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CLUB 444: Is Bishop Willimon Wrong?

August 21, 2022

As found on unsettledchristianity.com, 8.18.22 —

Recently, William H, Willimon, a retired UMC Bishop,wrote a piece in which he claimed that the United Methodist Divorce is a mistake. It may surprise many of you that I tend to agree with him, it is indeed a mistake, and I am going to try and explain why here. I encourage you to read his piece first so that you will have the proper context to much of what I am going to write here. As always, what I write is my opinion, and mine alone, but I have a sneaking suspicion that a whole lot of other people feel rather similar.

The prevailing opinion that is presented in the media, and also by most of those who are more theologically liberal than I am, is that the UMC is splitting because after 40 years of arguing over matters relating to same sex marriage, we are tired of it and are ready to stop the fighting and go our separate ways. This opinion is a mistake. The reality is that there are many issues, the core of them going back before there was a United Methodist Church, that are causing the divorce. Going back to our roots, we will find that a part of the founding of Methodism as a renewal movement in the Anglican church was due to what were called in the day “latitude men”. These were a group of 17th century Anglican theologians and clerics from Cambridge that felt that adhering to specific doctrines, modes of worship, and church organizational structures was not only unnecessary, but may even be harmful. This view held that the Holy Spirit, combined with human reason, was sufficient enough to understand not only the scriptures, but the teachings of the church about the scriptures. By the 18th century, this had become the default position of the Anglican church and the English church in America, without ever being endorsed by any authority. This is, put simply, a form of theological pluralism. Methodism stood in stark contrast to that, and sought to reform it.

As we move forward in history, the Methodist Episcopal Church is founded as a separate entity and throughout it’s history has some ups and downs resulting in several groups splintering off, and an official denominational split over slavery that resulted from a Bishop openly defying the Doctrines and Disciplines of the MEC. In it’s heyday, the MEC was a strong laity driven movement which moved west during the expansion and literally spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.  The kerfuffle eventually sorts itself out and the MEC rolls on into the 20th century.  It is here that an MEC pastor founded a school of theological thought called Boston Personalism. This school of thought taught that the individual is the ontological base and personality thus becomes the fundamental explanatory principle. This stood in stark contrast to the Methodists who began as, and continued on as, a pietism movement. There was a church trial to denounce this teaching, which failed to do so, and so Methodists, like their Anglican ancestor, became a church of theological pluralism without any official proclamation or change. In essence, the latitude men had finally caught up with us. A hundred or so years later, and the problem has only grown worse, not better. Theological pluralism was, simply put, a mistake.

So, the idea that proper sexual ethics arguments from the past 40 years are somehow the reason for the divorce is a mistake. It is over 200 years of speculative latitudinarian thought that Methodists were founded, in part, to counter. John Wesley in his famous (and often very badly quoted)Catholic Spirit sermon speaks of this very thing. I encourage you to read the entire sermon as it is one of his finest in truth, but needs to be taken as a whole, and not a part. The section I will quote here however speaks to the heart of the issues that we have. “For, from hence we may learn, first, that a catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven. This unsettledness of thought, this being “driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine,” is a great curse, not a blessing, an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism.” Again, I encourage you to read the entirety of the sermon to fully understand its scope. The primary reason that so many traditional Methodist churches wish to leave is that the we no longer share what Wesley described as the Catholic Spirit. We are in effect two different churches with two irreconcilable differences. Those differences are not sexual ethics, thought the differences we have about sexual ethics arise from the competing visions of the original Methodist movement as envisioned by our founders and the early movement, and the theological pluralism that has embraced as valid expressions of Methodist faith universalism, redefining the historic meanings of the creeds and what they express, and so on. Yes, the Methodist divorce is a mistake, and it is one born out of an unwillingness, or inability, of those who hold to the latitudinarian view of things to listen to those of us who do not about what is actually the problem. Instead, like Bishop Willimon, to tell us what the problem really is, no matter what we try to say. As in any marriage, communication is key, and when people stop listening, the marriage breaks down.

