Via Media Methodists Respond to A&W Plan: Part 3 (Trust)

When I was growing up, a very large church down the road had an interesting structure. The entire church operation was in the pastor’s name. His name was on the deed to the buildings, the land, the school, the bank account; it was all in the senior pastor’s name. His dad had founded the church and had handed it down to his son as the successor. The family was in charge of everything. The pastor’s spouse was in charge of the school. I thought this was very strange to have everything under the control of one person and one family, but the people who attended the church didn’t seem to mind. It had always been like this and they saw no reason in changing it because they trusted their pastor implicitly. They trusted that this man of God was never going to do anything wrong.

I see church in a very different way than these folks. Church is not something that I control, but something I am the rector over. Take the church I currently serve. It was planted over 207 years ago, and has been a living part of this community ever since. None of the people in the congregation planted the church. None of them were in the 2nd wave or the 3rd wave or 4th wave or even the 5th wave. They are here because of folks that were here before them. They are here because of pioneers who were willing to lead the way. I am appointed their shepherd for this time, but I know one day someone else will be their shepherd. This is not just the United Methodist system, but all church systems. No matter how long we stay in one place, eventually we have to hand it over to someone and let it go.

My friends Evan and Drew have reviewed the A&W plan in in part 1 and part 2 of this series much more in depth than I could, so I want to look at an underlying issue. I want to talk about the trust clause. Trust clauses are part of denominations that hold their property together in a trust as a body. Instead of the pastor’s name or the trustee’s name on the property deed, The United Methodist Church “holds the property in trust.” I had a friend recently lament to me that if the trust clause is the only thing keeping us together, then maybe we should let it go. What if the issue is not the trust clause but trust?

What if the deepest issue in United Methodism today is that we just don’t trust one another? This can manifest itself in a myriad of different ways, such as doctrinal erosion, labeling, name calling, and even wanting to shed ourselves of some of our churches. My District Superintendent called it a deficit of trust in the system. Maybe a lot of this deficit of trust is cause by the system itself. We have pastors who are placed in appointments and then judged on how well they meet certain tick marks on checklist sheets. We have pastors who graduate from seminary with expectations to change the church and manifest the kingdom of God only to find out that the real world isn’t that neat or easy. We have pastors who wrestle with faith, doubt, fear, and real issues that you can’t just dismiss.

Maybe my cynical friend is right. If the only thing keeping us together is the trust clause then maybe we should just do away with it. Let everyone out who wants out. Let people keep their property, their retirements, their congregations, and just become an independent, vaguely denominational church. Let the folks on the right leave and the folks on the left. Come up with some ritual of leaving for the occasion. Put annual conferences in charge of sorting it all out. Have a year or four of jubilee where all the churches that want out have a chance to do so.

Maybe I am naive, but I still believe in the resurrection. It is going to take some dying, but we can be the church of John & Charles Wesley again. In the words of Paul, we are going to have to die to our selves so we can truly be raised in Christ.

  • We are going to have to give up our ideas of a pure or perfect church. (I don’t believe this idea of church is possible in our broken world).
  • We are going to have to give up our exclusive claims to words like justice and orthodoxy.
  • We are going to have to give up the idea that all United Methodist churches will look alike and worship alike and believe alike. (If you know me, this one is hard for me)
  • We are going to have to learn how to trust other sinners. (This is only possible with reclaiming Wesley’s class meetings)

There is something I am only beginning to discover as I turn 40.

The church universal, of which the United Methodist Church is part of, is not mine.

It’s Christ’s. All I know that this sinner can do is play my part and trust that God will bless my insignificant effort.

How about you? Are you ready to trust again?

Via Media Methodists Respond to the A&W Plan: Part II

In a recent conversation, Stephen, Evan, and I were asked for a Via Media Methodists response to the new proposals from Dr. Bill Arnold and Dr. David Watson; these proposals have been dubbed the “A&W proposals.” We are honored that the via media is asked to be a conversation partner. Having followed Dr. Arnold and Dr. Watson for some time on social media, it is clear to us that they exemplify the ethos of the via media, a way that is so beautifully summed up by John Wesley in his sermon “Catholic Spirit”: “rooted in the faith once delivered to the saints and grounded in love, in true, catholic love…” “A&W” love God and they love The United Methodist Church, and they desire from her nothing but the strongest witness and the deepest commitment to Christ.  This is the second of a three part response.  Read Evan’s previous post here.  Drew offers the second response.


13th-century Archbishop’s crozier, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I miss Roger Ebert.  As a movie fanatic, I relied on his reviews and trusted his perspective.  What I most appreciated about Ebert was that he reviewed films based on what they were trying to accomplish, rather than comparing every film to a Citizen Kane or Godfather.  In that spirit, I will offer some thoughts on the A&W proposals based on their intended goal rather than what I think that goal should be.  Their intention, then, is “only to restore our polity to proper functioning, rather than restructure the denomination to accommodate irreconcilable perspectives.”  I confess I do not understand why we cannot or should not accommodate “irreconcilable” perspectives on sexuality, when we already do on matters like divorce, abortion, and evolution – but that is a separate question.

So the goal is to restore our polity to “proper functioning” rather than undertake a major restructuring.  On that score, I think what Drs. Watson and Arnold offer is quite successful if it could be implemented.  While imperfect, their suggestions are worth serious consideration.

Proposals #1 & 2 deal with the suspension of the trust clause for churches that cannot live within the current Book of Discipline, so that these churches can vote and decide to leave the UMC with their property intact.  This is interesting because it is offering an exit door to progressives for which some conservatives (such as members of the UM College of Cardinals) have pined.  While I believe there are legitimate concerns about this offering a kind of temporary congregationalism, I think the more serious issue is whether or not a critical mass of progressive churches would take this avenue if available.

