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.