United Methodism doctrine? Think location, location, location

Sherman, please set the controls of the GetReligion WABAC (pronounced “wayback”) machine for the year 1980. Our destination is Denver, because it’s time for another episode of Improbable United Methodist History.

Yes, it was in 1980 — note that this was one-third of a century ago — that Bishop Melvin Wheatley, Jr., of the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church announced (wait for it) that he was openly rejecting his church’s teaching that homosexual acts were “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Two years later, this United Methodist bishop appointed an openly gay pastor to an urban church in Denver. When challenged, Wheatley declared: “Homosexuality is a mysterious gift of God’s grace. I clearly do not believe homosexuality is a sin.”

The Denver pastor continued to serve for many years (while also leading the Colorado AIDS Project), in part because the United Methodist policy opposed the appointment of “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals. Note the words “self-avowed.” Thus, when appearing before officials in the liberal Rocky Mountain Annual Conference, this minister simply declined to answer questions about his sexual history or practice. Since he was not, therefore, “self-avowed” (at least not during those official church meetings), his sympathetic local church leaders declared that he was not in violation of the national church’s doctrinal standards.

That was the end of that, for the most part, in this western region of the United Methodist Church. Defenders of the denomination’s teachings had to take their battles elsewhere.

This was, in other words, a perfect example of the reality described in an important study — “The Seven Churches of Methodism” — published in the mid-1980s by two scribes from Duke University.

One of the authors, a future United Methodist bishop named William Willimon, once told me that it was very painful for the church’s leaders to have to admit that United Methodists were already worshipping in what amounted to seven different churches when it came to matters of doctrine and church law. It was hard to find the ties that could bind the declining flocks in the “Yankee Church,” “Industrial Northeast Church,” “Western Church” and “Midwest Church” with those in the larger and still growing “Church South” and the “Southwest Church.”

The clergy in these churches went to different seminaries and had radically different beliefs about biblical authority, salvation, evangelism and moral theology. At the heart of many of their disputes, of course, were differences over sexual ethics, especially the moral status of sex outside of marriage.

Denominational executives, seminary leaders and bishops in the liberal regions — such as Melvin Wheatley, Jr. — were already openly or quietly opposing the teachings affirmed by the growing United Methodist regions in the United States and, yes, around the world.

Note, once again, that this strategy of open and passive resistance began way back in 1980.

This brings us to the current headlines focusing on the supposedly radical actions of New York Bishop Martin D. McLee, especially his open announcement that he would refuse to hold church trials of clergy who violate the denomination’s teachings that homosexual activity, as opposed to orientation, is sinful. McLee is, in effect, saying what Wheatley said in 1980-82.

So what is truly newsworthy about the current wave of headlines?

Religion News Service has a follow-up news feature that hits the key point that must be made. This is must reading.

When it comes to United Methodist Church life, what is taught and defended as sacred doctrine is all a matter of location, location, location. People who follow this issue closely have known that since 1980. Here’s a key slice of the RNS story, which moved with this headline: “Spared a church trial in one region, Methodists may find censure in another.”

The resolution of the Rev. Thomas Ogletree’s case highlights an emerging dynamic that allows some pastors in the country’s second-largest Protestant denomination to skirt rules banning clergy from performing same-sex wedding, while others risk costly church trials and the loss of clergy credentials. Increasingly, those differences are geographic. …

The resolution in his case differs markedly from that of Frank Schaefer, a former Pennsylvania pastor who was found guilty of violating church law when he officiated at his son’s 2007 wedding. Schaefer was stripped of his credentials when he refused to agree not to perform additional same-sex weddings. …

The varied responses reflect the denomination’s polarizing demographics, said David Steinmetz, professor emeritus of the history of Christianity at Duke Divinity School.

“The two parts of the country that most strongly favor gay ordination and so forth are the West Coast, particularly the Pacific Northwest, and the Northeast,” he said. “Those places have Methodists in smaller numbers.”

In other words, we’re talking about “The Seven Churches of Methodism.”

Again. Still. Whatever.

The story notes that some United Methodist clergy are now asking to be moved to regions sympathetic to their doctrinal views on moral theology. That was already the case in the 1980, when that openly gay Denver pastor escaped the Deep South to move to liberal Denver. This has been a reality in mainline Protestant life for decades now.

The difference today? The rebellion is more open and the stakes are higher, in part because the liberal regions have continued to shrink (while the left continues to dominate the official church bureaucracies and seminaries), while United Methodist flocks in the more conservative American South are either growing or at the very least holding steady. Meanwhile, the conservative churches overseas are booming (see the map attached to this post, which dates from 2008, but shows the basic trends).

The United Methodist establishment is preparing to take a stand for its new-old approach to the faith.

So what is the news here? I guess the news is that open rebellion that inspires current national headlines is more important than (a) open rebellion decades ago that has been forgotten and (b) covert rebellion that never went away in key, elite zip codes nationwide.

And what is United Methodist truth?

That’s a matter of location, location, location.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Darren Blair

    As an aside, I saw “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” on Friday.

    There’s an astounding amount of rude humor and a number of fairly dark moments, with some random product placement for good measure.

    This is a shame, as there’s actually a very good moral message if you can get past everything.

  • wlinden

    Gasp! You mean not all Methodists agree on everything?

    • tmatt

      Well, you might expect agreement on the Nicene Creed and their own ordination vows.

  • accelerator

    The fact the Methodist Church still maintains a doctrinal statement with an orthodox view of Sex is pretty much a miracle. All these skirmishes are little wars in the battle to overturn that.

  • Darcy Knight

    As a Methodist pastor in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, I’m somehow not all that surprised that this has been going on pretty much all my adult life. However, I’m sad. I don’t know what will become of my denomination, but whatever happens, it will never again be the church I grew up in, for better or for worse.


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