UMC Separation Primer 2: It’s About Elephants

elephant
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(I apologize that some formatting problems, failed edits, and non working links make this an uncomfortable read. Can’t tell if its hosting problems or browser problem. I’ve tried to force some workarounds but so far no success. Still trying.) Most problems resolved as of 11:00 A.M. EST March 7.

 

The matters of human sexuality and unity are the presenting issues for a deeper conversation that surfaces different ways of interpreting Scripture and theological tradition
Mission Statement, Commission on a Way Forward

….The position that United Methodists have done great harm to each other, and/or that there are irreconcilable theological differences, and that this requires the establishment for more distinct space between constituencies in our church and perhaps the separation of some segments of our church, primarily based on values, from each other.
Final report of Commission on a Way Forward

After careful reflection, discussion, and prayer, The United Methodist Church and its members acknowledge fundamental differences regarding our understanding and interpretation of Scripture, our theology, and our practice.
Preamble to Legislation, Protocol for Reconciliation through Grace and Separation

In 1814 Ivan Krylov wrote the fable of The Inquisitive Man. After visiting a museum of natural history, he returns to a friend who had recommended the tour. His friend is eager to hear his report. “It was amazing!” replied the Inquisitive Man, “ Such incredible diversity of creation assembled in one place. Almost every species, type, and kind. The variety of birds with distinctive colors. The incredible compilation of reptiles. So many kinds of reptiles. I was fascinated that there is even great diversity in the tiny gnats!
“What did you think of the elephant on display at the entrance?” inquired the friend.
“Was there an elephant? I did not notice.”

The Metaphor of An Elephant in the Room
The metaphor of An Elephant in the Room is often used to describe an enormous issue that is so sensitive that everyone in the group talks around it rather than risk trying to solve it. In Krylov’s fable, it is an enormous presence that we do not notice because we are either distracted by the complexity of tangential issues, or we are inordinately attracted to lesser issues that are important to us. All these meanings are present in the ongoing schism in the United Methodist Church.
A statement on our theological division and biblical dissonance occurs in almost every document about our ongoing schism for the last fifty years. It is usually placed right at the entrance of the discussion: in the preamble, the mission statement, or early in the body of the work: “(F)undamental differences regarding our understanding and interpretation of Scripture, (and) our theology. One might expect that the document would go on to describe the problem, yet these studies never identify what these different theologies are or how deep is the schism on scriptural authority. Instead, they attempt to remedy some conflicting aspect of our mission, teaching, or ritual that results from hosting contradictory theologies.