This is, to my mind, offering a conservative dream solution to progressives who don’t want it.  Were progressives desirous to start their own church, and confident they could build a network of healthy progressive Methodist churches, I think they would.  For all the pious grandstanding from the far left about how “this is our church, too” I genuinely think they know that they don’t have the ability to start their own church from scratch.  Where are the progressive megachurches and healthy progressive denominations? (Before you say Resurrection, note that Hamilton only recently changed his view on sexuality, and in all other respects is far from a radical.) The progressive strategy for decades has been to agitate and advocate for change from within, rather than take an entrepreneurial approach, because they are quite aware that they have no ability to build something from the ground up.  Many of our most progressive jurisdictions and conferences could not survive as it is without support from other parts of the Connection, and so (on my humble view) they have made a virtue out of the necessity of staying.

Proposal #3 is connected to 1 and 2, offering a similar exit for progressive clergy to leave with their pensions and retirement intact.  I think #3 suffers from the same issues that #1 and #2 present: who would actually take the church up on these?  This may be even less likely for clergy.  United Methodist clergy who are ordained in full connection enjoy some of the best benefits packages around.  If it is unlikely that a progressive Methodist denomination would be economically strong enough to offer something similar – and I would all but guarantee that would be the case – then clergy would be hard pressed to make that choice.

Proposal #4 alters the Disciplinary language and practice about “Just Resolutions” so that the complainants would be required to be included in whatever resolution is reached.  My interpretation is that this is designed to avoid incidents like the Ogletree resolution, in which no accountability is present and the church clearly privileges the defendant over the complainants.  I was on stage with Dr. Arnold when he suggested the Ogletree decision was neither just nor a resolution, and I am inclined to agree with him.  No one likes trials, but the only thing worse than continued trials might well be avoiding trials either through ignoring Disciplinary breaches or legal fictions such as the Ogletree decision.

Proposals #5-7 add a set-apart bishop to lead the Council of Bishops and charge that bishop to enforce the Book of Discipline (presumably, the sexuality clauses in particular).  Additionally, the final proposal changes the status of retired bishops to bishops emerita/us (I can’t help but think this is inspired by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI).  This seems clearly aimed at Bishop Talbert and others who would follow in his schismatic footsteps.

I am heartily in favor of all the proposals related to the episcopacy, and it is in these proposals that I think “A&W” have their greatest contribution.  A worldwide church such as ours needs a unified voice to lead it, and the set-apart bishop is long overdue.  I have watched a bishop I deeply respect attempt to juggle the duties of a standard episcopal area and the Presidency of the Council of Bishops, and I can only say – even for our most talented bishops – it is an utterly inhumane burden to place on anyone.

I find it pathetic that we may need to pass legislation to ensure that bishops uphold their consecration vows, but I suppose that is where we are.  The episcopal office, not just in Methodism but in the church catholic, is chiefly charged with guarding the faith of the apostles and serving as a point of unity and agent of order for the church.  Prophets and activists will inevitably make bad bishops, and if we need to legislate that fact to make the point then so be it.

To conclude, I would suggest that the best of the A&W proposal could shore up the weaknesses inherent in Adam Hamilton’s “A Way Forward.”  While I share concerns about congregationalism, I am not against a loosening up of the polity to accommodate various perspectives on sexuality (within reason, but that is beyond the scope of this essay), so long as basic doctrinal commitments are in place and vigorously defended.  I agree with Joel Watts’ take that the middle/via media/third way is more about priorities than positions.  I am less concerned that United Methodists come to different conclusions about sexuality than I am the un-theological roads that both extremes take to get there and the un-Christian ways they seek to force their conclusions upon the whole church.  Even many conservatives will admit that sexuality is only the “presenting issue,” indicative of deeper and more serious divides.  I agree, but I’d much rather fight about those deeper issues than a surface iteration like genital activity.

Something has to give.  Whether the path forward is the commendable A&W plan, that offers a gracious exit for those whose consciences will not allow them to stay, or something like A Way Forward with some teeth, so that a new, loosened arrangement actually brings peace to our warring factions rather than just moving the battle lines (this is where a functional episcopacy comes in), I am open to the suggestions.  Do I think the progressives churches and clergy will leave? I don’t. Is this potentially a reasonable carrot to offer before presenting the stick? Probably.

I have little interest in the sexuality debate, and such that I do possess wanes the longer it prattles on.  We don’t know how to have a healthy, doctrinally informed, logically sound and charitable discussion.  Most of our so-called conversation is nothing more than an endless parade of shibboleths designed more to show which team we are on than to understand one another.  As Allan Bevere suggested on a recent WesleyCast interview, it isn’t just the positions we arrive at, but the way that we get there that matters.  Too much of the UMC debate on sexuality is childish and/or pagan, and frankly – as it is usually carried out, from both sides – it’s boring.

But I care deeply about order, because I care about the mission of the church.  No organization can achieve its goals without alignment around ends, without some agreement on basic purposes,  and without healthy leadership.  The best pieces of the A&W plan offer a return to functionality that we desperately need.  That said, I am open to any arrangement that is biblically and doctrinally sound, and that promises not just a new settlement but a church that cares enough about her calling to live by a new arrangement and hold accountable those who refuse to abide by it.

I don’t think that is too much to ask.  What say you?

Via Media Methodists Respond to the “A&W” Proposals: Part 1.


