The Fall of United Methodism from Grace to Legalism: A Response to William B. Lawrence
William J. Abraham
August 13, 2020
The following essay is a response to a 2020 essay in Methodist Review by the Rev. Dr. William J. Lawrence: “A Question of Doctrine: Whither The United Methodist Church?” (Methodist Review: A Journal of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies 12 : 1-59). This response was first submitted to Methodist Review but was not accepted for publication on the grounds that Methodist Review does not publish responses to articles.
Professor William B. Lawrence has written a remarkable essay laying out his views on the history of The United Methodist Church from 1968 to 2019. It will rightly receive extended discussion within and without academic circles. For one thing, Lawrence offers a fascinating etiology of the rise and fall of United Methodism that is novel and provocative. We badly need robust narratives of our recent past, and his narrative will certainly become grist for the mill of future historians. Second, Lawrence is the consummate insider who has served with distinction at every level of The United Methodist Church and brings to the table his training as a historian. He has had a front-row seat in the theatre. I would encourage you to log on to Methodist Review, register an account, and read his essay in its entirety.
In this paper my aims are relatively modest. I begin by seeking to articulate the central thesis that Lawrence advances. This is initially a challenge because he covers so much terrain that it is not always easy to discern exactly what is on offer. The ship has so much disparate cargo that it runs the risk of sinking to the bottom of the mind and resting there. However, we will do the best we can to be accurate on this score. Beyond that I want to raise some critical questions about his proposals, especially attending to the crucial historical and theological proposals buried in them. I shall not in this paper seek to provide an alternative narrative or complementary narrative of the recent history of United Methodism. That belongs in another venue.
The Crucial Claim: From Grace to Law
The crucial claim advanced runs something like this: United Methodism over time moved from a theological method that worked off grace as its fundamental orientation and shifted to a theological method that used law to advance dubious if not otiose theological claims. Having developed an obsession with homosexuality, the church sought to resolve the problem “by rewriting its doctrine as if it were legislation. The church embraced ecclesial legalism as a functioning theology – in effect, a levitical Methodism – at least on matters linked to homosexuality” (4). He continues, “The church has moved from immersion in the mysteries and the means of grace to mastering legislative intrigue and power. The General Conference has turned points of doctrine into matters of legislation” (4). Thus the church abandoned its theological foundations.
We have already the beginnings of a historical narrative, so let’s dwell on that for a moment. The proposed narrative begins in the late sixties in a period of intense turmoil in Western culture. In fact, we can read the uniting of the Evangelical United Brethren and The Methodist Church in 1968 as one response to that turmoil. As an experiment in ecumenism it fit the aspirations for unity; and Christian unity was seen as vital for dealing with the challenges of the era. For Lawrence, the basic foundations that were in place were sound. Formally, the new church sorted out the identity of its doctrinal standards, insisted on grace as its orienting theme, and made the quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience constitutive of its theological methodology. So far, so good.
However, as Lawrence sees it, already in 1972, the train began to go off the rails when the famous phrase “incompatible with Christian teaching” was added to the material on homosexuality in the Social Principles. Thus, homosexual practice was deemed to be incompatible with Christian teaching. This material became in time the premise for a raft of legislation that reached a climax in the General Conference of 2019, a final denouement in the shift from grace to legalism. We see here most clearly the move to do theology or to exercise theological judgment by resort to legalistic action. This in itself has been a disaster; it is perhaps the “reason why our division over homosexuality is so deadly” (4).
However, the addition of the unpopular phrase can also be faulted on other grounds, according to Lawrence. First, it violates the First Restrictive Rule that requires that doctrinal changes only be enacted by means of constitutional amendment; and this was never done. Indeed, it appears it cannot be done because we do not have a mechanism, a theological court or watchdog, for resolving disputes about what is or is not compatible with our Doctrinal Standards. Second, it goes against Article XXI in the Articles of Religion which “says that ministers are not ordered to be single or ‘to abstain from marriage’ but are free ‘to marry at their own discretion,’ as they shall judge the same to serve best to godliness’” (11). So the opposition to gay marriage is unconstitutional in the strongest sense possible because only the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith count as doctrinal standards in United Methodism. Third, it contradicts the Doctrinal Standards in an additional way as follows: it runs up against the claim that grace precedes any good will or good works in the Doctrinal Standards. Indeed “…these Doctrinal Standards put the new denomination on a foundation of grace because the merging partners made conscious choices to include them” (12). The United Methodist Church had a “theology based solely on grace” rather than a theology “linked largely to law” (3). To repeat the content of an earlier quotation: “In effect, the denomination shifted from being an evangelical church based on grace to a levitical church that emphasizes obedience to church law” (3).