The United Methodist Church is a doctrinal amalgam of fundamentally and irreconcilably different theologies with contradictory understandings of the nature, authority, and interpretation of sacred texts. For some of us, this is the embarrassing family secret that we aren’t supposed to talk about in public. Clergy especially are expected to be careful about discussing these things in the presence of local church members. Don’t let the children hear. Maybe they won’t notice the dysfunction arising from our irreconcilable differences. For others of us, we are distracted by a myriad of tangential problems (church trials, dysfunctional conferences, actions/inactions by our general boards, deteriorating seminaries). For still others we are inordinately attracted to a single issue (sexual ethic: It’s Not about Cats or Sex). For all of us, United Methodists of every theological and political affiliation, it is the elephant at the doorway which separates us and that we dare not ignore. It is actual three elephants: Biblical authority, Theological foundations, and the Way of Salvation (the third being the meaning and purpose of the other two.)
If a separation occurs, then we do well to pay attention to those unmentionable irreconcilables. If one is prepared to choose the future of the church based solely on one’s preferred sexual ethic, be it libertine or puritan, without regard to the church’s teaching about Christ, the Bible, and salvation; then for them it really is all about sex and they are excused from the rest of this essay.
The Bible Elephant
It is common to refer to our irreconcilable differences as arising from different interpretations of Scripture. It should be phrased as disagreement on determining the authority of Scripture. Differences in interpretation of a text rarely lead to schism. Scripture is rich in meaning. Two readers my look at a text and pick up on nuanced meanings with diverse implications for a context. Serious scholars may examine the original language and have a disagreement about the weight that should be given to a subtle connotation of a term. These variant interpretations may lead to diverse applications of a text. The church has always recognized this and has experience in living with the richness of Biblical interpretation, but biblical interpretation must not lead to opposing and contradictory applications, and it cannot justify schism.
The treatment of sacred texts by many United Methodists is developed in Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible. He asserts that Scripture can be placed in three buckets: 1) Expresses God’s heart, character, and timeless will for human beings 2} Expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding 3) Never fully expressed the heart, character, or will of God. I do not hide my contempt for his premise or his methodology. I cannot present his arguments impartially. I find it rooted too much in utilitarianism and “It seems to me” reasoning. I will say, God help me if on my deathbed the church can offer me nothing better than a disciple of Adam Hamilton. Nonetheless, let us assume for the moment that Adam Hamilton is the one who is correct, and I am the one who is in error. When we say a text is no longer binding, we are not in disagreement on the interpretation of the text. We do not argue that the text does not say what it says or mean what it means. We are not in dispute on the subtlety in connotation of a Greek word. We disagree on what authority the text has in the life of the Church. That is the essence of schism.
When it comes to how we accept the authority of Scripture in the church there is not room for multiple opinions. The matter must be brought to a resolution or there will be perpetual rebellion by one party or another. “No man can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” Whether one relies on the traditional canonical authority in the church or accepts the new innovations in determining Biblical authority, we must take the time to learn the difference and choose which guide to follow. We must work to find the answer. Do not expect to find it in denominational resources or any of the plans of separation. They place that elephant right at the entrance of their documents, and then they walk by it without paying it any notice.

The Theology Elephant
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say that I am?” Matthew 16:15
The question from Jesus is or ought to be the principal concern of Christian theology. When the Commission on A Way Forward says that “there are irreconcilable theological differences” they are saying that United Methodists have contradictory answers to that question. Again, having placed that elephant at the entrance to their document, they proceed to walk on by it without comment.
In the previous essay I listed number of teachings and practices that are a contradiction of the received Christian faith. I will review a few of them while emphasizing that these are defended and promoted at the highest levels of authority in the United Methodist Church.
When Bishop Sprague began teaching at a United Methodist seminary that Jesus did not die for our sins and was not physically resurrected; and when he then advanced these teachings in “Affirmations of a Dissenter” published by the United Methodist publishing house; the problem was not that some dotty old bishop had some screwball ideas. The problem is that the teaching was sanctioned by a United Methodist Seminary, promoted by the United Methodist publishing house, and when it was challenged before the North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops it was affirmed by them as being an acceptable understanding of the Christian faith for United Methodists. Further, after Bishop Sprague retired, when Bishop Ough was looking for someone to serve a church, then he and the cabinet of the West Ohio Annual Conference agreed that just the right person was one who denied the atoning blood of Jesus and the bodily resurrection.
In the last year, three of our colleges decided that the appropriate selection for the chaplain of a United Methodist college should be a Muslim or Universalist Unitarian, but you do not have to leave United Methodism to find practitioners of other religions. When Wesley Foundation Director Roger Wolsey wrote for Patheos Magazine , “Jesus isn’t God. Jesus didn’t die for your sins” the problem isn’t about one person with an odd opinion. The problem is that he was mentored in this through the United Methodist seminary, passed by a District Committee on Ordained Ministry, approved by the Mountain Sky Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, and when the Bishop and cabinet were looking for the right person to advance to campus ministry…this is what they chose.
That is consistent with the theology of the current Mountain Sky bishop who believes Christians have made an idol of Jesus (idol is by definition a false god) and also denies his divinity and sinlessness. “If Jesus can change, if he can give up his bigotries and prejudices, if he can realize that he had made his world too small, and if, in this realization, he grew closer to God, then so can we” (screenshots posted here). Again, this is not about one person’s strange theology. It is about a person elevated to bishop by the delegates of the Western jurisdictional Conference with full knowledge of this theology. She had previously pastored a church which removed all crosses and Christian symbols so as not to offend the adherents of many religions who were members of the church.
These theological differences are not trivialities. Rather than deciding the future of your local church based on a preferred sexual ethic one is better advised to consider the theological underpinnings that will exist in a new expression of Methodism. We must answer, “But what about you? Who do you say that I am?” Many have been attracted by our theological pluralism. Many of us like its utilitarian approach and its “it seems to me” liberty. Such adherents must ask if they can long continue with a pluralism that includes creedal Christians who will always be an adversarial element in their midst and an obstacle to the mission of their church. Traditional/Evangelical/Orthodox Christians must ask if they can continue in a church where they can compel adherence to a sexual ethic, but which continues in doctrinal pluralism. The theology elephant is placed right at the entrance of each these documents. Don’t act like you don’t notice it.
The Salvation Elephant
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Acts 16:30
The various proposals for reconciling our differences say nothing of salvation, but then, it has been a long time since we have seen anything in our denominational discussions that addresses salvation. It is another unmentionable irreconcilable. It is also the subject of sermon number one in the Wesleyan Standards: Salvation by Faith. It is the first and largest elephant at the entrance. Don’t pretend you don’t notice it.
I doubt any self-identified progressive/centrist is reading at this point, but if you are then perhaps you are among those attracted to a church where we are not bothered by “spiritual fire insurance salesmen.” Maybe you identify with this United Methodist clergy member who writes, “(H)owever it is defined I am not an evangelical. I have no burning desire to sell my version of faith to anyone.” Understandably, you would be disturbed if the conference sent you a pastor whom you perceived as a fire insurance salesman.
There are those United Methodists who are attracted to Wesley’s mission of, “nothing to do but to save souls.” They are understandably disturbed by seminaries and Boards of Ordained ministry who send them clergy who “will have nothing to do with saving souls.”

