Revival through Wesleyan Small Group Formation

On June 9, 2017, I spoke to the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church on small group formation in the Wesleyan tradition. The theme of the conference was “Revive Us Again.” The title of my presentation was “Revival through Wesleyan Small Group Formation.” Check out the video below to get my take on why small group formation is the key to the renewal of contemporary Christianity.

The presentation was divided into three main parts. First, I summarized Wesley’s use of Christian conferencing and clarified ways in which the phrase is used and misused in our current context. Christian conferencing, for Wesley, is one of five instituted means of grace. I defined Christian conferencing as the practice of cultivating growth in holiness in community through conversation about our experience of God. I suggested that the best examples of Christian conferencing in early Methodism were the class meeting and the band meeting.

Second, I situated the class meeting and the band meeting within Wesley’s understanding of social holiness, where we seek to become more like Jesus in community and not in isolation. I then defined and described the class meeting and band meeting in more detail and took the Annual Conference through a sprint through the theology that informed this method.

Finally, I described the importance of the class meeting in particular for early American Methodism and its explosive growth from the late 1700s through the first half of the 1800s. I also described the decline of the class meeting from the second half of the 1800s throughout the 1900s. The class meeting was the most important factor in the explosive growth of American Methodism and continues to be an essential practice for contemporary Christians.

If you are interested in starting a class meeting but would like some practical guidance for starting a group from scratch, please check out my book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience.

Howard Snyder’s The Radical Wesley BOGO on Seedbed in August

Howard Snyder’s classic The Radical Wesley: The Patterns and Practices of a Movement Maker is on special this month through Seedbed. If you buy a copy of the book, Seedbed will give a free copy to share (or sow to keep with their metaphor) with someone else. This one of the most important books I read in seminary. If you have not read it, I would highly recommend it. And this is a great time to pick up a copy for yourself and bless someone else with a copy.

Here is Seedbed’s own description of the book:

The Radical Wesley is not simply a biographical sketch of John Wesley. It’s much more than that. In this book, Howard Snyder skillfully takes Wesley’s model of small groups, circuit riders, societies, and lay leadership and uses it as an outline for analysis of church renewal through the centuries.

By understanding not only John Wesley’s methods, but also the motivations behind his decisions, we are able to start recasting the mold for a more biblical mentality and structure for church life and mission in our own homes, churches, communities, and world.
Grab your copy this month and receive a second copy free to share with someone else in your life!

Click here to get two copies of The Radical Wesley for the price of one!

La Reunión de Clase: The Class Meeting Now Available in Spanish

I am thrilled that Seedbed has just published a Spanish edition of The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience. The title of the Spanish edition is La Reunión de Clase: Recuperando una experiencia de grupos pequeños olvidada (y esencial).

The need for this translation came through conversation with clergy in the Rio Texas Annual Conference of The UMC. In February 2016, I was invited to speak at the Bishop’s Convocation in Rio Texas on Christian conferencing and Wesleyan small group formation. During one question and answer session, there was a plea for my book on the class meeting to be made available to a broader audience through a Spanish translation. More conversation followed at the next break and I became increasingly excited by the desire for a resource to help Spanish speaking Methodists start class meetings. As a result of that conversation, I committed to plead with the publisher to consider a Spanish translation of the book.

It turned out I didn’t have to plead. The timing was ideal, as Seedbed had recently made a commitment to produce Spanish language resources for the broader Wesleyan/Methodist movement. (I was especially excited to see a Spanish edition of Howard Snyder’s The Radical Wesley, El Wesley Radical.) The folks at Seedbed readily agreed to get to work on a Spanish edition of the book.

I am grateful for Seedbed’s vision and commitment to providing Wesleyan resources for Spanish speaking communities and look forward to seeing what God has in store.

If you know a pastor or lay leader who might be interested in this resource, I would be so grateful if you would help me get the word out. Thank you!

One Faith, Different Understandings: A Response to Interpreter

Edit: Interpreter magazine has revised the online article here and published a correction in the July-August 2017 issue here. I am grateful for the time the editors put into addressing my concerns about the initial article.

I was discouraged to read “One faith, different understandings” published in the May-June 2017 issue of Interpreter. I was interviewed for this article about two months ago. At the end of the interview, I asked to read a complete draft of the article before it was published. I said that I recognized the author was on a tight deadline and promised to respond within a few business days, or she was free to send it on for publication. I did not see or hear anything more about this article until I started receiving emails and messages from people asking me about my quotes in it this week.