In a recent twitter conversation, Stephen, Drew, and I were asked for a Via Media Methodists response to the recent proposals from Dr. Bill Arnold and Dr. David Watson; these proposals have been dubbed the “A&W proposals.” We are honored that the via media is asked to be a conversation partner. Having followed Dr. Arnold and Dr. Watson for some time on social media, it is clear to us that they exemplify the ethos of the via media, a way that is so beautifully summed up by John Wesley in his sermon “Catholic Spirit”: “rooted in the faith once delivered to the saints and grounded in love, in true, catholic love…” “A&W” love God and they love The United Methodist Church, and they desire from her nothing but the strongest witness and the deepest commitment to Christ.

This will be a 3-part response, released over the next couple of days. This is for two reasons: Evan, Drew, and Stephen all have different takes on the “A&W” proposals, and this is a good opportunity to highlight the diversity of thought coming from the middle. We hope that our contributions enable healthy, Spirit-filled conversation. Evan starts us off.

Dr. Bill Arnold and Dr. David Watson have offered some proposals for The United Methodist Church that are thought-provoking and worthy of consideration. I have some concerns with a couple of their proposals, and there are a few that I whole-heartedly endorse. I hope that my comments are conveyed with the same “catholic love” from which “A&W” developed these proposals.

Dr. Arnold wrote a response to the proposal “A Way Forward,” in which he rightly pointed out the congregationalism and loss of core Methodist/Wesleyan principles upon abandonment of the Trust Clause. He very clearly stated, near the end of his post: “…nor do I support removing the Trust Clause.” Yet, the first “A&W” proposal is to suspend (yes, I realize suspending is different than permanently removing) the Trust Clause for a quadrennia to allow churches who cannot abide the UMC’s teaching on human sexuality to leave with their property. Given the snail’s pace at which our top-heavy bureaucratic denomination moves (see GC 2012 for evidence), it is highly unlikely that all the necessary logistics of an exodus of local congregations with their properties would be accomplished in four years. It seems it would take at least two quadrennia. But more than that: is it somehow more tolerable to allow the local option for just one or two quadrennia? I see some overlap between this proposal and the local option of “A Way Forward,” the key difference being the time frame. Both sacrifice connectionalism on the altar of pragmatism in a way that continues to make human sexuality THE defining issue for United Methodists. Also, this feels like it is rewarding bad behavior, and that troubles me. Isn’t this proposal saying, in effect, “Well, if you don’t agree with the collective discernment of the denomination on this issue, that’s ok. Here, take everything that never belonged to you in the first place.”

That leads me to proposal #2. This proposal, as I understand it, would allow for the convening of a church conference to allow for departure from the denomination for “reasons of conscience” regarding par. 161.f. of the Book of Discipline. Through said process, the church could, among other things, be released from the Trust Clause. I suppose my objection here echoes Maxie Dunnam’s problem with the “Agree to Disagree” legislation presented by Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter to the 2012 General Conference. We United Methodists disagree on everything from human sexuality to abortion to war to climate change. Why allow a church to leave the denomination, all property in tow, over this one particular social principle? Shouldn’t we also allow churches that might disagree on the denomination’s teaching on Israel/Palestine to leave as well? Or what about progressive churches that deny, for example, the virgin birth and literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ? These tenets clearly violate our doctrinal standards as set forth in par. 104 of the Book of Discipline. Or conservative churches that re-baptize? (Believe me, I know of some)! This practice is also a violation of our church’s doctrine. What does it say to allow such freedom to leave the connection over something that isn’t even church law?

Proposal #4 needs some further development. As I read it, A&W clump together Administrative Proceedings (par. 362-364 of the BoD) and Judicial Proceedings (par. 2701-2719 of the BoD). Administrative Proceedings and Judicial Proceedings often overlap in approach; there is a process, there is a strong preference for a just resolution. An administrative proceeding is more “informal,” in that it seeks a resolution “in house.” If that fails, it can move to a more formal judicial proceeding, a more serious inquiry, and, possibly a trial (I encourage those who are interested in the nuances between the two consult the Book of Discipline, especially par. 363.1, a.-g. and par. 2701). Lest I read between the lines too much, this proposal seems to be a reaction against Bishop McLee’s handling of the Ogletree case in the NY Annual Conference. Charges against Ogletree were filed under par. 2702.1 of the Book of Discipline, which deals with Judicial Proceedings, not Administrative Proceedings. The terms of just resolution under Judicial Proceedings is found under par. 2702.5. The paragraph there does not require the involvement of the complainant in reaching a just resolution; Bishop McLee, under par. 2702.5, handled the just resolution process appropriately. I agree with A&W that there needs to be some clarification and consistency needed on the just resolution process in par. 363.1 c and 2701.5. However, I think there also needs to be some pastoral care given for the complainant; perhaps the complaint does not want to be involved, and their wishes should be respected. Someone recently told me that the vast majority of complaints levied against clergy persons deal with harassment and sexual misconduct; that being the case, the care of and for the complainant must be of utmost importance. So, I agree with the heart of this proposal; I’d like to simply see more conversation around it and development of it.

I heartily affirm proposals 5-7. In my opinion, the answer to much of our current malaise is found in a strengthened episcopacy. We need our bishops to affirm the Order of the church. I would like to hear more about proposal 5 in particular. What are the checks and balances in place to ensure that the “set-aside” bishop responsible for enforcing and implementing the Discipline does so faithfully? What might prevent this position from becoming a highly political or ineffective office? How exactly would this “set-aside” bishop be able to tangibly and effectively enforce Order? I see this as a hard sell at General Conference, especially given the way the “set-aside” bishop idea was received in 2012; but, if this office were established and carried out practically and faithfully, it could be a real way forward.

