Wesley's Call for a 21st Century Church

As with many of you, it was with deep sadness that I read the rulings of our United Methodist Judicial Council last night.  Declaring that Bishop Oliveto's election violates the Discipline is yet another slap in the face to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and another message to our country that our church is mired in a previous era.

While this ruling is very discouraging on a number of levels (which I will discuss in a forthcoming blog post), I'm not sure how much difference it will ultimately make in our denominational struggle over this issue.  Clergy like myself will continue to be committed to the process of challenging the Book of Discipline through acts of civil (ecclesiastical?) disobedience; while other clergy and lay people will continue to file complaints against us.  And in the process we will continue to we will continue to squander talents and resources, and ensure that the only thing that the secular world knows about our church is that we are locked in this perpetual battle.   

We are all stuck in a holding pattern until the Commission on a Way Forward brings its proposal to the specially convened General Conference session in February of 2019.  Sadly, I fully expect that the Commission will bring forward some proposal that will involve the splintering of our denomination.  I say “sadly” because this whole struggle so deeply compromises absolutely fundamental aspects of our DNA as United Methodists.

One of those essential parts of our DNA is our passion around social justice.  John Wesley told his young revival movement that there was “no holiness but social holiness,” meaning that our spiritual life is devoid of power unless it is lived out in seeking to change the world.  And, of course, Wesley and the early Methodists did just that, advocating for prison reform, and child labor reform, and abolition.  Fighting for justice is at our core as Methodists. 

Wesley was not opposed to breaking a few rules to make sure that the work of the Kingdom was being advanced.  He ordained clergy for the church in America, in direct violation of the canon law of the Church of England; he appointed women as lay preachers, in violation of his own rules.  Conscience always trumped rules for Wesley.

Which leads to the second piece of our DNA that this struggle violates: Wesley’s deep desire to create a movement with theological breadth.  “On all issues that do not strike at the heart of Christianity, we think and let think.”  Wesley believed that people of good faith could disagree in their theological beliefs and still be part of the same community together.  In fact, theological diversity strengthens our church, as we engage in the rough-and-tumble of theological discourse and Biblical interpretation.

I recognize that people of faithfulness disagree with me on the nature of homosexuality.  But I think that we can disagree and still remain a church together.  I do not seek to impose my deep commitment on this issue on another clergy person: if officiating at a same-gender wedding will violate someone’s conscience, they should not have to do that.

But likewise, I am not willing to violate my own.  And this is where the ways part, and schism seems inevitable, being forced on us by those on the right wing of our church who seek to force me – and others – to violate our consciences.  It feels like an abuse of power being heaped upon abusive theology.  I am unwilling to be part of a denomination that seeks to force me to violate my conscience.  I am unwilling to treat some of my parishioners differently than others, and to offer some the ministry of officiating at their weddings, but deny others.  

We have been here before as a denomination, when we split over the issue of slavery in 1844.  That split presaged the coming of the Civil War, but 95 years later we reunited again.  Likewise, we will reunite again, after the culture wars around homosexuality have blown over.  This will not be an issue in another generation: our children – conservative and progressive – don’t even understand what this fight is about.  For the next generation this is a non-issue, which is probably why those on the right are so adamant about the idea of compromise.

And so the cause of justice suffers another setback.  Painful, but temporary.  Please keep Bishop Oliveto in your prayers, as well as Boards of Ordained Ministry around our connection (whose work was severely constrained by another ruling yesterday). It is another dark day for our church.  We should be able to do better than this. 

 Rev. Dr. Charles A. Parker is the Senior Pastor of  The Metropolitan Church, Washington, DC

Rev. Dr. Charles A. Parker is the Senior Pastor of The Metropolitan Church, Washington, DC