This is particularly frustrating to me because I tried to be clear about my perspective when I received the interview request, which started with this question: “To begin, perhaps we can agree that the Methodist quadrilateral unites United Methodists. Describe the quadrilateral’s role in denominational life.” I responded to this email as follows:

Reading your questions, however, I may not be helpful to the direction you are going with your article. I see the quadrilateral as probably more of the problem to the disunity of The UMC than a way of providing unity. I think it became, in some ways despite Albert Outler’s wishes, a way of legitimizing coming to different – and at times mutually incompatible – understandings of theology and practice in one denomination. I would also be fairly adamant that the quadrilateral is not theology proper. Rather, it is a method for doing theology – and one that, again, virtually guarantees different conclusions (and that is almost always misused).

I have done some writing about the quadrilateral on my personal blog. These pieces may help you discern whether I would be of help to you in the story you are working on.

Experience in the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”

More on Experience in the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”

United Methodist Doctrine: That 70s Show?

Again, happy to talk if that is helpful to you. I also understand if you determine that my thinking on this would not help in the article that you are writing.

Two quotes in the article, in particular, suggest that I support the big-tent vision for United Methodism that started with Albert Outler at the beginnings of The UMC and is being aggressively advocated today by many United Methodist Bishops and other key denominational leaders.

The article begins by listing a number of random facts about United Methodism. These facts are followed by the question: “Do those differences have to be sources of division?” The article introduces me for the first time after asking this question. It states:

Within United Methodism are Christians rooted in mainline Protestantism, the Holiness Movement and everything in between, says the Rev. Kevin Watson, assistant professor of Wesleyan and Methodist studies at Candler School of Theology. Essentially every denomination connected to John Wesley and Methodism is “represented in the United Methodist denomination.” [I am leaving the lack of quotation marks etc. as they are in the article published online.]

Immediately after this, Tamara Lewis, who teaches at Perkins School of Theology is quoted, “The core of United Methodism even going back to Wesley is unity in diversity.” I do not share this understanding of our Wesleyan heritage, and said as much multiple times in the interview. (To be fair, Lewis may also feel that her remarks were taken out of context and used in a way that distort her meaning.) Either way, the transition between these two quotes gives no indication that I would disagree with the second, and seems to me to suggest that I agree with it.

Later the article states:

Throughout the church, Lewis said, theological differences on questions of homosexual leadership in the church or other interpretations and understandings of Scripture “do not have to divide Methodism as in splitting the church institutionally. I don’t think these questions have to make or break us if we follow Wesley’s lead.”

Watson likens the denomination to a big tent. “We keep moving the tent poles as wide as we have to make sure that anyone who is part of it or wants to be part of it can be,” he said.

In my description, I was saying that the tendency to keep moving the tent poles was a liability of United Methodism, neither a source of strength nor faithful to our Wesleyan heritage. I believe that for Wesley unity was the product of a firm commitment to a particular set of beliefs and practice (a doctrine and discipline). Wesley would not, and we should not, put institutional unity above a particular understanding of “holiness of heart and life.”

My words were not used in a way that accurately reflect the interview I gave, what I believe is true of our history, or what I believe is at stake for The United Methodist Church today. Since the print version of the magazine is already out, I am publishing my response here to clarify what I believe. I hope that Interpreter will publish a correction to this article online and in their next print issue.

The Future of American Methodism: 5 Predictions

Methodism in America is in the midst of change. It is not yet clear how exactly American Methodism is changing or whether change will lead to a bright future for my own denomination in particular (The United Methodist Church). But it does seem clear that it is changing.

During the three years I taught at Seattle Pacific University, I experienced life in a major U.S. city that is profoundly post-Christian. Moving from Seattle to the Atlanta metro area was a kind of culture shock, because cultural Christianity appears to be alive and well in many parts of the southeast. My sense is that within one generation the landscape of the U.S. as a whole will look much more like Seattle than Atlanta.

And so I’ve found my mind wandering again and again to this question: What is the future of Methodism in America?

Before I enter fully into these thoughts, let me assure you that I am aware of what a speculative enterprise this is. I offer these thoughts as ultimately nothing more than one person’s thoughts about the kind of Methodism that will be most likely to thrive in twenty years or so.