A Hymn for the Thirsty: “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing”

stones tongue

Rolling Stones logo, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We live in an age of desires that cannot be quenched.  We want more: more Facebook friends, more Twitter followers, higher salary, more vacation time.  We approach almost every arena of life – physical, spiritual, emotional – like a Golden Corral.  We want all-you-can-eat everything.

But there is only One who can truly quench our desire.  As Augustine reminds us, only God can satisfy our restless hearts.  Only God can quench our deepest thirst.  Enter my favorite Charles Wesley hymn:

“O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace!”

Charles wrote this hymn to celebrate the anniversary of a conversion, following his own experience a year prior.  Hence the focus on justifying grace that is available to all:

“Look unto Him, ye nations, own
Your God, ye fallen race;
Look, and be saved through faith alone,
Be justified by grace.”

As the hymn goes on, Charles gets more specific about who is invited to this gospel feast:

“Harlots and publicans and thieves
In holy triumph join!
Saved is the sinner that believes
From crimes as great as mine.

Murderers and all ye hellish crew
In holy triumph join!
Believe the Savior died for you;
For me the Savior died.”

Few modern worship songs mention murderers and prostitutes and thieves, but Chuck does not shy away from the scandal that is the free grace of God offered to all.  Drawing on St. Paul, he concludes the hymn and gives a nod to sanctifying grace:

“With me, your chief, ye then shall know,
Shall feel your sins forgiven;
Anticipate your heaven below,
And own that love is heaven.”

“Heaven below” recalls the title of one of the most important studies of early Methodist worship, but it also describes a Wesleyan view of salvation. Heaven is not something in the “sweet by and by,” it is a life of holiness and happiness with the Triune God now.  Charles’ brother, John, writes of salvation in his sermon The Scripture Way of Salvation,

“It is not a blessing which lies on the other side death; or, as we usually speak, in the other world…It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing; a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of.”

To “own that love” of God in Christ Jesus is heaven, and so we “anticipate our heaven below” by living with and for Christ now, transformed by sanctifying grace such that the Imago Dei is restored more and more fully in us.  Thus, “O For A Thousand Tongues” celebrates the full panoply of Wesleyan and ancient views of salvation: that whosover will may come, that God is a redeemer of the worst sinners, and that the fulsome redemption He brings is lived out here and now, anticipating what is to be enjoyed in eternity.

This a hymn for the thirsty.  And who among us is not? We try to sate that thirst with so many other things, with lesser goods and lesser gods.  But when we get a sip of living water, a foretaste of heaven here below, a thousand tongues are not nearly enough to sing the praises of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


P.S. For an excellent contemporary rendition of this classic, we can thank David Crowder:


Choose Your Own Authority, #UMC Edition

Growing up, I loved the choose your own adventure books. The books have a story laid out, but as you get further in the book, you are forced to make a choice. For instance, if you open this door, you turn to page 76 and continue reading. If you go down that path, you turn to page 83 and continue reading. The choices split again and again until your adventure ends in a terrible fate or you would save the day. Many times I would go down one path and then back pedal until I found out where I messed up. (After all, I always wanted to be alive by the end of the book!)

When I became a candidate for ordained ministry, my mentors explained polity to me time and time again. They told me about itineracy, submitting to the authority of the Bishop and the authority of our Book of Discipline. I had to take United Methodist Polity in seminary. (Taught by a Bishop!) I understand my place in our church system. One of the things that I agreed to in my ordination was Order (a responsibility of every Elder in the United Methodist Church). My Bishop asked me these (and other) questions before we were ordained:

  1. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?
  2. Do you approve our Church government and polity?
  3. Will you support and maintain them?

Bishop William Hutchinson told us that these questions were very serious questions and not to be taken lightly. He said they represent the foundation of our church system.

It seems to me that, in some ways, we are playing a “choose your own authority” game in The United Methodist Church. I’ve heard a lot about networks and spider/starfish organisms instead of our current mode authority. What I really keep hearing from folks is that many people want a congregationalist polity instead of our current connectional one. My background is Southern Baptist, so I have a little bit of experience in the congregationalist polity. Basically, the congregationalist polity allows the local church to be the primary decision maker in everything. They get to decide who they hire as a pastor. They get to make the decisions on who they baptize and when. They get to make decisions on who gets married. It allows for a local church to decide what is best for themselves at this time. It is a good way to order the life of the church, but my concern is that this may not be the best way.

A congregationalist polity also serves to disconnect us from each other. We become silo churches more worried about our ministry here in this place. We lose sight of the church universal. We have a tendency to become echo chambers where we surround ourselves with folks that look like us, talk like us, and think like us. In my opinion, our church witness suffers because of this.

All the current suggestions I have seen presented for “saving The United Methodist Church” involve some sort of move towards a congregationalist or pseudo-congregationalist polity.

I am not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. I am just wondering if we can do better. There are two different movements our church can make in the future.

We can move to a loosely affiliated network, some sort of modified congregationalist system where churches get to pick and choose so to speak.

OR maybe…

We can move to a stronger connectionalism where we empower our Council of Bishops to lead us with authority and order given to them through the Book of Discipline and the General Conference. This movement would require us to be more consistent in our approach to doctrine and polity across the connection.

This is the age old argument: do we want to be more like one company or more like a franchise business? It is a “choose your own authority” type moment in the life of The United Methodist Church. We can turn to page 148 and choose congregationalism or we can turn to page 237 and choose connectionalism. I just wonder which choice will lead us to a terrible fate and which one will save the day.


