By Rob Renfroe –
Progressive and moderate leaders have an interesting dilemma. Do they partner with leading traditionalists to create and pass a path for amicable separation at General Conference 2020? Or do they fight on, hoping to overturn the church’s teaching on sexual ethics?
Some progressives and moderates have stated they favor amicable separation. They are as tired of the fighting as many traditionalists are. They tell us that The United Methodist Church is no longer viewed as a welcoming church with “open hearts, open minds, and open doors.” As a result, many of their members are hurting and some are leaving for what they believe to be more accepting denominations. Instead of repeating the pain and the ugliness of St. Louis, these liberal leaders have decided that a respectful parting is best for the UM Church and for their local congregations.
Other progressives and moderates want to fight on, resist, disobey the Book of Discipline, and attempt to change the church’s ordination standards and its definition of marriage. They believe they are fighting for justice, so they are willing to put us through another “St. Louis Slugfest,” aka “Mayhem in Minneapolis.” If people are hurt and the witness of the church is harmed, as was the case in St. Louis, “winning” will be worth it. The ends will justify the means.
But there’s another reason why some progressives and moderates are willing to fight on – even if they believe they will lose in 2020. Their thinking goes something like the following. “If an enhanced traditional plan passes in Minneapolis, we will stay and we will disobey. We will marry gay couples and ordain partnered gay clergy. Our progressive bishops will not enforce the Book of Discipline or hold us accountable. Traditionalists will come to learn that no changes in the Discipline will be able to stop us. Eventually, they will become so frustrated that they will leave and we will possess the church’s name and all of its assets.”
This “we will resist until the traditionalists leave” strategy was shared with me by centrist leaders in St. Louis, telling me “even if you win, you won’t win. You can’t make us obey.” This same strategy has also been verbalized by some of the 600 who attended the recent conference of moderates and centrists at The Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas – both publicly and, again, to me privately. They have the mistaken idea that the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s primary desire is to leave the church. All it will take for a conservative exodus, they believe, is a few more years of progressive resistance.
The problem with that strategy is that we’re not leaving. We will work for an amicable separation that is more than fair for centrists and progressives. We believe that a respectful parting of the ways is the best option for our hurting, divided church. But we will not be bullied into leaving the church we have given our lives to simply because progressive bishops and pastors will not live by the church’s teachings.
Of course, if something like the One Church Plan should pass in Minneapolis, many traditional UM congregations would leave. We cannot be complicit with a church that promotes a sexual ethic that we believe contradicts the word of God and does spiritual damage to vulnerable people. But that is a very different scenario than an enhanced traditional plan’s passing and progressives disobeying it.
Barring a change in the church’s position, traditionalists will not leave the UM Church. Why won’t we leave? Because the United Methodist Church is every bit our church, as much as it is anyone else’s. Because every General Conference for the last several decades – despite intense pressure – has affirmed the traditionalist convictions regarding marriage and sexuality. Because recent U.S. annual conferences appear to have elected enough traditionalist delegates to the 2020 General Conference that the majority of delegates will continue to support a traditional approach to marriage, sexuality, and accountability. Because in many parts of the U.S., we are in traditional annual conferences with orthodox bishops, and progressive disobedience does not disrupt traditionalist congregations or cause them to want to leave. Because traditionalist integrity will not allow us to walk away from our faithful brothers and sisters in the central conferences who have stood with us in the most difficult of times and who for decades have suffered the hateful, demeaning comments of progressive leaders and, still, have never walked away from us. We will not abandon those who have never abandoned us.
One of my great sorrows concerning General Conference 2019 was that progressive and centrist leaders – lay leaders, pastors, and bishops – would not listen to us when we told them (1) we could not abide the One Church Plan (OCP) and (2) we would defeat it. They talked mainly among themselves, were convinced that the OCP was a plan that all reasonable people could accept, and felt certain the OCP would pass. They failed to listen to us and the results were disastrous.
I hope and pray they do not make the same mistake of ignoring our voice as they prepare for 2020. We will not leave The United Methodist Church simply because progressives are disobedient to The United Methodist Church. We will work with progressives to create a plan for separation. That is our preferred option. But we will not be bullied into leaving our church. If that is the progressives’ plan, it will fail. Instead, let’s work together to set each other free from the pain of fighting the same old battles the same old way. We can do better. For the people called Methodists and for the Kingdom of God, we must.