1. American Methodism will experience a paradigm shift as the desire to pursue cultural respectability becomes obsolete. American Methodism will slowly recognize its loss of cultural respect, eventually acknowledging it and then grieving it. Ultimately, American Methodism will emerge on the other side with a much clearer sense of its own identity, mission, and purpose and will learn to live authentically from these, even though much of what American Methodism stands for will be alien and perhaps even offensive to the broader culture(s) it is situated within. Moreover, given broader cultural changes, American Methodism will recognize that it must form people into a new worldview, and not merely a few ideas and practices that serve as self-help strategies adorning mostly unchanged lives.

2. American Methodism will recognize that the Holy Spirit has already given the people called Methodists a theology that is ideally suited for a post-Christian context. Methodists will preach the Wesleyan understanding of grace in its fullness with renewed conviction and boldness. Methodists will insist that God’s grace is for everyone, no exceptions. And Methodists will maintain that God’s grace saves us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ who cancels (forgives) all of our sins. And Methodists will also boldly proclaim the audacious optimism of God’s sanctifying (life-changing) grace, which can enable us to love God and neighbor to the complete exclusion of sin. American Methodists will be known for their passionate belief in entire sanctification and God’s ability to changes lives radically.

3. American Methodism will recognize that the Holy Spirit has already given the people called Methodists a practice that is ideally suited for such a time as this. In a post-Christian context, a thriving faith community must not only proclaim the gospel, with the accents just mentioned, it must visibly demonstrate its proclamation by embodying what God makes possible. American Methodism will embrace social holiness (communal formation, especially through transformation-driven small groups) as a part of its fundamental and foundational essential practices. Participation in weekly small groups like the class meeting and the band meeting will be seen as more important than attending a weekly worship service. It will be impossible to be a member of American Methodism in the future and not regularly attend corporate worship and a small group focused on God’s work in your life.

4. As American Methodism passionately preaches entire sanctification and makes an uncompromising commitment to social holiness, it will find God’s deepest blessings through being in ministry with all of God’s children, especially those who seem beyond hope from a worldly perspective. American Methodists will not send money and resources to help those who cannot help themselves, but will be in relational ministry with them as a natural expression of their practical theology. As one example, American Methodism will recognize that recovery ministry is not something that a church lets an auxiliary group anonymously do in their building, but is something that is a core ministry of the church. American Methodists will not see this as a ministry for “those people,” but will seek complete freedom from addiction to the ways of sin and death together, by the grace of God. And many will experience the fullness of God’s amazing grace.

5. The boundaries of American Methodism will be blurred by close connection and cooperation with global Methodism. Methodist missionaries will both come to and from America. American Methodism at every level will be changed through relationships with brothers and sisters from across the globe, especially Africa, Asia, and South America. American Methodists will place significantly greater weight on the Methodist aspect of their identity than the American. Methodists across the globe will be united by a common mission to spread scriptural holiness across the globe.

There are so many possibilities for the future of American Methodism. It is impossible to predict with certainly what will be. I do know that when I think about this possible future, I get extremely excited. Come, Holy Spirit!

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.

Hillary Clinton, Do all the good that you can, and Methodist Faith

Last night Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton referenced her Methodist faith during her speech. Secretary Clinton said:

She made sure I learned the words of our Methodist faith: “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.”

Is this an accurate expression of Methodist faith?

Immediately after she spoke these words a close friend said, “You’re about to be cited a lot.” And sure enough I started hearing from people via text message, Twitter, and Facebook. And my blog immediately got 1,500 hits due to people searching the phrase “Do all the good that you can.”

I wrote a blog post on April 29, 2013 that pointed out that Wesley did not actually say the full quote that is often misattributed to him:

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

It was interesting that my post got so much attention last night; however, because Hillary Clinton did not say that John Wesley said the quote. (Sadly, the official twitter account for The United Methodist Church did immediately publish a tweet misattributing the quote to John Wesley.) It is all too rare to see a public figure use this kind of well-worn quote with care and nuance for historical accuracy. Hillary Clinton did that in her speech last night. She absolutely got it right!

Perhaps more interesting than whether Wesley did or did not say something is whether the phrase is an accurate expression of “our Methodist faith,” to use Secretary Clinton’s words. There has seemed to be an assumption online that because I have stubbornly insisted that John Wesley did not say this quote that I also do not think it is a Wesleyan sentiment. So, does “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can” accurately express Methodist faith? Of course it does!

