The United Methodist blogosphere has been fired up after a recent announcement that 80 prominent pastors and theologians have called for planning a split in the United Methodist Church on account of our differences over the homosexuality issue. Differing perspectives on this announcement have included David Watson, Joel Watts, Kenneth Pruitt, Steve Manskar, Chad Holtz, Drew McIntyre, Tom Lambrecht, and Jeremy Smith. I think that the United Methodist Church should help facilitate the departure of those who do not feel they can continue in ministry with United Methodism because of their frustration with the bishops’ unwillingness to come down hard on pastors who marry gay people. When John Wesley had problems with the Church of England, he didn’t try to orchestrate its breakup; he built his own evangelical parachurch movement from scratch which was of course a wild success because the Holy Spirit was with him (it’s an imperfect analogy, but Wesley didn’t expect the Church of England to bankroll his holiness movement). So that’s what those who want a breakup should do if their concern is genuinely a matter of conscience and not of control.
One of the unnamed tensions in our conflict over homosexuality lies in our simultaneously episcopal and democratic authority structure. No matter how scrupulously this structure is mapped out in the Book of Discipline, what we’re seeing is evidence that this tension runs into quagmires in practice. It creates expectations that are unfulfilled. If our bishops had the authority to make decisions on our behalf about social issues, then the prohibition of homosexuality would probably go away given the current makeup of the Council of Bishops. I don’t know of a single United Methodist bishop who denounces homosexuality consistently and unequivocally. Like it or not, the most conservative bishops are quite moderate. The source of opposition to homosexuality in United Methodism is not based in top-down magisterial teaching, but rather in a populist movement akin to a Tea Party within Methodism. This populist movement has been frustrated by the way that bishops are allowed to make discretionary decisions about how to handle clergy behavior regarding the LGBT issue that seem to flout the populists’ democratic authority as expressed in General Conference voting (which of course would have gone the opposite direction the last several quadrennia if it were only US delegates voting).
Nobody talks about submission and obedience to the pastoral discretion of the bishops as a matter of principle that dictates we hold our tongues and not question how the bishops decide to handle those pastors’ decisions that contradict the populist will of General Conference. I suspect there’s a lot of crossover between the libertarian anti-government fervor of the past three decades and the disdain for the Methodist hierarchy among the socially conservative populists. The actions of the bishops are basically akin to President Obama using executive orders to avoid deporting undocumented immigrants when Congress refuses to reform our immigration system. Can Obama do that? Apparently so. Do the bishops have the authority to go light on their punishments for United Methodist pastors who are brought up on charges for officiating gay weddings? Whether or not the Book of Disciple says something to the contrary, the organic power dynamics within United Methodism right now give the bishops an actual authority that trumps the authority of our majority-vote Book of Discipline, which the conservative populists want to have the ultimate authority since they have been able to control its composition for the past forty years. Our de facto covenant is episcopal rather than democratic.
Instead of ripping apart existing faith communities by having majority votes on whether to affiliate with one of two new denominations, the breakaway conservatives should be given permission to solicit members from existing United Methodist churches who are disgruntled with their pastors’ leadership, whether it’s because of homosexuality, an insufficiently emphatic stance on the Bible’s inerrancy, an overemphasis on social justice, an unwillingness to say plainly that all non-Christians will burn in hell forever, or a similar matter. I’m sure every United Methodist pastor could provide the breakaway conservative pastors with a list of members who are dissatisfied with their leadership in this way.
All of the disgruntled conservative United Methodists within each Methodist district could come together to form one new breakaway conservative Wesleyan megachurch plant. They could call themselves a Bible church or a community church. Why would they want to retain brand association with a denomination that has marketed itself for years as “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors”? Maybe the new Methodist denomination could be called “Bible-Believing Methodists” or more to the point “Gay-Free Methodists.” Or just retire the Methodism brand altogether and go with “Gay-Free Bible-Believing Wesleyans” (GFBBW — it almost sounds like the name of a Methodist general agency).
That seems like a win-win to me. That way you don’t have any closet homosexual supporters in the new congregations, since the only people who join them are people who are passionate enough about opposing homosexuality that they’re willing to leave their old world behind and start from scratch just like Abraham did when he left Ur. There are plenty of disgruntled church members throughout our denomination who would walk out of their congregations tomorrow and never look back if they had a pied piper to call them away. If God is with them, then God will honor their radical faith and obedience by making the new breakaway conservative megachurches huge and successful so that their pastors can point back at the floundering United Methodist Church twenty years from now and say thank God we got off that ship. Of course, it might also be the case that the newly purged United Methodist congregations in those communities would experience some revival of their own.