It is clear by now that Lawrence is deeply worried that United Methodism has lost its way in and around the doctrine of grace. This shift happens at two levels. First, we have shifted from grace to law as a matter of theological reasoning; this is a radical departure from the material doctrine of grace that served as the foundation of the teaching of The United Methodist Church. Second, the doctrine of grace has been replaced by an otiose vision of legalism that is morally unacceptable.
The latter is not quite as clear as the former, but I think it is a fair reading of Lawrence’s position. Thus, he concludes that “United Methodism has abandoned the liberty of grace for the rigidity of law. The denomination has moved from an evangelical theology of transforming grace to a levitical theology that uses legislation as the language of doctrine” (37). Given the new items of canon law introduced at the General Conference of 2019, “The grace of God’s boundless love can be placed in bondage by laws that use human power to restrict the blessings of holy power” (40).
Additional Problems in the UMC
Problems of Church Law
Consequently, Lawrence is deeply concerned if not appalled that we are open to “punishing persons who are deemed to be problems” (15). Given that “church doctrine on marriage is a matter of grace that honors individual ‘discretion’ and personal freedom” (16), we are eliminating discretion and freedom when it comes to marriage. We are also acting illegally from an ecclesiastical point of view, when we no longer allow Annual Conferences to make comprehensive and final decisions on fitness for ministry. Moreover, “the General Conference created its newly crafted doctrine with impunity and expanded its power to write legislation that alters the Doctrinal Standards” (17). We have imposed “legislative controls on the means of grace such as Christian conferencing about persons who may be divinely called to ministry” (18). We have “outlawed consideration of certain types of persons” (18). We have sentenced aspiring deacons to punishment. “Personal Identity and pastoral activity [thus] became ecclesiastically criminal” (28). The end result is that
The United Methodist Church as a “body of Christ” emerged from the 2019 General Conference with sharper elbows, firmer fists, crankier spirits, and weaker hearts for the mission of Christ. Yet its spiritual sepsis has been developing for decades, and it has now reached toxic levels. The church is so wounded that it may lack the resources to exercise faithful discipleship effectively. Indeed, the denomination as an institution may be terminally ill (21).
In order to keep this paper within bounds, it is not possible to cover all the points that Lawrence has made in his paper. He provides, for example, exceptionally illuminating information on the workings of the Judicial Council and the Council of Bishops. His reading of Article XXI on marriage is fascinating. (I find his reading of the text bizarre in terms of the original meaning of the text. To put the issue provocatively, this use of the text is a lawyerly reading of the text if ever there was one.) He has helpful things to say about the different expressions of United Methodist teaching and the many sites of theological discernment that are in play in United Methodism. However, to round off my exposition, it is important to mention briefly three other elements in Lawrence’s deliberations.
First, Lawrence is very clear that the only way to resolve disputes about what is or is not compatible with our Doctrinal Standards is to identify a constitutional entity or entities that will assess theologically whether the acts of the General Conference in making theological statements or doctrinal declarations properly align with the Doctrinal Standards of the church. This is a kind of quiet refrain throughout his paper. It is also the warrant for his argument that the phrase “incompatible with Christian teaching” should be removed from The Book of Discipline and from any place where it is a premise for church law. I presume that this in turn means the removal of all the laws that Lawrence finds so otiose.
Second, it is very clear who is to blame for this disastrous shift from grace to law within United Methodism. The blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the various renewal groups that have sprung up within United Methodism since the 1960s. The leaders of these groups clearly set out “to seize control of the denomination” (45). The culprits at this point are obvious: The Good News Movement, The Confessing Movement, the Renew Women’s Network, UM Action, Lifewatch, and Transforming Congregations. The most recent bad actor, one suspects, is to be found in The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA). While The Confessing Movement “was in part inspired by tactics that right-wing Baptists had used to seize the Southern Baptist Convention” (45), Lawrence is more generous in his account of the WCA in that he allows for real ambiguities in describing its position on separation.
