The New Moralism
By David Watson
The United Methodist Church was engineered to hold disparate streams of the broad Christian tradition together. Born amidst the fervor of the modern ecumenical movement, it joined liberals, evangelicals, and pietists under one denominational roof.
In recent years, however, the rejection of the church’s way of ordering its life, and hence the theological diversity protected by that order, has undermined our unity with devastating effectiveness. The primary rationale for division is not now, as it once was, rooted in a call for a more doctrinally and ethically conservative church. It is based on the breakdown of denominational governance that has become increasingly prevalent since 2013.
It was 2013 when a retired UM bishop performed a high-profile same-sex wedding. It was not the first same-sex wedding performed by UM clergy, nor was it the first time such an act had taken place without any significant accountability to the larger church. It was, however, the first time a UM bishop had so flagrantly infringed upon the episcopal authority of the presiding bishop of an annual conference, and so publicly acted in disobedience to the teaching of the Discipline he had vowed to uphold. It was also clearly a moral declaration: the imperative for UM clergy to perform same-sex weddings outweighs the imperative to abide by the decisions of the General Conference. Because bishops are held accountable by their jurisdictional colleagues (in this case, the Western Jurisdiction), no consequential action took place in response to the same-sex wedding.
On the one hand, the wedding and the lack of consequences had very significant implications for the governance of our denomination. It showed that while the General Conference could legislate certain positions, the college of bishops in a particular jurisdiction would determine whether or not the decisions of the General Conference would be effectively binding upon clergy in that jurisdiction. In the Western Jurisdiction, the college of bishops has enacted a de facto jurisdictional decision around these issues. Put differently, because these bishops feel that the denomination’s position on same-sex marriage is immoral, they have used what power they have to undermine that position. The moral decisions of the college of bishops now supersede the moral decisions of the General Conference.
On the other hand, the wedding and lack of consequences had very significant philosophical implications for the theological diversity of the UM Church. It showed that the “big tent” concept of United Methodism, this denomination designed to hold theologically diverse constituencies together, was in danger of collapsing. The “big tent” assumes that various groups of United Methodists will have to live with some moral and theological decisions that they don’t like.
Recently, the New York, Baltimore-Washington, and Pacific Northwest annual conferences have begun openly to set aside the statements in the Discipline that prohibit the ordination of non-celibate LGBT people.
Effectively, this creates a “regional option” for ordination standards. Yes, the General Conference may legislate certain positions, but that legislation is irrelevant if annual conferences, and particularly their bishops, choose not to abide by the Discipline. In actual practice, annual conferences now set ordination standards. The standards of the General Conference are purely optional. Perhaps the hope here is that an appeal to the Judicial Council will change church law on this matter and officially hand over all ordination criteria to the annual conferences.
What has happened in these cases is that some progressives feel a moral imperative to authorize same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination that supersedes the imperative to abide by our denominational standards. They have undermined the ordering of the life of the church. They are living out the new moralism that has begun to inhere within the broader culture.
America’s new moralism, which some in the UM Church have adopted, involves absolute moral certainty. If the processes don’t produce the outcome we believe is right, the result is that we will simply do as we wish. Our church was not set up to work this way.
The United Methodist Church has weathered many storms because it has developed an elastic and resilient system of decision-making. Theological diversity can inhere in a denomination, but only if there are agreed-upon processes for dealing with that diversity and the resolution of disagreements. In theory, we have those. In practice, we are setting them aside with more and more regularity. Consequently, the backbone of this denomination that was meant to hold together diverse constituencies is breaking. America’s new form of moral decision making is staring us in the face, and we are withering under its gaze.
David Watson is the academic dean at United Theological Seminary. A fuller version of this appeared in The United Methodist Reporter. It is reprinted here by permission.
What Makes a Successful Conference
By Elizabeth Glass Turner
How can we move toward a common goal successfully together? That end-game means significantly different things to us. The problem isn’t that we can’t work together. It’s that we’re working towards different ends. To minimize those differences disrespects everyone involved.
As United Methodists of different convictions we may be willing to work together, but underneath that sentiment is the dread often felt in a dead-end relationship: where is this headed? Is it sustainable? I care about this person, but do we have a significant compatibility issue? What if we’re loathe to stop working together but we are working towards different ends?
So rather than successful outcomes – because those vary widely depending on who you ask – what are the attributes of a successful General Conference?
A successful General Conference will be one in which honesty is practiced with humility. The constituents, organizations and movements present need to be extremely honest about their intentions, goals and convictions – no matter what that means for the future of how we live and worship. Fear of divorce can lead to a lack of bluntness, the inability to frankly and simply express oneself. But the honesty must live and breathe in the ecosphere of humility (not that humility means capitulation). Humility doesn’t mean setting aside conviction. It means the willingness to serve another with whom you disagree while you live your conviction with integrity. It means holding the door open for someone who has made your life difficult.
A successful General Conference will be one in which the worldwide nature of the church will be celebrated as central to the United Methodist identity rather than an appendix to its agenda. Eight years ago international delegates to General Conference faced challenges like receiving their preparatory materials months after North Americans did. They sometimes were asked to vote on what in English were oddly worded amendments or proposals after having the content translated twice, such as from English to French and from French to Swahili. Rather than embrace global delegates, some North Americans, seeing their presence as a hassle, promoted the idea of giving them their “own” conference – a gross failure of basic inclusion at best, and reminiscent of the days of American segregationalism at worst.
Finally, a successful General Conference will be one in which decisions are made. What a simple sentence: what a complex proposal. If honesty is practiced with humility, some decisions need to be made. Sometimes the worst outcome is one in which millions of dollars and work hours are spent in order to tread water. The worst case scenario is that blood pressures will skyrocket and mud will be flung all so that nothing changes – a dysfunctional and untenable position.
A failed General Conference has little to do with whether or not The United Methodist Church chooses to continue to exist in its old form or in new iterations. A failed General Conference will be one in which honesty is swallowed by the desire to appease or to protect the status quo; in which humility is swallowed by a sense of entitlement; in which disrespect is shown in the mode in which business is done; in which the worldwide nature of the Body of Christ is re-sketched with North American features; and in which no clear, coherent, time-bound decisions are made in any direction.
Go, therefore, with these questions in mind: if we’re really honest, what do we want this to look like in four years? If we’re really honest, what is it likely to look like in four years? What decisions will help those to be one and the same thing?
Elizabeth Glass Turner is the managing editor of www.wesleyanaccent.com.
Burden of the Cross
Christ’s yoke is easy and his burden light. The strength of Christ being imparted to the soul that trusts wholly in him, how can the burden be otherwise than easy, and even delightsome, when borne in almighty strength, and with the soul filled with the constraining love of Christ….It is only by a careful, constant, and entire reliance on Christ, that holiness can be retained.
It is an important consideration, that the entire way to Heaven is narrow. It is the way of the cross. We sometimes hear persons speak of going around the cross; but those who speak thus have not carefully acquainted themselves with the chart leading from earth to Heaven. He who would be a disciple begins to lift it, in the strength of Christ, the first step he takes in the Heavenward course. Before he entered upon the way, the Spirit presented the terms of discipleship, and never could he have become a follower of Christ unless he had resolved on entire compliance with the conditions of discipleship, which, in the Savior’s own words, stand recorded thus: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
–Phoebe Palmer (1807-1870) was an evangelist and the author of books such as The Way of Holiness, Entire Devotion to God, and Faith and Its Effects.