There is still a part of our church that proclaims the faith that acknowledges the necessity and merit of Christ’s death, and the power of his resurrection. It acknowledges his death as the only sufficient means of redeeming man from death eternal, and his resurrection as the restoration of us all to life and immortality.
When we have contradictory answers to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” then we will we have contradictory, even oppositional, visions of the mission of the church. We cannot continue to look for lessons in evangelism from the same institutions which have led us in fifty consecutive years of denominational decline. We cannot just walk by that elephant because we find another exhibit more interesting.
Conclusion
We have not come to separation because of our disagreement on a sexual ethic. We do not have a sexual ethic. We cannot write one for the same reason we cannot accomplish a number of other things: We do not have a shared understanding of Biblical authority, theology, or means of salvation which are all necessary to be a church. The authors of the various proposals coming before the General Conference all acknowledge these metaphorical elephants, then run from them as fast as if they were a charging herd of literal elephants. Our Annual Conferences, local churches, and individual parishioners ought not follow that example.
Do not let your family, your church, or your Annual conference follow a path because it involves the least work or because it satisfies some tangential issue of the day. If we are to form new expressions of Methodism, then do the hard work of answering the hard questions.
{Postscript: For what it is worth I am cynical about General Conference passing a plan of separation that will ever be implemented. Each of the proposals rely on a large amount of trust that the powers will act with integrity. We have a shortage of trust in the UMC because we have an abundance of deception and dishonesty. The Protocol is particularly vulnerable. I have asked many times of many people who are intimately familiar with the legislation, “What is the remedy if an Annual Conference ignores the Disciplinary requirement to transfer the trust clause? As written, it carries no more authority than the many other provisions that Annual Conferences ignore without consequence.” Responses range from silence to, “We just have to trust that they will.” There is no evidence to suggest that financially stressed Annual Conferences will hand over billions of dollars in property just because they are asked to. I have my own plan of amicable separation that does not require General Conference approval. Local churches should ask if their faith and their church community is worth preserving even without the property.}

2 thoughts on “UMC Separation Primer 2: It’s About Elephants

  1. Wow! Blockbuster post. Thanks to Chris Ritter for alerting us to this one. We need tough, cleareyed, well-targeted writing like this. We need more of it from the undaunted. Please keep pointing us to what’s astride the path to separation.

    Like

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