I recently came across Bishop Willimon’s opinion piece. Granted that he tends to be a bit acerbic in his style, he said a number of things that I cannot let pass without comment.
Bishop Willimon compares the secession of traditionalist churches from the UMC to a divorce. Fair enough; I’ve done the same. Drawing on his pastoral experience, he recalls how he would often work towards getting a couple-at-odds to work through their differences: “If all else failed, I’d plead, ‘But you promised!” and lay on the scripture: “Put up with one another” (Col. 3:13). Progressive United Methodists, however, have – for reasons that of course they believe good and honorable – been either breaking our clergy covenant or champing at the bit to do so. What marriage can (or should!) survive unrepentant infidelity to the marriage covenant? How, then, can Willimon genuinely suggest that our present moment is really akin to a moment in his history of couples counseling, such as he presents as the opening framework?
He notes that we are at this point “after just 40 years of debate on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination – a mere twinkling of the eye in church history.” He invokes this perspective to urge patience upon traditionalists who “say they’ve tired of arguing” (and also, to be fair, upon progressives who say the same and are ready to split — the principal outcome that Willimon, clearly a strong supporter of the institutional brand, wishes to avoid on all sides). I wonder why he does not also think it right to urge patience upon progressives who say they won’t wait any longer for “justice” or “equality” or any of the other alleged values that have become the rallying cries against our clergy covenant, used to justify not separation, but to justify the flagrant disobedience of the covenant that has brought us to this moment. A friend of mine calls this “civil disobedience.” I question the relevance of that model when we are dealing, not with civil rights, but with ecclesiastical fidelity (and this in a nation in which civil rights are decided elsewhere and in which there exist many fine alternative ecclesiastical brands with which progressive UMs already aligned). Would the UMC be in the position in which we find ourselves if our activist progressive clergy across the connection had shown the kind of patience Willimon urges rather than plunging the denomination into disciplinary chaos with ordinations and solemnizations of unions contrary to the Book of Discipline 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016 (I only name the editions since my own ordination in 1995)? I think 40 years to be a very short time in which to grow impatient with nineteen centuries or more of scriptural and ecclesiastical wisdom, disrupting the unity of our denomination for the sake of making room for same-sex intercourse (I have been criticized for focusing on this, but this really does seem to me to be the line that the scriptures draw — and thus it is the only line that I would wish to draw).
Willimon writes that “caucusing is easy; church is hard.” This is true. But it is true beyond the spheres of the conservative groups that he then goes on to accuse of caucusing. It was powerful caucusing that led the Florida Annual Conference to approve an entire slate of delegates to the 2020 (I mean, “2021”; no, I mean, “2022”; no, I mean, “2024”) General Conference that was committed to changing the language of the Book of Discipline in a way that would favor the progressives’ agenda, despite the fact that about 1/3 of our clergy (and, one might presume, at least 1/3 of our laity) are traditionalist. (Nothing, by the way, says to traditionalists “you don’t have a real place in our future UMC” like making sure we don’t have any voice within our conference delegation to General Conference. Taxation without representation has never gone over well on this side of the Atlantic.)
Another ungenerous barb is lodged as he writes: “Rather than ask, ‘What’s Christ up to in our neighborhood?’ we say ‘I refuse to be part of a church that doesn’t reflect my values before I came to church’.” As Willimon goes on to rake traditionalists over the rhetorical coals for the next fifteen paragraphs, I quite reasonably hear this as a comment about those who are like-minded with me. The unstated but obvious assumption here is that our position on human sexuality is a product of modern culture wars, not a product of sanctified thought. I will simply say that my own cultural upbringing, and certainly my academic formation, would strongly predispose me to adopt the progressive position. It is due to my commitment to scripture (and to honor its voice that speaks to me from outside my cultural location and potentially liberates me from my cultural location’s determination of my values) that I hold myself distant from the values I would have held if there had ever been a time “before I came to church” (there wasn’t). And neither Willimon nor the majority of the progressive UMs with whom I’ve been in conversation (or argument) are prepared to consider that the answer to the question, “What’s Christ up to in our neighborhood?” might be: I am calling you to become a community that so loves, supports, and involves gay and lesbian brothers and sisters that they can receive and embrace the Spirit’s power to live beyond the power of the passions of the flesh that draw them away from the full measure of holiness to which I call all who are “in” me. (Progressives, by the way, never seem to show an awareness of the degree to which extra-ecclesial, American, Western values are driving them.)