“And Are We Yet Alive”

still alive

This is the first in a series by the curators of Via Media Methodists on our favorite Charles Wesley hymns. Evan starts us off.

I wasn’t born or raised United Methodist. I came to this family of faith as an adult, during my college years. It was in a small country United Methodist church that I heard a call to ministry, that I grew in grace, that I was given opportunities to serve. I found a place where I was affirmed, where I could ask as many questions as I wanted, where I experienced the Holy Spirit move in incredible ways. In many ways, and I don’t say this lightly, I owe my life — at least my spiritual life — to The United Methodist Church.

I could have chosen the Episcopal Church, or the United Church of Christ, or the Baptist church, or the Roman Catholic Church; all are important and vital parts that compose the Body of Christ. But I happened to walk into a United Methodist church on a cold December Sunday morning. And eventually, I made a choice to affiliate myself with this particular expression of Christ’s church. Lately, given the vitriolic and unkind infighting over sex and schism that is happening in many pockets of our connection, I have to remind myself that I chose this denomination, flaws and all (what denomination doesn’t have flaws?), and that the Wesleyan movement is, in spite of our flaws, one of the best expressions of the Body of Christ. I have to remind myself of the United Methodist particularities that drew me in and made me stay.

One of them is Charles Wesley’s hymnody.

I love the hymn “And Are We Yet Alive.” I would gladly trade every insipid, dull, wishy-washy contemporary Christian song for this one hymn. It is rife with Wesleyan theological distinctives: prevenient grace, sanctification and perfection, mission and service. I think there are fewer Wesley hymns that speak more clearly to where we United Methodists find ourselves today; yet, it also offers a way forward, a way to orient our lives together.

Consider these words from the third and fourth stanzas:

What troubles have we seen,
what mighty conflicts past,
fightings without, and fears within,
since we assembled last!

Yet out of all the Lord hath
brought us by his love;
and still he doth his help afford,
and hides our life above.

Troubles and conflicts, fighting without, fears within – sound familiar? Perhaps no other line more aptly describes our current situation. The promise contained in the fourth verse, though, is that our lives are hid in God; in the scope of things, in the long run, with this promise, might that not put our current division into perspective? How much do we let denominational identity politics and taking sides over issues define us, instead of boldly proclaiming stanza five:

Then let us make our boast
of his redeeming power,
which saves us to the uttermost,
till we can sin no more.

There is a lot of boasting happening right now across our connection; which side is boasting depends on the day, on the latest statements by a particular person or group or caucus, on the most current pronouncements from bishops. But I haven’t seen much boasting in God’s redeeming power. In Galatians 6:14, St. Paul wrote “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

What about the move onward to perfection the last line mentions? If we believe that God works in our lives “to the uttermost,” then we will treat our sisters and brothers differently, even those with whom we disagree. It may provide the humility to realize that God is continuing the work God started in each one of us; none of us has perfect knowledge, or can claim that God is exclusively on our “side.” We are all under construction, and by God’s sanctifying grace, moving on to perfection. Each one of us must continue to press on to the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14).

I love the last verse:

Let us take up the cross
till we the crown obtain,
and gladly reckon all things loss
so we may Jesus gain.

Friends, fellow United Methodists, believers who are following in the way of John and Charles Wesley, of Jacob Albright, Phillip Otterbein, and Martin Boehm (let us not forget our EUB heritage): Are we yet alive? Do we see each other’s faces? Have we taken up our crosses and begun to follow? Do we count all things loss – our opinions, our soapboxes, our sides – so that we may gain Jesus? Remember what brought you into the United Methodist fold. Remember what keeps you here.

The Devil is an Extremist


Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Middle often gets caricatured as mild, mushy, muddled, and milquetoast.  Of course, such denunciations often come from where one might expect: the extremes.  To the far left, I will often look too rigid.  To the far right, too flexible.  I suspect this is precisely where I want to be.  Like one of my theological heroes, Karl Barth, I don’t neatly fit in with the fundamentalists or the modernists.  And I like it that way.

Besides which, it may be that extremism is one of our greatest spiritual temptations.  According to C.S. Lewis’ imaginative masterpiece The Screwtape Letters, the Devil wants us to run towards the extremes.  What extreme, you ask? Any extreme.  So says the senior tempter Screwtape to his protege Wormwood:

“All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them. Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the “Cause” is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal. Even when the little group exists originally for the Enemy’s own purposes, this remains true. We want the Church to be small not only that fewer men may know the Enemy but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity and the defensive self-righteousness of a secret society or a clique. The Church herself is, of course, heavily defended and we have never yet quite succeeded in giving her all the characteristics of a faction; but subordinate factions within her have often produced admirable results, from the parties of Paul and of Apollos at Corinth down to the High and Low parties in the Church of England.”

Written in the vortex of World War II, the immediate context of this quotation is the question of pacifism and patriotism.  Make your victim an extreme peace-monger or an extreme nationalist, suggests Screwtape, and the spiritual ramifications will be the same.

Can anyone argue the contention that ours is also an age “unbalanced and prone to faction”?  Are not we in danger of losing the potency of our witness beyond recovery, in the UMC and the wider church, due to a focus not on discipleship, not on the way of the cross, but on the whims of “subordinate factions” and lesser causes and parties?

As in Lewis’ day, the extremes of left and right are both dead ends.  They are temptations more than legitimate alternatives.   This need not mean that what remains – whether it is the ‘mere’ Christianity of a C.S. Lewis or a classically Anglican via media – is all soggy bread.  Bishop Scott Jones has helpfully claimed that the true Methodist way – in life, doctrine, worship, and piety – is best understood as the Extreme Center.

