In recent weeks, there were some excellent posts on the need for Order in The United Methodist Church. These were mostly written in response to the failure of Bishops to find adequate means to restrain progressive clergy who have participated in same-sex weddings and, more recently, in response to some churches using a refusal to pay apportionments as a means of political protest within the Church.
With the authors of these blogs, I agree in the need to return to order, and have advocated for Bishops to return to judicial processes to carry out their role in protecting the Discipline.
However, there was a common tendency, in the midst of this recent debate to make the issue of order overly one sided. Take, for instance, David Watson’s blog on Ecclesial Disobedience and the Ordained. Watson, whom I usually take to be something like the epistemic equivalent of the Pope sitting ex cathedra for Methodists, starts his post with a fairly harsh warning to progressives:
I’m afraid, though, that after 2016, these theological friends and I–these brothers and sisters in Christ–will no longer share a worshipping community. The denomination has reached a breaking point. Of course, our disagreements over many topics, most prominently ‘homosexual practice,’ are nothing new. What is different now than in the last four decades? The answer is quite clear: ecclesial disobedience.
Watson is like the frustrated parent who, coming upon his feuding children, locates fault with the one who threw the last punch. There is no doubt that progressives have escalated the challenge to church order in the last year, but as I pointed out in a blog for Political Theology last December, the challenges to church order began long before this.
For at least the last twenty years, the Good News movement and the Charismatic movement have been threatening to break with the order of the Church entirely if the GC did not follow their will.
Throughout this recent debate, Good News has represented itself as vouchsafing two central United Methodist values: (1) the unity of the tradition, and (2) the outcome of the established process of discernment in the General Conference. This position has strengthened Good News’ rhetorical strength against those who are currently participating in ecclesial disobedience. However, Good News’ professions to hold these values as central deserves further scrutiny.
Every General Conference is surrounded by political maneuvering, and Good News has been a major player in this maneuvering around homosexuality. As it turns out, one of Good News’ most consistent moves is to warn that its constituents are likely to leave the United Methodist Church, or bring the denomination to schism if the General Conference changes the language in The Book of Discipline about homosexuality.
Take, for instance, the following examples: In preparation for General Conference in 2000, Good News sent delegates a video, warning of “a church split or substantial defection of members, churches and clergy” over issues related to homosexuality. In 2004, calls for splitting the denomination at a meeting of the Confessing Movement at the General Conference became so disruptive, that it was necessary for the General Conference to hold a vote affirming the unity of the church. Before the 2012 General Conference, on a blog at Good News, Lambrecht quoted Wolfhart Pannenberg: “Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism.”
Such statements ought not to be read only as descriptions of the situation, or as mere reactions to progressive acts of ecclesial disobedience. These are political claims, intended to influence the process of discernment in the General Conference itself. This is all to say that Good News, which has been positioning itself as the patron of Church unity and the Church’s deliberative process, influenced that process by warning that its constituency is willing to give up on the Church’s unity and walk away from the outcomes of the Church’s deliberative process if those outcomes were not in line with its position on homosexuality.
For those who have been following this development, the statement from the Good News movement today will not be surprising. Some have pointed out the apparent hypocrisy of having complained about progressives breaking from Church order while functionally announcing that you are in schism from the order of the church. But, it’s not new, it is just more of the worldly politics that have been driving us to the present situation for more than the past two decades.