One specific things needs to be made abundantly clear here.
the Transitional Discipline of the GMC is readily available. Bishop Willimon said this: “GMC apologists are desperate not to be perceived as bolting because of a single contemporary social issue. Yet their draft Transitional Book of Discipline defines the first of their “basic qualifications of the ordained” as “fidelity in Christian marriage between one man and one woman, chastity in singleness.” This comes first, before “knowledge and love of God” and “a call by God and the people of God.” I have linked the transitional Discipline above and invite you to look for yourself on page 53, paragraph 405 titled “Basic Qualifications of the Ordained”¶ “405. BASIC QUALIFICATIONS OF THE ORDAINED. Those to be ordained must meet
the following qualifications:
1. Have a personal faith in Jesus Christ and be committed to Christ as Savior and Lord.
2. Nurture and cultivate spiritual disciplines and patterns of holiness consistent with the
General Rules, including responsible self-control by exhibiting personal habits that are conducive to
bodily health, mental and emotional maturity, integrity in all relationships, fidelity in a Christian
marriage between one man and one woman, chastity in singleness, social responsibility, and the
knowledge and love of God.
3. Have a call by God and the people of God to devote themselves to the work of ministry.
4. Be able to effectively communicate the Christian faith.
5. Give evidence of God’s gifts for ordained ministry and promise of future usefulness in the
mission of the church.
6. Accept the authority of Scripture; be competent in the disciplines of Scripture, theology,
church history and polity; possess the skills essential for the practice of ministry, and lead in making
disciples of Jesus Christ.
7. Be accountable to the church, accept its doctrinal standards, discipline, and authority,
accept the supervision of those appointed to the ministry of oversight, and live in covenant with its
ordained ministers.”

His claim is demonstrably false, and also badly quoted out of context without providing any ability to check the context. First is faith in Christ and commitment to Him as Lord and savior. Second involves spiritual habits in life and cultivating them which includes first, the General Rules, then habits for a healthy body, then integrity in relationships, then proper sexual ethics. Yes, they do come before the call from God to minister. Because of this, it is fair to ask why, I agree. Unlike the Bishop, I however do not at all consider this a low bar. If I (God forbid) were to express the desire to be a minister, I would expect who I was speaking to ask if I did indeed believe in Jesus first. I would also not find it odd if I was examined under the general rules, since this is a Methodist movement after all. I also would expect my relationships with others, including my wife, to be filed with integrity and to conform to proper sexual ethics. If any of those is not the case, while my call to ministry may be valid, it is premature to examine it as I have personal work to do first. This seems to make a great deal of sense to me. Before a call to ministry is explored, the individual who believes they have the call must be certain that they are prepared for it. Not a low bar, a very high bar since the call is not even a factor until the personal life conforms to a holy life. All of that said, the general rules which include, as the Bishop should know, includes a large number of things, including knowledge of and submission to Christ.

I again agree with Bishop Willimon that in May, the Global Methodist Church had a very “inauspicious birth”. Curiously, the Bishop, and many who disagree with separation, seem to consider that a bad thing. It is this inauspicious birth that gives me some hope for the movement. After all, we Methodists started at Oxford in 1729 with a rather inauspicious birth.

The Bishop again demonstrates he has not, like most who think separation to be a mistake, listened, chosen to be ignorant, or has simply decided he knows better than I and everyone who thinks separation is a good idea. It isn’t about a pastor in drag, or a Bishop who knowingly violates ecclesial law, or pastors who speak contrary to our standards of faith. There are always outliers. The problem is that there is no attempted correction, and often celebration, with those who scoff at the wisdom of the church and instead go their own way. There is no accountability to each other on the denominational level. That is untenable. I should not have to interview a pastor or Sunday school teacher before I take them to a Methodist church. In the UMC right now I do. I also should not have to worry that the next minister who comes may not be in alignment with UMC belief.  Allowing these things to happen is a mistake and it is a mistake that leads to divorce.  If our standards of faith do not matter, even to the identity of Jesus, then it is impossible to have a consistent social witness. That is a mistake that leads to divorce.

Also the Bishop has it wrong, again, in that those who wish to leave are acting primarily in rage. While I am sure that there are some who have fallen to rage in this, it is not, and has not been, the primary motivator. He has again assigned negative motivations and is seemingly incapable of seeing anything redeeming in those who want to leave…those whom he wants to stay. What an interesting cognitive dissonance.

I find myself in the uncomfortable position of agreeing, yet again, with Bishop Willimon in that there was not much at all that needed reforming in the Book of Discipline of the UMC. The reason for the divorce however was not that it needed reform in major ways, but that our leadership needed reformed, and despite decades of pleas, they refused. Our Bishops needed to protect and defend the faith. They failed. It is pretty much that simple. It does not matter what the Book of Discipline says if no one is accountable to it. So I agree with Bishop Willimon, the Book of Discipline did not need much reform, just all the people who refused to live into their commitment to follow it. Since we could not call those in disobedience back into the fold, and since there was no mechanism that was functional to provide discipline designed to bring them back into the fold, the words on the page ceased to matter. Much like scripture, you can call yourself a Christian, but until you live the words on the page, it doesn’t really matter. The few changes reflect that reality in the UMC and seek to change them with better accountability, term limits, etc. The problem wasn’t the Discipline, but the lack of discipline by those who shrugged off the wisdom of the church.

