claims that Methodists are tempted “to compromise core principles for the sake of drawing larger crowds” (68) without acknowledging that in his ministry context of Texas, conservative churches grow fastest in like-minded conservative swaths of America, and pastors who step out of line in those contexts because of their inclusive principles are exiled quickly. Who is compromising, again?
Takeaway #4: False Descriptions of Progressivism
Traditionalists cannot help but “own the libs” in their writings. But libs like me can read too–and respond on blogs that are free to read while their words are locked away behind a binding.
- Eric Huffman writes “May we avoid the tempting traps of so-called progressive Christianity that tends to reject the lordship of Jesus and the authority of Scripture” (74). This is such a tired trope! You can’t swing a cat without hitting a progressive Christian preaching the Gospel, wrestling with the hard texts in Scripture, and declaring Jesus is Lord when the world’s predatory systems claim they are lord. Just because you disagree with their conclusions doesn’t mean they aren’t valuing things the same as you.
- Mark Tooley writes: “While Methodism was liberalizing theologically, it was successfully persuading America to adopt Prohibition, portrayed as a panacea for most national ills. Prohibition’s dozen years were the apex of Methodism’s social witness in America and also the source of its downfall, as Methodism never politically recovered after its failure.” No acknowledgment that Prohibition led to greater standards of living for women and children than before. It was a success even in its rejection! Sigh.
- Former UMC Bishop Mike Lowry writes with disdain about the “theologically emaciated accelerating decline of a social justice progressivism more attuned to political correctness than to Jesus Christ.” Wrong. My progressive words and actions are based solidly on Christ. But then again, Lowry visited Seattle and criticized my local church and said the fundamentalist Mars Hill was better focused on Jesus—look which one is still standing.
- Lowry further says that Next Methodism will have these as minimum Wesleyan distinctives: “The Wesleyan distinctives held at a minimum are: sin as a malignant disease; the fullness of salvation in prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace; the lived implementation of sanctification as “holiness of heart and life”; and life as a disciplined follower (I.e., disciple)” (264). That’s…what progressives teach as well. Throw a ball at a gaggle of progressives, and you’ll hit someone who has clear teachings on sin, salvation, grace, holiness, and discipline.
Takeaway #5: The Wheat amongst the Chaff
My lenses are not so critical that I cannot celebrate the good work of good people. Once we get past page 110 (away from “The Loud People”), there are many other authors whose content was excellent and accessible to a wide spectrum of folks.
I resonated a lot with Wendy Deichmann‘s writings on the ordination of women and was challenged by L. Fitzgerald Lovett’s treatment of confronting racism. These seeds hopefully fall into fertile fields for those readers in Global Methodism because there are a lot of thorns growing in that field already—and United Methodism is losing the ground we previously gained.
While there are several articles of note, I bookmarked the articles by Jack Jackson, Jessica LaGrone + Tesia Mallory, Wendy Deichmann, Stephen Rankin, and David R. Thomas for further reading or recommendation.
I love reading academic books and edited compilations because academics give you a non-strategic and non-sanitized version of the curated messages you hear from the movement leaders in the Global Methodist Church. You get to the kernels before they are popped and fluffed up with market-savvy language.
My takeaways are that the Global Methodist Church, if it incorporates these writings, might start or continue to:
- Deny Personal Or Corporate Experience as authoritative.
- Enter into an alignment conflict between (a) those who would align the GMC with the ACNA and other like-minded antigay segments of the Anglican Communion, versus (b) the MethoBaptists who would want a more independent polity.
- Dehumanize progressives using broad generalizations while it insulates its members from what progressives actually say and teach.
- Continue to center the hardline Loud People and continue to marginalize good conservative folks who are doing the work in their specialty that isn’t as divisive or marketable.
- And all of the above will also be happening internally in The United Methodist Church by those that are intent on destruction rather than amicable separation.
You can purchase “The Next Methodism” online for your own review or reference.
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