Centuries ago, it was Aristotle who said that virtue lies at the mean between two excesses.  What if the virtue in our current debates is to be found not at the extremes, but in the via media?


Introducing the WesleyCast: A Podcast for Wesleyans

We love podcasts. They help us grow in our faith, learn new things, and get introduced to new folks. However if you look at the general religious podcasts currently available on iTunes very few of them reflect theology from a Methodist/Wesleyan perspective. Glancing through the top 200 reveals a lot of non-wesleyan podcasts and the theology is sometimes hit or miss.

So we decided to start our own podcast that is uniquely Methodist/Wesleyan in its perspective. Our main goal is to model a dialogue from across the Wesleyan spectrum of theological thought. We hope to offer three things for our listeners:

  1. Pertinent discussions about whats happening in Methodism. Our model is dialogue that helps us sharpen our understandings and yours. Iron sharpens iron.
  2. Theological thoughts from Pastors and Professors across the world.
  3. Interactions with new resources to help the local church make disciples for Christ.

You can subscribe to the WesleyCast here.


In the weeks and months ahead look for author interviews, book giveaways, and annual conference conversations.

Who Holds the Future? Thoughts on Power, Coercion, and Schism

“May any fruit that grows on or from us throughout this painful debate always signify that we are followers of Christ.”

-Professor Douglas Campbell

One of my convictions as an ordained Elder is that the United Methodist Church is not mine.  Yes, I have a vested (literally, haha) interest in seeing her flourish.  Yes, I am tied to her by the ecclesiological equivalent of a marriage through ordination.  I’m with the UMC “for better or for worse.”  I did not ordain the Church, but rather the Triune God has called the church into being as the Bride of Christ and continues to love the Bride, even when she resembles the whore of Babylon.  In short, the UMC – like all of the Body of Christ (for we are just one, admittedly lovely, part) – is God’s church, not mine or yours.

Contrast that with the view of the progressive and evangelical caucuses.  A group of 80 evangelicals (I maintain the best name for this group is the UM College of Cardinals) has titled a press release naming their own concerns, “Regarding The Future of the United Methodist Church,” indicating that they feel entitled to determine that future on their own – and anonymously.  At least when the Roman Catholics are in conclave we know the names attached to those little red hats.  In a recently released video, Good News’ President Rob Renfroe even mentioned the group’s desire not to see churches harmed that “we love and that we have built.”  (Whoa!) Whose church is it, again?

As for the progressives, a group of about 6-10 people who fancy themselves “Love Prevails” have recently released a “Manifesto” which, depending on your point of view, either reads like Luther’s 95 Theses or a freshman political science major’s rantings.  Under the third of their three “D’s”, the small but merry band – who likes to claim outrage and then jovially paint lipstick on statues of John Wesley – wrote this:

“The time for polite persuasion has passed. To ensure discrimination no longer flows uninterrupted, we will protest and disrupt local, national, and global events. We will undermine all policies that limit or deny the full participation of LGBTQ United Methodists in the life of the church.”  

It concludes with a promise to disrupt General Conference 2016 if necessary and – given the nature of Robert’s Rules – it seems pretty clear that they plan do that regardless.  Ten or less people will attempt to hold General Conference hostage. Whose church is it, again?

I do not believe the UMC is my church.  Yes, I have a voice, and as an Elder I have a calling to seek the best for the church even as I live out my vows to be faithful to this community, to obey my spiritual leaders, and to build up the people and community I serve to the best of my ability.  But she’s not mine, she’s God’s, and should be treated as such.

Part of recognizing that the church is God’s, and the future of the church thus belongs to God, is recognizing that the good of the whole is more important than my own particular views. Thus, while I may not agree with all my sisters and brothers, I am called to love them.  I have been greatly helped on the importance of this by one of my professors, NT scholar Douglas Campbell. Describing the basic perspective of the Apostle Paul, Campbell argues:

“He proclaims a qualitatively higher relational capacity in Christians, which is a complicated way of saying that he thinks Christians should behave in a markedly better fashion towards people, and he attempts to link this to existence in Christ.”
Professor Campbell goes on to assert that, even though Paul himself was not perhaps the best example of this trait, both the ends and the means of Christian discernment matter because all things are to be done “in love”:
“Hence, the process as well as the end-point is critical, because if the process is betrayed in Christianity then the end is also betrayed automatically: for a relational entity whose end-point is perfect relationality, an aggressive journey to that end point is an absurdity.”

Both the left and the right in the UMC are making a mad dash towards this absurdity: the right threatens to withhold funds (divest?), or perhaps break away all together and take who-knows with them.  The left is determined to dig their heels in and has taken a “renovate or destroy” strategy.  Most of the moderate evangelicals and progressives, who may agree with the goals of their ideological partners but not their means, are all too silent.

We should all be troubled by such strong-arm tactics wherever they present themselves, because they are, as Campbell names them, absurd.  Here’s my suggested rule.  I’m by no means a “leading pastor,” by any description, but I think I have something to offer here:
If we wouldn’t allow it in the local church, it shouldn’t be allowed in denominational advocacy.

Simple, isn’t it?  Here’s how I look at it:  I wouldn’t allow a group demanding entrance to a Church Council meeting or closed SPRC meeting to have the floor, no matter how how much I sympathized with their grievances.  Nor, on the conservative side, is it advisable to negotiate with hostage-takers; one of the oldest tricks in the local church is for a power player to threaten to leave or withdraw their tithe in order to get their way.  All of these aggressive tactics deserve to be condemned, not taken seriously.  To give in out of empathy, fear, or misplaced charity is to encourage that behavior to continue.  In Edwin Friedman’s systems terminology, it is to continue to “adapt to immaturity.”