As for the theological differences that you to easily dismiss, the same is true. It does not matter what a book, any book, says our theology is, it matters if we, as a church, follow it and live into it. We do not. Again, the problem is not that there are those who do not, it is that they are celebrated while those who hold to the beliefs of the church are vilified, much like you have in this letter pleading for us to stay. In the same line, the GMC does not seek to supplant the UMC, it seeks to be what it believes is a proper expression of the Wesleyan faith. Splintering is very much a part of Methodist history after all.

While I found most of this to be a rather amusing superfluous distraction, one thing actually made me angry, so allow me a mini-rant if you will. “No, the GMC, fed up with United Methodists speaking out on social issues, is forming a church inspired by a single contemporary social issue.” First of all, proper sexual ethics are not just a social issue, they are very much a theological issue with deep importance, especially to Methodists who are properly concerned with holy living. Second I, and most every traditionalist I know is not upset with Methodists speaking out about social issues. They are upset with the reduction of important theological matters to “social issues”. They are upset with overtly partisan statements. They are upset that if they have a different idea on how to solve a social issue, they are vilified. Some, ok I admit it, a very small minority, get it from both sides because I am an evil second amendment supporting, pro-life woman hating, end the drug war hippie, bleeding heart who believes that undocumented immigrants should be treated with dignity and respect and that we need simpler immigration policy, peacenick bring the troops home, fiscally conservative, massively reform social security and social safety net programs, legalize sex work, person. Very few people are just one thing and very few people will fit into the tiny box the Bishop tries to shove them into. I, and quite a few people actually, speak out on social issues. I personally do that in any given week I have democrats, republicans, conservatives, progressives, green party, constitutionals, and even libertarians telling me how absolutely horrible I am depending on what the topic of the day is. Again it is obvious that the Bishop doesn’t listen.

Bishop Willimon spent a great deal of time going on and on about how the UMC Book of Discipline says all the things that traditionalists believe, and affirms all the things that traditionalists want it to, then goes on to say the following: “Dissident conservatives, please don’t abandon me to my theological blind spots and the clutch of goofy liberals in my congregation.” Now I am very confused about this. Dissident is a fairly commonly used word, yet it does not mean what the Bishop seems to think. Dissident:disagreeing especially with an established religious or political system, organization, or belief (Merriam-Webster). I don’t disagree, and neither do most of those seeking to leave. We simply don’t find it tenable to continue on with a large group who does. The actual dissidents want the institution and we are allowing them to have it.

AS I approach the end of this, I realize how much has been left out. It unfortunately often takes more words to get to truth than it does to produce hashtag worthy insults and slights. None the less, I reread what the Bishop wrote, and realized something. Using his descriptive words, he has called me, and those who think as I do, some unfriendly things, and that is ok if he is seeking to write a polemic. There is a time and a place for that. If, as he states, the purpose is to demonstrate that the divorce is a mistake, I can’t, after reading this, figure out what in the world he wants with a right wing, rage filled, pompous, pretentious, schismatic dissident. That certainly is not the language of persuasion or invitation, but it is a great description of why I want to go.

In his stemwinder sermon On Schism, Wesley says: “But perhaps such persons will say, “We did not do this willingly; we were constrained to separate form that society, because we could not continue therein with a clear conscience; we could not continue without sin. I was not allowed to continue therein with breaking a commandment of God.” If this was the case, you could not be blamed for separating from that society, Suppose, for instance, you were a member of the Church of Rome, and you could not remain therein without committing idolatry; without worshipping of idols, whether images, or saints and angels; then it would be your bounded duty to leave that community, totally to separate from it. Suppose you could not remain in the Church of England without doing something which the word of God forbids, or omitting something which the word of God positively commands; if this were the case, (but blessed be God it is not,) you ought to separate from the Church of England.” As a Wesleyan, the word of God positively commands me to holy living. It commands me to teach what I have been taught. It positively teaches me to contend for the faith and also that so much as it is within my power to live peacefully with my neighbor. The UMC is not peaceful. It is increasingly difficult to fulfill the great commission when what I speak may be reasonably expected to be countered by a UMC down the street. I can to trust a UMC pastor to prepare me for the works of ministry without a fairly extensive interview first. No Bishop, I will not flip Wesley’s the world is my parish because that requires me to put blinders on. I’ve been around the world and seen what God is doing. Why would I ignore that. I know the name of my Bishop, I’ve encountered GC delegates and even been one once. I know the BoD. I’ve seen way to many clergy power plays. Bishop power plays too. I am not a GMC apologist. In fact, I’m not convinced it has a decade in it. I’m not crouched in my corner with my caucus group because I don’t belong to, and never have, any of them. I’ve in fact been rather critical of the WCA if you must know. So, yes, I agree that the United Methodist Divorce is a mistake, really a series of mistakes starting before any of us was born. It is also the only solution.

Old Daddy Wesley, we’ve messed up again, but some of us are leaving to try to set it right.

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