The Church and the Changing Culture
Third, it is very clear where Lawrence stands in the underlying issue of the relation between church doctrine and cultural developments on sexuality. In a rhetorically powerful passage he identifies the “Stonewall Riots” of 1969 as “a defining moment for national and international perspectives on homosexuality” (43). He then notes that “United Methodist clergy and laity, who had become accustomed to a closeted system, soon discovered that things were changing in society and had to change in the church” (43). This is a telling remark, even though it does not get much attention in the paper as a whole.
Assessing Lawrence’s Historical and Theological Judgments
I am willing to offer this summary as a relatively fair rendering of a long and complex paper that seeks to provide an accurate narrative of the history of United Methodism to date. To be sure, Lawrence covers but one strand in the total history that will need to be told, but it is clearly the most important strand regarding the contemporary crisis we face. The plot line is straightforward. We started off well, but over time made a fatal mistake by seeking to do theology through the medium of church law. As a result, we made a calamitous shift from grace to law, driven by an obsession with homosexuality that created the conditions in which we acted unconstitutionally and bartered away over time our precious emphasis on grace. The culprits in this are the leaders of the various renewal networks who were determined to seize control of the denomination. The way ahead is to identify a watchdog to assess if our theological statements are in line with our Doctrinal Standards, sort out how to apply our Restrictive Rules, and in the meantime strike the offending phrase “incompatible with Christian teaching” and (presumably) all church law that depends on it.
In order to do justice to the argument presented, we need to attend to the historical and theological judgments that are the backbone of this narrative. As to areas of agreement, I am fully on board with the initial identification of The Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith as Doctrinal Standards. I further agree that the Wesleyan tradition has kept alive a robust doctrine of grace across the years. I also think that we are now on the brink of separation, as is made clear by the appearance of the Feinberg Protocols on January 3, 2020. We are now watching the unfolding of a tragedy that will take time to unravel over the next decades in the hands of historians. Part of this tragedy can be located in the toxic atmosphere that has become a marked feature of General Conferences and other venues, and part of it stems from serious mistakes that have been made across the years.
While it is not strictly possible to keep our historical and theological judgments in separate compartments, let me do so for the sake of clarity. There are serious flaws on both counts. At the outset it is important to deal with the conceptual and historical issues that are in play when we make claims about theological method and doctrine in The United Methodist Church.
Consider a distinction between a norm or foundation as it relates to theological method and a specific theological proposal that emerges from rational deliberation or is based on a preferred foundation. The items that show up in discussions of theological norms are familiar over the history of United Methodism, namely, scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. These are technically epistemic concepts, that is, they help us sort out what is true from what is false, the rational from the irrational, the justified from the unjustified, the warranted from the unwarranted, and so on. Specific theological proposals are radically different in nature. Here are some examples: the doctrine of the Trinity, the claim that we are justified by grace rather than works, and the assertion that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God, fully human and fully divine. Failure to attend to this crucial distinction between norms and specific doctrines is a besetting sin in United Methodist circles. Thus, we speak loosely of “doctrinal standards” or “guidelines” and we all too readily treat specific doctrines as standards, a claim which is strictly incoherent if we attend to ‘standard’ as a genuine norm in theological method.
Let’s apply this distinction to claims about the content of the Doctrinal Standards of The United Methodist Church. Lawrence is in my view correct to identify the Doctrinal Standards in The United Methodist Church as the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith. This has been and is disputed, but we need not take up that thorny issue here. Within those Standards, the actual norm deployed is in fact scripture in the case of the Articles of Religion (Article V) and divine revelation in the case of the Confession of Faith (Article IV). For the most part, the rest of the material consists of specific theological assertions about the Trinity, salvation, the church, justification, and so on. The latter can act as a ‘norm’ but only in the exceptionally weak sense of insisting that theological claims developed as United Methodist specimens of doctrine must be consistent with the specific doctrines promulgated in the Doctrinal Standards. They are not norms in the epistemic sense of providing foundations or criteria of rational assessment.
We are now in a position to see what has gone wrong at the outset in the way that Lawrence frames his story of United Methodism.
