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.
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.