General Conference 2020: Déjà vu All Over Again?
By Bill T. Arnold
I have been honored, beyond my ability to express in words, by the way the clergy of the Kentucky Annual Conference have elected me to represent them at the General Conferences of The United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, Tampa, Portland, and St Louis. During these years of service, I have often reflected on the history of Methodism leading up to and including the creation of The United Methodist Church in 1968, and the implications of what is occurring in our Wesleyan tradition at this moment in time.
When our forebears created The United Methodist Church in 1968, many thought they were creating a mainline US denomination. That creation seemed complete in 1972 when they enshrined a doctrine of pluralism (sometimes called a "theology of pluralism" in the Book of Discipline; others would call it heterodoxy). Over a decade later, Leonard Sweet, at the time President of United Theological Seminary, reflected on the 200th anniversary of the 1784 Christmas Conference, and observed that "United Methodism ended its second century with the clarity of vision of a wiperless windshield in the middle of a storm." Indeed, the books of Discipline from 1972 to 1988 never succeeded in defining pluralism, leaving the church with "different verbal expressions of Christian truth" and enshrining in our denomination a "radical disagreement as to what is ontologically true at the very foundations of Christian doctrine."
While all of this was happening in the first two decades of the UM Church, there existed a consistent strand of traditional orthodoxy in the church. The creators of the UM Church were unaware, or at least underestimated the persistence of this traditionalist strand in the church, which had its roots in the nineteenth-century holiness movement, evident in the twentieth-century in camp meetings, music festivals, and academic institutions, and to a lesser extent, in the Azusa Street revivals of Pentecostalism. We might call that strand in the UM Church a form of "evangelicalism," although that label was never quite right for the Wesleyan theology it advocated. Today, in addition to the word evangelical, we occasionally hear the word "conservative," but I will refer to this strand of the UM Church as traditionalism.
This traditionalist strand of the church, with which I most closely identify, never embraced the church's official theological pluralism in those early decades. Then, in 1988, this strand of the UM Church, which saw itself as classic, historic Wesleyanism in the orthodox tradition, had grown in strength, and successfully changed the official position of the church at General Conference, eliminating pluralism, and refining our understanding of the Quadrilateral.
Since that date, the traditionalist strand in the church has been growing and eventually found an ally in the growth of the church in the central conferences, especially in Africa. Most leaders in this strand do not think of themselves primarily as members of a mainline denomination, instead holding their membership in the church rather loosely. They are content to remain in the UM Church as long as their ministries and institutions are not hindered or even damaged by affiliation with an institutional church.
At the same time, those who envision United Methodism as a mainline denomination gave up on pluralism after 1988, and on the theological liberalism at its root.
What has emerged in recent decades is what we today call "progressivism," which often understands our church's mission statement as focused on social transformation, sometimes in the form of an agenda that is today calling for a change of our understanding of sexual ethics. To their credit, they have worked diligently to build a denomination for maximum social impact, controlling most of the boards and agencies, and academic institutions.
In my opinion, the UM Church has held together reasonably well during the vicissitudes and theological disagreements of the past fifty years because of a shared commitment to the General Conference as the only official voice for the church, and because of an organizational connection in the form of the Book of Discipline. This unity was organizational and institutional, but it was never doctrinal or missional unity. Everything has now changed, because we no longer share a commitment to the General Conference or to the Book of Discipline.
So what can we say about St. Louis? Among the many other observations I could offer, I submit only this: What we saw on full display at the specially called General Conference was a loss of this shared commitment. Our beloved institutional church, born in the pluralism of 1968, torn asunder over many years by fightings without and fears within (2 Cor. 7:5), is today broken into two coalitions, both of which are serving as separate churches or prepared to do so, with contradictory convictions about Christian anthropology, of which human sexuality is only a part, and with contradictory standards for ordination and different understandings of Christian marriage.
St. Louis illustrated again, as General Conferences have repeatedly shown for many years, that the one coalition - that of US traditionalists and international delegates - holds a consistent 53-55 percent voting bloc, while the coalition of progressives and centrists holds 45-47 percent of the votes. As Dale M. Coulter has observed, "these two coalitions are already functionally distinct denominations." Regardless of our disagreements, I think we can all agree that the Book of Discipline no longer holds us together as an institution.
Finally, I would add this observation. What you saw in St. Louis was a legislative reaction to a defiance of the General Conference. The specific acts of defiance I have in mind are Bishop Talbert's conducting of a gay wedding in North Alabama in 2013, and the election and consecration in 2016 of Dr. Oliveto, pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, as a bishop in the Western Jurisdiction.