Lawrence’s proposals run together the material in the Doctrinal Standards with the declarations developed in the section called Our Theological Task. The problem with the material in Our Theological Task is that it eviscerates the normative standing of the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith. The latter are relativized to become landmarks rather than norms for assessing theological innovation or propriety. Indeed, the one actual norm given in the Articles of Religion (the one on scripture) is displaced by the adoption of the so-called Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. As a philosopher, I have long argued that the quadrilateral is a bogus piece of epistemology as well as a false reading of Wesley. I will not repeat my arguments here. Suffice it to say, Lawrence ignores this possibility and presents his claims about compatibility or incompatibility as if there were no debate about this. At best he can only consider the material in Our Theological Task as additional commentary on the actual Doctrinal Standards (the Articles and Confession of Faith); at worst, he is in no position to appeal to any material in Our Theological Task, because on his own reckoning the only standards are the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith.
The confusion on this front allows Lawrence to claim that the sole foundation for Methodist theology is a doctrine of grace. It is in Our Theological Task that the doctrine of grace is picked up and expounded in a way that Lawrence approves. As such, it is a highly tendentious reading of the content of Wesleyan theology. It is a truncated and thus misleading account of the depth and riches of Wesley’s theology. It is one possible historical construction among others; it cannot be treated as more than this. Moreover, it is not at all clear why the doctrine of grace should be identified as foundational in Our Theological Task, for that section in The Book of Discipline offers the quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, and reason as the ‘guidelines’ for theological method in Methodism. I prefer to see these as an attempt to develop norms of theological reasoning; but, whatever they are, they are radically different from a doctrine of grace; and they can charitably be interpreted as “foundations.” So we now have two foundations: the doctrine of grace and the quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
Standard accounts of what counts as our Doctrinal Standards and what to make of Our Theological Task are two of the crucial causes of our current mess. United Methodism was built on conceptual confusion and logical incoherence as far as its doctrinal foundations and norms were concerned. Lawrence overlooks this. He also overlooks the fact that the architect of this incoherence was none other than Albert Outler. In the doctrinal section, Outler was something of a relativist and a pluralist; but in his work related to the Social Principles, he was an absolutist and dogmatist. He was so opposed to change on this front that he prepared in advance a statement of resignation from The United Methodist Church that I am morally certain related to any change on church teaching and law on homosexual practice (see Bob. W. Parrott, Albert C. Outler, The Gifted Dilettante [Anderson, Indiana: Bristol, 1999], 404-5). Moreover, later in life he repudiated his earlier views, conceding to Robert Cushman that the statement on Our Theological Task should never have been adopted. All this is clear from the material in the archives in the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University.
I have gone deep into the philosophical and theological weeds here, but this is required if we are to sort out the confusions that are at the base of Lawrence’s case. The relevant point is this: it is a historical mistake to claim that grace is the sole foundation for the theology that was adopted by the church at its origins. Given this, the narrative on offer falls at its very first step.
The latter historical claims are even less secure. The crucial agents in the fall from grace, we are told, are to be located in the various networks on the conservative side of the aisle. It is tempting to dismiss the whole of this section as overcooked, to put it mildly.
On the one hand, it ignores the network of groups working to revise the church’s teaching who readily resorted to the use of non-rational means to achieve their ends in General Conference and in other public forums of the church. We can start with the Council of Bishops, move on to our seminaries, walk over to many of our Agencies, and then take a long stroll through the activists on the ground. It is not easy to get the acronyms straight, but here they are: UMnext, Reconciling Ministries Networks, Reconciling Ministries, MIND, United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, and LovePrevails. Presumably, these are pure when it comes to political action and the quest for power, a possibility warranted by their being on the side of the angels in the doctrine of grace. Lawrence conveniently ignores the role of these agents as sources of our current turmoil, although he offers penetrating remarks about the bishops.