This quote is an accurate summary of Methodist commitment to public service. The key place that I would connect this explicitly to John Wesley and early Methodism would be the “General Rules,” (though there are many ways where Wesley expresses similar sentiments) which was a short document that outlined the basic commitments that someone was expected to live by when they became a Methodist. The three rules were:

    1. Do no harm.

    2. Do good.

    3. Attend upon the ordinances of God. (This meant practice the basics of the Christian faith regularly like worship, prayer, reading the Bible, receiving the Lord’s Supper, and fasting.)

The full version of the second rule is remarkably similar to “Do all the good that you can….” The rule states: “Secondly, By doing good, by being in every kind merciful after their power, as they have opportunity doing good of every possible sort and as far as is possible to all men.” It continues with concrete acts of good: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those who are sick or in prison.

Outside of the context of a major political speech like Hillary Clinton gave last night, I would want to add that there is more to the second rule than acts of service to others. The second rule goes on to exhort doing good “to their souls, by instructing, reproving, or exhorting all they have any intercourse [conversation] with; trampling under foot that enthusiastic doctrine of devils, that ‘we are not to do good unless our hearts be free to do it.’ It also includes doing good “especially to them that are of the household of faith” and doing all of this with “all possible diligence and frugality, that the gospel be not blamed.”

Finally, the second rule concludes with this:

By running with patience the race that is set before them; ‘denying themselves, and taking up their cross daily’; submitting to bear the reproach of Christ, to be as the filth and offscouring of the world; and looking that men should ‘say all manner of evil of them falsely, for their Lord’s sake’.

Put differently, Methodists do all the good that we can in order to become more like Jesus. Methodists are not pursuing a general notion of goodness divorced from the particularities of the gospel. We are pursuing goodness as it is seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.

Do you want to learn more about the Methodist commitment to doing all the good that we can and how this fits into the Methodist faith? Check out A Blueprint for Discipleship, which is an accessible introduction to the basics of the Methodist commitment to following Jesus by doing no harm, doing all the good that we can, and practicing our faith by committing to basic spiritual disciplines. Get it here.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other One #UMC

Like many of you, I was waiting with great anticipation to hear what would come out of the Executive Committee of The Council of Bishops when it met last week. I have been praying regularly for United Methodist bishops, especially during this meeting. I cannot imagine how difficult being a United Methodist bishop must be in our current moment, especially as the bishops of United Methodism are as divided as the church they serve.

A statement was released by Bishop Bruce Ough, the President of the Council of Bishops, on July 25, 2016 about last week’s meeting and the Executive Committee’s plans for the immediate future of the Commission on a Way Forward. I was stunned when I read the second paragraph of the three-page statement:

We began by acknowledging the profound dissonance between what the Council had proposed to the General Conference in May and the reality within the church in July. The landscape has changed dramatically. The reported declarations of non-compliance from several annual conferences, the intention to convene a Wesleyan Covenant Association and the election of the Rev. Karen Oliveto as a bishop of the church have opened deep wounds and fissures within The United Methodist Church and fanned fears of schism.

This paragraph strikes me as particularly important because it frames the rest of the work that the Executive Committee did, especially in working to create the Commission on a Way Forward. The first time I read the statement the content of this paragraph raised so many concerns for me that it drowned out the rest of the statement.

I have one relatively minor question:

Is there any doubt about the declarations of non-compliance from several annual conferences? It seems a matter of record that these declarations of non-compliance occurred. So, why are these framed as “reported declarations?” The word “reported” seems extraneous and muddies the water regarding the seriousness of what those actions mean for The United Methodist Church.

I’ll focus the remainder of my thoughts on the one major objection I had to the statement:

The statement lists three actions that “have opened deep wounds and fissures within The United Methodist Church and fanned fears of schism.” They are, in the order they appear in the statement:

The reported declarations of non-compliance from several annual conferences

The intention to convene a Wesleyan Covenant Association

The election of the Rev. Karen Oliveto as a bishop of the church

My first thought when reading this list was, “One of these things is not like the other one.” More specifically, one of these actions did not violate The Book of Discipline or express opposition to the theology or polity of The United Methodist Church.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) should not have been included in the list of actions that “have opened deep wounds and fissures within The United Methodist Church and fanned fears of schism.” Including the WCA in this list reads like a distracting and disparaging attempt to say that both extremes in The UMC are at fault for the current trajectory of United Methodism. But this is misleading.