General Conference 2019 was a reaction to that defiance using the only means available to traditionalists - legislative action. At the conclusion of the conference, we witnessed another act of defiance by the leaders of the Western Jurisdiction, done as a matter of conscience and genuine conviction. I take the leaders of the Western Jurisdiction at their word that we will now witness further acts of defiance, which they believe are prophetic and needed. I have equal confidence that traditionalists will then respond with more proposals for legislation in 2020, which they, in turn, believe are needed, not as punitive or unreasonable reaction, but as necessary to restore order to the church.
This is a vicious cycle of defiance and reaction. We simply cannot repeat in Minneapolis what we did in St. Louis. I have come to believe this conflict must end in order to allow both fledging churches to launch into new expressions of Methodism, allowing each the freedom to minister and serve as they feel called to do. And we need to find a way to move into that newness without recrimination. We must return to the conviction that Bishop Ken Carter expressed at the beginning of the conference -- that none of the delegates in St. Louis were ill-intentioned, and that each was prayerfully doing only what he or she thought was best for the good of the church.
Where is my hope? I hope and pray that at this juncture in the history of our Methodist movement, God is doing a new thing. I believe that in the coming months, we will find a way to allow each coalition to release its grip on the other - to allow each coalition to bless the other in goodwill and with respect for each other, allowing all to follow their conscience in carrying out the ministry to which each is called. The witness and ministry of both coalitions is being diminished at this moment, and I believe we can and must find a way to allow both to minister in the freedom of their principles. I do not have the answer to what that will be. But God does, and I pray He will lead us into His preferred future for both coalitions of what is now The United Methodist Church.
Bill T. Arnold is an ordained United Methodist clergyperson, professor of Old Testament studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, and is a delegate to the General Conference.
This article first appeared on Dr. Chris Ritter's website, PeopleNeedJesus.net, and is adapted from a presentation Dr. Arnold made to three different events with the Kentucky Annual Conference (KAC). These are the personal reflections of the lead clergy delegate of the conference's delegation to GC2016 and GC2019. Dr. Arnold is speaking only for himself. These reflections in no way represent the opinions of the entire KAC delegation.
1. Jerry L. Walls, The Problem of Pluralism: Recovering United Methodist Identity (Wilmore, KY: Good News Books, 1986).
2. Cited in Walls, Problem of Pluralism, 3.
3. Walls, Problem of Pluralism, 49, and see 29-50 for the church's struggle to define "pluralism."
4. The African delegates speak with passion and gratitude about the Methodist missionaries who brought them the Gospel, people like Joe and Billy Davis in Belgian Congo, with roots in Kentucky Methodism (son of Warner P. Davis), and a host of others whose missionary service often goes without recognition.
5. Traditionalists usually understand the first portion of our mission statement, "to make disciples of Jesus Christ," as primary, assuming the second portion of the statement is a preposition of purpose: "for the transformation of the world" (see The Book of Discipline 2016, §120, page 93). For traditionalists, personal evangelism and disciple-making results in world transformation. By contrast, progressives tend to focus on the second portion of the statement, by implication taking the preposition "for" as one of instrumentation; that is, the Church exists to bring about world transformation so that individuals may be brought to Christ, or disciple-making occurs "by means of" the transformation of the world.
6. I have come to appreciate with great fondness many progressive friends in the denomination through my work in recent years on the SEJ Committee on Episcopacy and the University Senate. We do, however, have very different understandings of many of the basic tenets of Christian doctrine.
7. Having "full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional" (BOD, §16).
8. The most important vote, the defeat of the One Church Plan, was by a vote of 449 to 374 (54.55 percent against and 45.44 percent in favor), whereas the traditional plan passed 438 to 384 (53.28 percent in favor and 46.72 percent against).
9. "Methodist Schism," First Things, 28 February 2019, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/02/methodist-schism. The last line of this blog article is compelling: "The two coalitions are two denominations trying to be born."
10. I am indebted to Dr. Steve Furr for this formulation of our current situation.
11. Some would say "bad legislation." But it would be well to remember that no one of us is individually responsible for the actions or attitudes of everyone affiliated with our positions. I do not agree with nor accept the hermeneutical approach of every traditionalist, and I have progressive friends who cannot accept the theology of others who share their views on the question of sexuality.