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.
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?