On the other hand, the portrait of the various renewal groups is a caricature. To claim that the Confessing Movement was inspired by right-wing Baptists confuses correlation in time with causation in history. It also comes across as an effort to create guilt by association. As a matter of anecdotal testimony, I have been on the edge of many of the conservative groups across the years. In the case of the inauguration of the Confessing Movement in Atlanta in 1994, I gave one of the keynote addresses. To assert that what was mostly at issue in these groups was to seize control of the denomination is deeply misleading if not straightforwardly false. Lawrence half grasps the importance of caution when it comes to the WCA; he is aware of the ambiguities in describing the intentions of its leaders. The leaders were in fact being prudent in preparing for the possibility of separation, for they were gradually coming to the conclusion that renewal was becoming a dead end, given the controlling forces in play within the highest echelons of United Methodism. I know all this first-hand. To read the renewal movements as a power play totally ignores the whole point of renewal, namely, to bring about healthy change within The United Methodist Church. All renewal movements have their pathologies, including those on the progressive side of the church. Lawrence simply opts for a selective and worst-case description which at best ignores the messiness of church history and at worst offers up a story that conveniently fits a particular agenda for the future of the church.
If I am right in these observations on the crucial agents of the fall from grace, then the backbone of Lawrence’s narrative is deeply flawed.
Let me now turn to theological considerations. The relevant issues at this level revolve around the relation between grace and law. We can readily divide the question by looking at the relation between grace and canon law, before tackling the bigger theological question of the relation between law and grace, a topic sometimes taken up as the relation between Gospel and Law. However, let me clear the way by looking at what is offered as the key to Lawrence’s position as a whole, namely, the claim that United Methodism undertook its theological endeavors in the register of law rather than in the register of grace.
This methodological observation is a truly novel contribution to the current discussion. It prompts the question as to whether we can do theology by enacting canon law or not. If we allow the possibility, we can think of a soft and a strong version of any proposal. So a soft version would say that we are at liberty to do theology in the register of law as one way of doing theology; a strong version would say that we should do theology primarily through the register of law. I know of no serious example of the latter; however, it needs to be raised because in the current context it is the General Conference that is surely to be identified as the relevant agent under review. General Conference does indeed spend a lot of time on canon law.
It is often said, nay, lamented in United Methodist Circles, especially among theologians, that General Conference is the worst possible venue for doing theology. There is neither the time nor the expertise nor the inclination to do serious theology at General Conference. There is a hint of disdain in Lawrence’s remarks about Don Hand, who was the agent behind the offending four words that were adopted in the Social Principles in 1972. He is identified as a layman, as young, and as acting upon impulse. I happen to know Don Hand, and this does less than justice to him, but I will let that pass.
For the causal story that he advances, Lawrence really needs the stronger thesis I just identified. I presume that he would rightly reject it. Suppose we work with the weaker version of the thesis. Then it is certainly odd to claim that legislation should not be a site of theological thinking. Otherwise, we run the risk of cutting canon law loose from theology altogether. Moreover, given all the other sites where United Methodists exercise theological judgment, it is surely restrictive in the extreme to exclude church law as a site of theological reflection. However, the really deep objection to Lawrence’s central thesis is two-fold. First, it is surely unrealistic to expect General Conference to engage in deep theological reflection, given its tasks and obligations. We can all agree that there is room for improvement if we had a better timetable, but I doubt if that would take us very far. Second, the truth of the matter is that the delegates do indeed engage the relevant theological issues in the year leading up to General Conference. I have seen this first-hand in my own Annual Conference; I came away from our preparatory meetings deeply impressed by the quality of the work.
What about the relation between grace and canon law? Perhaps a full answer to this awaits a treatment of the broader question of the relation between Grace and Law. However, notice how much of Lawrence’s attention is given to a detailed assessment of church law as it pertains to the debate about sexuality. I confess I found his overview of Decision 86 of the Judicial Council riveting in its details. To be sure, the aim is to show that Decision 86 “seemed to say that theology is a matter of appearance” (49). Presumably, it omitted attention to the doctrine of grace. But surely the details of the case, as a matter of law and not just as a site of theological reflection, are important. Lawrence in fact shows this with pleasing felicity. To take another example, Lawrence spends time arguing that the four famous words about homosexual practice are unconstitutional; this is a legal argument, of course. On a more important level, Lawrence’s own commitment to canon law comes out in his recurring lament that we do not have a court of appeals to settle theological disputes about the compatibility of our theological declarations with our Doctrinal Standards. So, we now need a whole new legal Court (or a transformed current Court) to settle such issues. The Church of Rome has exactly such a Commission, complete with a pope to render infallible judgments on contested issues. Frankly, I find this suggestion far-fetched. Will we then need another Court to assess and vet the quality of theological reflection done by this new entity or groups of entities? It is much better to leave all this to the good judgment of General Conference where it currently stands and be prepared to muddle through as best we can. Be that as it may, the relevant point to grasp is that Lawrence complains about theology being done in legal terms, but himself engages in extensive legal argument to secure the adoption of his own theological agenda.