What is Willimon right about? Traditionalists have tried too hard to claim that this is about more than human sexuality. Yes, we have oddball theologians, academics, bishops, clergy, and candidates who do oddball things and make unorthodox pronouncements. I do not believe that this represents even a sizable minority among UMs. I do believe, however, that many UMs have separated orthodoxy from orthopraxy, doctrinal profession from lived discipleship. Thus my own bishop can claim to be entirely orthodox while also standing ready to sanction behaviors that the scriptures, upon which our orthodox beliefs are founded, set outside the parameters of sanctified practice. I take this to be a symptom of our evangelical Protestant culture that puts a high value on “belief” for salvation and a low value on transformed practice (or, in theological terms, thinks that “justification” contributes the lion’s share, if not the sum total, of what is necessary for “salvation,” rather than an equal and unbroken flow from justification to sanctification to salvation, such as [*ahem*] Wesley taught).
The decision to sanctify same-sex unions and, with them, same-sex intercourse represents a watershed moment. We are saying that, from our vantage point, we know better than several scriptural authors what will be acceptable in God’s sight, what “holy living” looks like – and we will be in direct contradiction of the univocal witness of scripture on this particular question. This is not like the issues of divorce, slavery, or women’s ordination, in regard to which scripture is not univocal (and it is certainly not like divorce, which, when it arises, we do not celebrate as a church, but rather acknowledge as the tragic result of a failure on at least one party’s part to love as Christ has loved us). This is a step that many of us, who not only love scripture (we all “love” scripture), but want to allow scripture to speak its full witness into our lives and, thereby, shape them, are more than hesitant to take.
Willimon is also right that forming a new denomination like the GMC will not solve the problem in the long run. It will only postpone dealing with this same issue again for about twenty years. I left the Episcopal Church in 1993 to pursue ordination in the UMC because the latter was more closely aligned with scripture on ethics and holiness (imagine that — seeking ordination in a different denomination rather than adding to the dissension within one’s native denomination). It took about 20 years for the UMC to catch up (and then these last additional 8 or 9 for the crisis to reach a head here as it did for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican missions that arose alongside it to preserve a more traditionalist Anglican witness here in the States). My own hope for the GMC is that it will learn to love LGBTQ+ persons well and genuinely so that it models, not the approach traditionally taken by many traditionalists (the unwelcoming, unloving coldness, if perhaps still politeness, that contributed so robustly to our present debacle), but the approach that ought to have been taken by the UMC from the beginning. Perhaps if it does, it will have the moral integrity that will withstand the next wave of progressivism.
I could say more but will content myself with one more comment. In his closing remarks, Willimon cites Wesley’s sermon “on Schism”: “Separation is evil in itself, being a breach of brotherly love, so it brings forth evil fruit… the most mischievous of consequences. It opens a door to all unkind tempers, both in ourselves and others.” I note that, in this same sermon, Wesley gives an eloquent explanation for why he himself had “no desire nor design to separate from” the Church of England “till my soul separates from my body.” But here we are anyway in something called the United Methodist Church rather than the Anglican Communion. Anyhow, Wesley also said that he would not remain in the Church of England if doing so did not permit him to fulfill a commandment of God. This would have been a good reason for progressives, so convinced of the rightness of their cause, to have left the UMC in peace as they severally found themselves no longer in agreement with the General Conference. It is now the reason so many of us are uncertain as to whether we can remain with a denomination that will shortly declare same-sex intercourse a matter of indifference to the Church and to God, when scripture so plainly witnesses otherwise. From the same sermon: “in all these cases the sin of separation, with all the evils consequent upon it, would not lie upon me, but upon those who constrained me to make that separation by requiring of me such terms of communion as I could not in conscience comply with.”
I know no traditionalist who has made or is contemplating a move out from the UMC lightly. I know that I have been reduced to tears grieving for my connection with a denomination and a conference that has now become quite frayed and fraught. Progressives, you all knew that this day was coming, when either you or traditionalists would have to move in a new direction so that we could both preserve our witness and our consciences. Stop speaking about us like we want this, like we are not under spiritual and moral necessity to this, like we are approaching this glibly. This is as heartbreaking for many of us as the heartbreak of gay and lesbian Christians featured so prominently in the media after general conferences in 2012 and 2019. There are just no cameras to catch our sorrow and our tears.