The declarations of non-compliance and the election of Rev. Oliveto were actions taken by annual conferences and jurisdictions in direct opposition to the will of General Conference and the polity of The UMC as found in The Book of Discipline. Moreover, both acts were undertaken by bodies that constitute units of United Methodist polity.

The WCA is different in that it is not an annual conference or jurisdiction. Most importantly, the WCA has not taken any action in contradiction or violation of The Book of Discipline. From what I see on their website, they haven’t even had their first meeting, which will be in October.

I realize that there are deep disagreements related to gay marriage and human sexuality more broadly. These disagreements are genuine. People of good will can disagree with each other. I can see why Bishop Ough would want to avoid placing blame solely at the feet of one part of the disagreement because he and other bishops would worry that it would make a difficult situation worse.

And yet, the actions that have led to further strains on the fragile unity of The United Methodist Church since the Bishops’ plan was approved by the General Conference have come almost entirely from one direction. It does not help this fragile unity to ask those who started the WCA to share blame for “opening deep wounds and fissures within The United Methodist Church” with annual conferences and jurisdictions that have explicitly and intentionally violated United Methodist polity.

Since the end of General Conference, I’ve heard from a number of evangelical United Methodists who are working hard to keep people, both lay and clergy, from leaving United Methodism. Evangelical United Methodists are considering leaving not because of a lack of support for The United Methodist Church. Evangelicals are considering leaving because The United Methodist Church is not who it says it is. And they are considering leaving because they are tired of the dysfunction of United Methodism being blamed on them, even though their complaint is that the Discipline is not being upheld.

The creation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association did not create deep wounds and fissures in The UMC. Rather, the WCA formed because of these wounds and fissures, which have resulted from years of violation of The Book of Discipline and an unwillingness by some to hold those people accountable in order to preserve a meaningfully united Methodism.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.

Unity in United Methodism

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I’ve been following the conversations about unity during and since The United Methodist Church’s General Conference. The appeal to unity is powerful and appealing. And it is at one level effective because calling for unity is, well, unifying. I am in favor of unity. I want United Methodism to be unified, desperately. I also have a growing concern that appeals to unity in our current moment are often superficial and act as a kind of opiate to numb us to reality. We should be actively working toward unity. But we should not do so in ways that are vague, distract us from reality, and fail to either bring about meaningful unity or address the reasons we are currently divided. Here are two more specific thoughts I’ve had about unity that I’ve been chewing on since General Conference:

1. It is interesting that the value of unity is often used as a rationale for not enforcing the Discipline. One of the basic purposes of polity is to make unity possible. If you took away the presenting issues related to profound disagreements about human sexuality, I suspect one would be able to get pretty broad and firm agreement that the very purpose of polity is to secure unity within a denomination. The idea that polity is a barrier to unity, rather than part of what makes unity possible, reveals some serious problems in a tradition. I suspect that the appeal to unity as a rationale for not upholding the Discipline virtually guarantees disunity.

2. I find that appeals to unity are typically vague and lack any concrete precision when they are connected to the deep disagreements we currently have about human sexuality. Consider same sex marriage: A group of United Methodists believes that there can be no such thing as Christian marriage that is composed of two people of the same gender. Another group of United Methodists believes that not only are such marriages possible, but that it is harmful to deny people access to same gender marriages. A third group is frustrated by the inflexibility of these two groups. The appeal to unity most often comes from people in this third group. But I don’t believe I have seen someone from this group make a theological argument for why one church can be both for and against same sex marriage and how such a position would express the value of the Church’s unity. I can’t recall a theological argument from someone in this camp that argues that same sex marriage is a matter of indifference to God. As far as I can tell, the most accurate way of describing the current crisis of unity in United Methodism is precisely that people are convinced that God is not indifferent about these matters and they deeply and profoundly disagree about what faithfulness looks like. The hard truth is that, short of divine intervention, this is not going to change.

In moments of crisis, United Methodists often fall back on an appeal to unity. The appeal to unity feels good because we are fighting for the church. The litmus test for the value of an appeal to unity should be this: Does it address the reasons we are divided and offer a concrete solution that can bring about actual unity? Leaders within United Methodism need to consider whether appeals to unity that cannot pass this basic test may actually be doing more harm than good in our current moment.