On a very different front, it is surely clear that grace does not exclude the application of standards in the assessment of candidates for ordination. It has never been enough in Methodism across the years to accept carte blanche a person’s subjective claim to have a call to ministry. This has always been tested by the community all the way up to the Annual Conference. Part of this assessment is whether the commitments of the candidate are compatible with the teaching and practices of the host church. If we set up a disjunction between grace and canon law at this front, then we will simply have to abandon the application of relevant standards. The real debate here is not about grace; it is about assessment for candidacy to orders in the church. To make it merely an issue of grace is simply misplaced; it is a red herring. Unfortunately, it is also a poisoned red herring, for it is used to provide the worst possible description of any effort to uphold the practices of the church. Rather than seeing the sanctions related to church law as a criminalizing of persons, it is surely apt to see them as appropriate and indeed essential ingredients in being faithful to one’s best lights with respect to the moral teaching of the Christian faith. We are back again to the pejorative reading of what conservatives are seeking to do through the canon law of the church. The fact that this pejorative reading is widespread across certain sections of Methodism signals that we are dealing with the pervasive repetition of unpleasing errors. Pleading pain and hurt at this point is understandable, but it cannot substitute for a fair reading of the relevant texts.
What about the relation between grace and law, or, as it is often rendered, between Gospel and Law? It is at this point that Lawrence is for me far from clear. The reason I raise the question stems from my overall impression of his paper after several careful readings. And my overall impression is that he is operating with an implicit disjunction between grace and law. In my summary above I deliberately quoted a number of passages that tended to confirm this reading. It appears to be clearly implied in his sharp and repeated contrast between United Methodism as an evangelical church and United Methodism as a levitical church.
There are a couple of points to be made here. First, I know of no informed person in Methodism who claims in any way to control grace, to make grace difficult, or impede the work of grace. Grace, either in terms of the generosity of God or the power of God, are strictly a matter of divine agency and direction. I leave aside the deeper question as to whether there is a need for human cooperation, a claim contested between the Reformers and Rome. To be more precise, grace is given through preaching and the sacraments irrespective of the moral standing of the human agents involved. This is a platitude that goes back to Augustine, even though the standard rendering of Augustine omits his actual claim that the sacraments administered by heretics are valid but not efficacious until reception into the Catholic fold. Lawrence provides no evidence that the standard commonplaces about the range and sites of grace are restricted by law in United Methodism. To be sure, if someone is denied ordination, then that person is not permitted to be the agent of grace. However, this begs the question as to whether there should be any standards for ordination, a point already covered above. The issue is not the work of grace but the conditions of ordination.
Second, if we are tempted to set up a serious disjunction between grace and law, then that temptation should be stoutly resisted. Law in fact can be seen as a gift of grace in at least four distinct ways: first, as a way of curbing evil in society and in our own lives; second, as a means of conviction in the preaching of the Gospel; third, as a source of positive teaching in the field of morality; and fourth, as an inducement to seek the power of God where we treat divine law as a form of covered promise. Wesley agreed to all of these platitudes, not least the fourth. Moreover, he rightly saw antinomianism as a besetting danger in treatments of the doctrine of grace. The problem was already a real one, as we can see in Paul’s treatment of the issue in Romans. It was an acute problem at the Reformation; as it was so in some early Methodist circles. It remains a serious temptation in our own times, not least among those who loosely contrast the inclusivity of grace with the rigidity of legalism. In the turmoil of the 1960s, it was championed under the guise of Situation Ethics. Surely Lawrence is sailing close to this wind in his strange contrast between an evangelical Methodism and a levitical Methodism. Read in context, Leviticus is in fact a brilliant expression of grace; it is unfortunate that a rhetorically provocative reading of its content is used to create a contrast that has little merit.
If this network of argument carries weight, then we should reject the central elements of the narrative that Lawrence has developed on not just historical but also theological grounds. His analysis of grace is either false in setting up an untenable disjunction between grace and canon law (if not between Grace and Law); or it is much too ambiguous to furnish the charges that he lodges against the conservative groups he holds responsible for the fall from grace into legalism.