One last word from Dr. Campbell.  Writing on the subject of our day, gay ordination, he asserts,
“Moreover, the very resolution of this issue must, as far as is possible, reflect the relational integrity of the Trinity.  Unnecessarily divisive and/or coercive approaches to resolving this problem – on both sides – must be emphatically rejected.”
Allowing the extremes to set the terms of this discussion, and thus attempt to determine the future of God’s church, is nothing short of ludicrous.  We are followers of Christ.  All power, glory, honor, influence, and authority belong to him.  Not me and my friends.  Not my agenda.  Not my caucus or jurisdiction.  None of us holds the future.  An old Gaither song goes, in part,

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow
Because He lives, all fear is gone
Because I know He holds the future
And life is worth the living, just because He lives

God holds the future, and we should start acting like it.  Jesus is Lord, not us. As United Methodists, we honor the procedure of decision and discernment that we have all agreed upon, not because of “institutionalism” or “business as usual,” but because we seek to honor Christ.  If we need more love in our process of discernment, this will come by prayerfully infusing it with God’s Spirit, not by a power-play to circumvent it.  Moreover, our Bishops should be held accountable to what they have been consecrated to do, but even this must be done in love.  It isn’t their church either, after all.

And it’s not mine.  I’m no one important. I haven’t built – or rather, God has not used me to build – a megachurch.  I am not a leader of any consequence in these discussions.  I don’t go back generations in the UMC and I’ll never have a seminary wing named after me.  I just happen to love the church that baptized and ordained me, and I want us to do and be better.

May we seek methods and ends that both please God, and may we be satisfied with nothing less.  And have hope, dear friends: neither we, nor any caucus or region or “leading pastor[s]” hold the future of the church.  God does, and God alone.

[Source: Douglas Campbell, 'Some thoughts on the apostle Paul and ethics.' In M. Rae and G. Redding (eds.), More Than a Single Issue: theological considerations concerning the ordination of practising homosexuals (Openbook, 2000) pp. 77-94.]

Reblogged: What Does the Methodist Middle Look Like?


Kevin Carnahan recently wrote a brilliant post, a theological and ecclesiastical manifesto of sorts, on the middle way as it pertains to The United Methodist Church. With his permission, we are reblogging that post here. The three of us who curate Via Media Methodists have found deep resonance with this post: we appreciate its theological rigor and integrity, its ecumenical approach, and its attempt to reasonably move forward for Jesus Christ in the Wesleyan spirit. Given the caricaturing and misunderstanding by many on both the right and left of a UMC via media, we in the middle have needed a clear, persuasive, hopeful middle position. We are thankful that Kevin has offered just that.
What about you? What is your via media statement? What do you see as vital and necessary for a sound middle way? Let us know in the comments.

From conversations I have had with many across The United Methodist Church, I feel that there is a fair amount of stability within the stated concerns of the more “progressive” and “conservative” wings of the Church, and there is a growing consensus concerning the content of the position embraced by most in the middle. In an effort to move beyond the usual debates, I propose the following as draft of a statement from the middle. The purpose of this document is to facilitate the development and refinement of a middle position which might form an alternative to a schism within, or collapse of the United Methodist Church.

It is clear that some will immediately reject the possibility represented by the ideas that follow. I do not doubt that, some, in order to prevent the development of a consensus middle position, would like to shout it down before it is able to take shape. And it is always possible that coming up with a position that will stabilize the Church is impossible. For some members of the conservative and liberal branches of the church, the impossibility of compromise is a self-fulfilling prophesy. In order to avoid making this document the site for a continuation of the current impasse rather than an opportunity to move beyond it, I encourage those who do not have an interest in compromise to read no further. I am interested in constructive proposals here, not rejection of the entire project. So, if you are interested in the possibility of the development of a Methodist via media in these troubling times, I encourage you to read on and suggest further ideas or counter proposals.

Draft of A Statement From the Middle

 “Unity and holiness are the two things I want most among Methodists.” ~ John Wesley

We affirm and celebrate the Christian Church’s unity in the orthodox theology of the tradition as reflected in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds and the United Methodists Church’s theological unity as reflected in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith found in the Book of Discipline.

We affirm and celebrate the Church’s unity in the practice of the sacraments of Baptism and Communion, which the United Methodist tradition affirms as means of grace to all who choose to participate.

We affirm and celebrate the Church’s unity in our goal to live out the Great Commandment (Matt: 22:36-40) and the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20), and in the particular statement of those commands in the mission of the United Methodist Church: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (1).

We affirm and celebrate the distinctive unity of the United Methodist Church in its emphasis upon the many forms of God’s grace (prevenient, justifying, assuring, and sanctifying) which aid us in all stages of our own development in relation to God.

In conformity with the fifth Article of Religion of the Methodist Church, we affirm the authority of the Bible as the touchstone of the Christian tradition. “The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation” (2).

We affirm the reality of original sin, which “is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually” (3).

In the light of our acceptance of original sin, we reject an uncritical endorsement of human desire, recognizing that human desire after the fall is always tainted by sin. However, with John Wesley also recognize that by the grace of God, all people have some access to the “approbation of their own conscience” (4). Thus, while we reject any uncritical acceptance of human desires and inclinations, we recognize that they are, under proper restraint and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a potential source of moral knowledge.

In the tradition of John Wesley, we reject antinomianism and ethical relativism. The grace of God is what allows us to live lives sanctified into God’s moral order. It does not eliminate the need for moral order. Where there is room within the United Methodist Church to disagree on exactly what God’s law requires on some issues, it is never possible to set aside the recognition and, in some cases, the enforcement of standards of justice and righteousness within the Church.