Rule 44 and #UMCGC

To this point, I have seen those who oppose Rule 44 described as extremists, arrogant, leading a misinformation campaign, being afraid of their feelings or the feelings of others, and having contempt for the heart. As one who is opposed to Rule 44, these feel like personal attacks that are inaccurate projections.

Proponents of Rule 44 argue that the proposed legislation is valuable because it will enable all delegates to have a voice and to hear each other’s stories with respect and love. But the most passionate supporters of Rule 44 are not engaging those they disagree with in this way. So, why would we expect this to change when we shifted from discussing Rule 44 to discussing even more personal and contested topics?

For the record, as a professor at Candler School of Theology I really enjoy hearing students, colleagues, and pastors share their stories of how God has worked and is working in their lives. The major thrust of my work to translate my academic work in service to the church has been seeking to equip local churches to engage each other in small groups where they can do life in the deep places and seek profound growth in their love for God and for each other. A major emphasis of my life’s work to this point has been seeking to help The United Methodist Church reclaim actual Christian conferencing. I do not oppose Rule 44 because I am opposed to people sharing their stories with each other. I just don’t believe that General Conference is the time or place where this essential work can be done effectively. To be clear: None of the descriptions mentioned at the beginning of this post accurately describe the reasons I oppose Rule 44.

I oppose Rule 44 because I believe it is based on a deeply flawed understanding of what Christian conferencing is. The initial role out of Rule 44 made it pretty clear that Rule 44 was one of the most visible attempts to bring Christian conferencing to General Conference. I realize that the Commission has walked this back since, but based on my experience with Faith and Order and the Council of Bishops, I believe I am correct that this was the initial intent of Rule 44. Moreover, I have seen multiple people online defend Rule 44 for precisely this reason. I do not believe there is a way at this stage to separate the inaccurate understanding of Christian conferencing from Rule 44 (ie, the impression that enacting Rule 44 would be reclaiming Christian conferencing). And though it may seem irrelevant to some, I remain sincerely convinced that getting Christian conferencing right is extremely important. If it is an instituted means of grace, as Wesley understood it to be, it is the same category as Holy Communion. We would all be appalled if Holy Communion were described as all of the food that is consumed at General Conference. We should be similarly concerned when Christian conferencing is described by the Commission on General Conference as everything that happens at General Conference because it trivializes the meaning and significance of this precious means of grace.

I also oppose Rule 44 because I am convinced that it will not work in practice. We tried something similar in 2012 and it was experienced as harmful to some who participated. With current tensions and the way the debate is framed, there is just no chance that topics like human sexuality can be engaged honestly and forthrightly without someone feeling offended, silenced, or hurt. I have heard from several people who have experience with the initial attempts to introduce Rule 44. Opinion is divided on whether the practice is in fact helpful in accomplishing its own ends. Tyler Best has just written about his experience as a small group leader of Rule 44 (were it enacted). He provides concrete evidence that General Conference is too complicated and too tense of an environment to pull off the best intentions behind Rule 44.

I remain opposed to Rule 44. I realize that my way is not the only way of thinking about this and that you may disagree with me. I do not demand that you agree with me. I would ask that you recognize that I simply disagree with you and that you not attribute more sinister motives to me.

For previous posts I’ve written on this topic that develop my understanding of what Christian conferencing is and why I oppose Rule 44 click here, here, and here.

Edit: Needing a 2/3 majority to pass, Rule 44 failed to receive approval by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. The vote took place on May 12, 2106 with 356 voting in favor of adoption and 477 voting against adoption.

United Methodist Doctrine: That 70s Show?

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Yesterday I wrote a brief update on the Vital Piety Page on Facebook sharing a thought I had about Outler’s understanding of experience while reading his essay “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral – in John Wesley.” After reading Outler on the quadrilateral, I then read the 1972 and 1988 statements on “Our Theological Task” in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. For years I’ve been struck by the ways in which the 1972 statement’s influence persists, despite its being intentionally replaced with a thorough rewrite that was adopted in 1988 and is still the version in the current BOD. Here are a few quick thoughts:

It is interesting to note the ideas from the 1972 statement that were rejected in the 1988 rewrite that are very much alive and well in popular United Methodist consciousness. The 1972 statement, for example, explicitly endorsed “theological pluralism.” It expressed a sense that the “effort to substitute new creeds for old” tends to “partisanship and schism.” And it prioritized “ethical fruits of faith” over “systems of doctrine.” Finally, it asserted, that our doctrinal standards “are not to be construed literally and juridically.”