This assessment does not at all mean that we should ignore what I said at the outset, namely, that Lawrence provides us with a fresh and provocative paper that deserves extended attention. Some will be tempted to dismiss his claims as biased in favor of the progressive agenda of the recent past. Equally, they will be tempted to read my objections as biased in favor of the conservative side of the aisle. This would be deeply mistaken, not least because it conflates the potential psychological origins of our claims as a cheap way to undercut the strength of the evidence deployed. The psychology of origins should not be confused with the logic of the evidence presented. To be sure, there are hard perspectivists in the field of the philosophy of history, now aided and abetted by those in the grip of postmodern claims about the practice of history, that will be more than ready to go down this road. Happily, we can leave that aside here. Lawrence has made a good-faith effort to develop a fascinating narrative of United Methodism; and he has marshalled a body of evidence to make his case. He deserves a full run for his money.
In conclusion, I want to make some salutary observations that help express my appreciation for his work. It is not enough to draw attention to the important issues he has raised about the meaning of the Restrictive Rules in our polity, or to think seriously about the institutional mechanisms that might be developed to resolve questions about their abrogation, or to explore the relation between theology and canon law, or to deal with his worries about how material in the Social Principles can become premises for canon law. Nor is it enough to whistle past his critical comments about the way in which conservative renewal groups have been perceived across the leadership of the church; we need to ask why the leadership of the church has failed to harvest the potential gifts renewalists sought to bring to the church as a whole. We also should ask where and why conservatives have failed on their part. However, beyond this short catalogue of queries, we need to go much deeper.
For one thing, we need a detailed analysis of the developments between 1968 and 1972 when The United Methodist Church was put together. Within this we should look for a critical analysis of the role of Albert Outler, drawing on the splendid body of material related to his life and work now archived in the Bridwell Library. It will take a full doctoral dissertation to provide the minimum we need to get a fuller picture of what happened in these crucial years. Lawrence’s paper highlights the need and provides a fascinating point of departure.
Second, we need a critical survey of all the renewal and reform groups that have been in play since the beginnings. And by ‘all’ I mean all: those within Methodism, those in the secular culture that have had an impact on United Methodism, and those across the church, like the Ecumenical Movement and the Charismatic Movement, that have influenced to a greater or lesser degree our life together. Characteristically, such groups seek to develop a diagnosis of what has gone wrong, a theory of how to put things right, and a set of strategies to achieve their goals. Massive mistakes can be made at each of these steps. Equally important, such groups have at least three levels of participation. There are those at the top who understand the strengths and weaknesses of their own groups and who know the virtues and vices of their competitors and critics. There is a middle band who are happy to provide encouragement, financial assistance, and political support. At the bottom there are the fanatics, hot-heads, and stone-throwers who see only purity in their cause and only evil in that of their critics. We need thick descriptions of all the renewal and reform groups that abound, together with a measured account of how they were treated, say, by bishops, faculties, and agency executives. Lawrence has made a start on this; we need a lot more explanation and analysis. Given the volatility these groups evoke, it is silly to think that our accounts will be morally and theologically neutral. As Ernst Troeltsch argued with deep passion in the late nineteenth century, in historical work we cannot avoid interests of the first degree that draw on our innermost commitments and even passions; yet we also need to keep in place an interest of the second degree that plays fair with all the relevant evidence.
Finally, Lawrence’s paper highlights the need for further analysis of the full range of political actors and strategies that have been in play and that are still in play. To fasten blame on one group at this stage is unpersuasive. In this respect, it mirrors the turmoil of political life in North America. Truth be told, the tendency in elite circles in the church is to blame conservatives. This is where we need to attend to the tactics and strategies that are in play in the secular world and that also show up in the church. Consider this question: If the Feinberg Protocols are adopted, how can we explain how those who have voted in majority for the moral teaching of the church on marriage and related issues are now being asked to leave while those who lost the vote are allowed to continue as The United Methodist Church, complete with the lion’s share of the assets? I have my own narrative of the political developments that are central to our history over the last fifty years. It is not a pretty story. However, that story is for another time and place; perhaps only for a time and place when the dust of our current crisis has settled.
William J. Abraham is Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.
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