We affirm the need for Order within the United Methodist Church, and believe that part of the role of the Bishops of the United Methodist Church is to enforce the Discipline of the Church. As such, we endorse taking necessary steps to hold those guilty of violations accountable when charges are brought against them.

We affirm that sexuality is a good gift to all persons from God.  We hold that sexual relations are only fully affirmed within the bonds of marriage between two consenting persons. “We believe that sexual relations where one or both partners are exploitative, abusive, or promiscuous are beyond the parameters of acceptable Christian behavior and are ultimately destructive to individuals, families, and the social order” (4). We oppose the “casualization” of sexual behavior in contemporary society.

We affirm the sacred worth of all people, and believe that certain “basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation. We see a clear issue of simple justice in protecting the rightful claims where people have shared material resources, pensions, guardian relationships, mutual powers of attorney, and other such lawful claims typically attendant to contractual relationships that involve shared contributions, responsibilities, and liabilities, and equal protection before the law. Moreover, we support efforts to stop violence and other forms of coercion against all persons, regardless of sexual orientation” (5).

We affirm the possibility of full membership of all people in the United Methodist Church, and full participation in the sacraments as means of grace for all people, regardless of sexual orientation (6).

We affirm the role of the Church in witnessing an alternative order to the World (Romans 12:2). In a World that is broken by increasingly vicious political partisanship, we believe that the Church’s ability to be bound in unity by the love of God in Christ across our divisions is an important part of this witness.

We affirm the oft quoted dictum: “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters (or non-essentials), liberty; in all things, charity.” As such, we distinguish between issues deemed essential to the Christian and United Methodist faith, on which we require unity, and issues which are non-essential, on which we allow continued debate and discernment.

We recognize and appreciate that the United Methodist Church has been able to maintain its unity despite disagreement on a number of issues that have been located as non-essential.  For instance, United Methodists are free to fervently disagree with one another about the morality of war per se, and about the morality of particular wars.  Within bounds, United Methodists hold different positions on abortion, divorce, economic policy, and a myriad of other issues.  In practice The United Methodist Church has already allowed for differences between Congregations on non-essential moral and theological issues, and has found ways to match pastors with church congregations appropriate to the particular shape of each congregational community.

We acknowledge that Christians of good faith disagree on how to interpret scripture and nature with regards to the moral status of homosexual intercourse. Given the diversity of positions embraced by Christian scholars both within and beyond the United Methodist tradition, we accept that this is a debate in which it is possible for different people to hold rationally respectable and yet contradictory conclusions (See, for instance, 7, 8, 9, and 10). As a result, we recognize that people of good faith and sound reason disagree about the propriety of homosexual marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals.

In the light of these disagreements, under the pressure of the universal charity which is demanded of us as Christians, and wishing to reflect a witness of unity of focus on the mission of the United Methodist Church, we advocate locating issues of homosexual marriage and ordination in the category of doubtful or non-essential matters on which the Church allows some level of freedom to its members, particular congregations, Conferences, and its clergy.

We recognize that shifting to allow disagreement on this issue within the Church will require changes from the status quo. We do not propose or conceive of these changes as a “win” or “loss” for either side in this debate. We reject the model of a zero-sum game that is at times proposed for this issue. Rather, we seek to identify a structure which allows for mutual respect in the midst of disagreement that has structural implications.

We believe that decisions about whether to participate or preside at any marriage ceremony should be left to the conscience of particular members of the clergy, as this conscience as it is formed by meditation on scripture as enlightened by reason, tradition, and experience of the movement of the Holy Spirit. As such, we advocate for a change in church order so that, following that change, no minister should be punished or rewarded for either participating or refusing to participate in such a service.

We endorse the development of a model of ordination that allows for the ordination of avowed practicing homosexuals within the United Methodist Church. However, we demand that, given the freedom of disagreement, this model will require openness to discernment about qualifications for church leadership on regional or local levels. We respect that the will of individual church bodies will often be determinative in this process, as congregations are free to disagree on this qualification of leadership. We are open to the possibility that this process of discernment may be worked out on broader levels, including by the Conference or Jurisdiction.

We affirm, as the United Methodist Church learned in the aftermath of its struggle with integration, that in order to celebrate and preserve the beautiful diversity that exists within the unity of the Church, it is essential to find clergy who fit culturally, theologically, and liturgically with their congregations (11).  We encourage the further development of mechanisms that would expand this principle in order to allow for a diversity of views on the issue of homosexuality.

We hold that embracing this position is entirely compatible with holding strong views on the morality of homosexual behavior. We do not embrace this position because we hold weak beliefs about the morality of homosexuality, or because we are neutral on the issues involved. We embrace the middle position because we respect those who rationally, and in good faith disagree with us on this issue and recognize ourselves as bound to live together within the body of Christ with them.

Though we recognize that this position does not substantially resolve the issues around disagreements about homosexuality within the Church, in embracing this position, we are hopeful that the Church will be free to focus more upon the essential matters that bind us together in the body of Christ, and expend our energies more effectively in pursuing the mission of the Church.



Kevin Carnahan is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Central Methodist University in Missouri and has occasionally taught Christian Ethics at United Theological Seminary in Ohio. He earned his Ph.D. from Southern Methodist University, where he received a Dempster Graduate Fellowship from the United Methodist Church and The Schubert Ogden Fellowship for Academic Excellence in Theology.  Kevin is President of the Niebuhr Society and book review editor for the International Journal of Public Theology.  In addition to several academic articles and many blog postings, he is also author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010).