The statement then raised the challenge, “By what methods can our doctrinal reflection and construction be most fruitful and fulfilling?” (I.e., in the absence of literal and juridical standards of doctrine, how do we search for meaningful unity?) The answer is the quadrilateral! “The answer comes in terms of our free inquiry within the boundaries defined by four main sources and guidelines for Christian theology: Scripture, tradition, experience, reason.”

The virtue of the quadrilateral is described as follows in the 1972 statement: “They [the four sources] allow for, indeed they positively encourage, variety in United Methodist theologizing.”

One way of understanding the creation of the quadrilateral in United Methodism, then, is to see it as a strategy for pitching a big tent and working to ensure that the tent would be big enough for anyone who might come under its cover. To that end, the quadrilateral appeared to be designed to ensure that the method would lead to a variety of conclusions or theological perspectives, not to bring doctrinal unity within a particular faith community. Some United Methodists today would see this as one of the primary virtues of United Methodism, one of the reasons we can agree to disagree and love each other in the midst of disagreement. Others would see this as one of the primary vices of United Methodism, one of the reasons we are not able to find consensus on basic theology or ethics. Regardless of whether you personally love or hate the 1972 statement’s endorsement of theological pluralism, it was intentionally removed from the current statement.

In reading the 1972 statement of “Our Theological Task” in connection with the 1988 statement, one has the impression that the 1988 statement was a significant rejection of much of what was in the earlier statement. Theological pluralism is no longer in the statement at all. The arbitrary assertion that our doctrinal standards cannot function as standards in any meaningful way is also removed. While “serious reflection across the theological spectrum” is encouraged, the statement makes clear that “the Church considers its doctrinal affirmations a central feature of its identity and restricts official changes to a constitutional process.” The statement goes on to affirm that, “We are a Church with a distinctive theological heritage.” It continues: “In our diversity, we are held together by a shared inheritance.” The impatience with systems of doctrine in order to get to ethical living is also much less present in the current statement of “Our Theological Task,” which seems to have a more clear recognition that theological reflection is an essential precondition for ethical Christian living.

The main place where the current statement is worse than the 1972 statement, in my view, is in its understanding of experience. I’ve previously written on Albert Outler’s understanding of John Wesley’s understanding of experience. The 1972 statement says the following about experience:

Experience is to the individual as tradition is to the Church as a whole: the personal appropriation of God’s unmeasured mercy in life and interpersonal relations. There is a radical distinction between intellectual assent to the message of the Bible and doctrinal propositions set forth in the creeds, and the personal experience of God’s pardoning and healing love… This ‘new life in Christ’ is what is meant by the phrase ‘Christian experience.’

This definition bears the clear mark of Outler’s hand. The 1988 statement generally keeps this understanding, but adds to it. Wesley “looked for confirmations of the biblical witness in human experience, especially the experiences of regeneration and sanctification, but also in the ‘common sense’ knowledge of everyday experience.” In the specific section on experience, much of the material cited above from the 1972 statement is kept, but it is also added to in ways that are in tension with Outler’s understanding of what Wesley meant by experience as a source for theological reflection. The current statement, for example, says “We interpret experience in the light of scriptural norms, just as our experience informs our reading of the biblical message.” On my reading of Outler, he would have serious concerns about the second half of both of the previous quotes.

In rereading both statements of “Our Theological Task,” I am struck by the persistent influence of a statement that is obsolete. It is difficult to change understandings of doctrine overnight. It also seems problematic when a discarded understanding of the theological task is still influencing and informing the current popular United Methodist understanding of theology. Even worse, the 1972 statement at times seems more influential than our actual doctrinal standards, particularly when neither statement of “Our Theological Task” has ever been understood as a standard for United Methodist doctrine.

United Methodist doctrine exists. But whether it is owned by rank and file United Methodists is, regrettably, an open question.

For much more information on the 1972 and 1988 statements on “Our Theological Task” see Doctrine and Theology in The United Methodist Church, edited by Thomas A. Langford.