Ed. Note: Back in August four board members of the Good News Movement within the United Methodist Church wrote a document calling for denominational schism. This letter is a response to that document, which may be found at http://www.faithfulchristianlaity.org/options_for_the_future.htm
Dear Mark, Scott, Phil, and Tom,
So you think it’s time to call it quits, to give up the ghost, to agree to disagree and go our separate ways. As one who had some input into the Unity Resolution at General Conference (in fact, the original file of that resolution resides on the computer that I’m writing this on), I don’t agree. To proceed with divorce is to suggest that our vows to one another (remember those . . . the ones we made when were ordained) mean nothing. Yet, I understand that you feel like there is no hope for “reform” in the United Methodist Church and that it’s time to take your toys and leave. We all have to make our own decisions, and you are certainly entitled to yours.
I was struck, however, by some of the criteria you use to justify the need for a structural separation. I find in your analysis several lines of thought that are troubling to me, for they don’t adequately reflect the reality of both Christian and Wesleyan thought as I understand them.
I was especially struck by your assertion that somehow the notion of “continuing revelation” (expressed as you note by Bishop Judith Craig) is somehow a new phenomenon which is part and parcel of the need for schism in the church. You write:
…a large minority of our church has adopted the idea of “continuing revelation” that may augment or even overturn the teachings of Scripture. The ideas of “modern biblical scholarship” are taken as a “corrective” for the traditional understanding of biblical teachings. Personal and corporate experience, along with the latest findings of scientific research (whether or not they are born out in further study) are used to negate or overturn the traditional understandings of biblical teachings.
What strikes me about this assertion is that it completely ignores both Wesley’s method of theological thought (the Outlerian Quadrilateral) but more importantly ignores the history of the church. While it is true that some traditions (most noteably in this neck of the woods the independent Churches of Christ) hold to a fixed notion of revelation in which the revelation was sealed after God completed the dictation of the scriptures (other’s words, not mine), Wesley and the Anglican tradition before it did not hold to that understanding. Neither did the early church. Think about how they applied scripture (that of the Old Testament) to the new situation following Jesus’ death and resurrection. Think of how Paul interpreted scripture in a new way that ignored the traditional teachings of Judaism so as to welcome Gentiles into the community. The fact that you and I don’t wear earlocks, that we enjoy a healthy serving of bacon now and then, and that we worship on Sunday instead of Saturday is due to a notion of continuing revelation, that with time scripture spoke in new ways.
Continuing revelation is part and parcel of the movement leading to the integration of our denomination. The previous schism in our church arose because some faithful Christians believed that the scriptures mandated slavery, while others (including Mr. Wesley if you will remember) did not. The traditional interpretations of scripture supported the former view. The latter arose when persons confronted by the injustice of the times reviewed scripture and asserted that slavery was not consistent with God’s laws of love, even though language supporting slavery were clearly present. Today, none of us (unless I am mistaken) would think that arguing in favor of slavery is anything but an abomination. That belief arose through a new revelation of scripture.
So the problem is not continuing revelation so to speak. The problem with scripture lies in the fact that our points of interpretation differ, yours focused on law and mine focused on grace. We both, whether we want to admit it or not, are inheritors of continuing revelation (hey, it worked for John Wesley when he decided to “ordain” Asbury and Coke with no specific authority to do so). Where we differ is our entry point in how to interpret that revelation.
Your second grounds for schism is that you believe that inclusiveness has become the “new idolatry” of the United Methodist Church. You believe that inclusiveness is preached to the exclusion of such values as “fidelity to the Gospel, truth, righteousness, and obedience. There is no doubt in my mind that in some circles of the United Methodist Church this may be true. However, then we throw Jesus into the picture. What do we do with the fact that the Pharisees made the same accusations against Jesus? What do we do with the reality that Jesus more often than not pushed against the religious traditions in favor of offering love to others? What do we do with the knowledge that Jesus preferred to hang around with sinners instead of saints?
You also remark that there has been an “imbalanced emphasis on social issues at the national and denominational level.” You affirm Wesley’s belief that “there is no holiness without social holiness,” although your use of that statement fails to realize that Wesley’s concern in that statement was more about communal participation as a means of grace then inacting a social program. However, John was progressive in his social policies, regularly offering care for the poor and needy.
What floored me however was this sentence:
Much of the church leadership and bureaucracy seem to operate under the idea that the mission of the church is to change society and bring about heaven on earth, by political means if possible, by coercion if neccesary.
This belief was interpreted by you as a negative to be avoided. What I don’t understand is how one can pray the Lord’s Prayer and not have some belief that the Kingdom of God has a locally realized implication as well as a future orientation. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done ON EARTH as in heaven,” we pray. Each Sunday (at least in my church) we ask God to bring a little heaven on earth when we pray that prayer. After all, Jesus’ preaching never focused on developing a “personal relationship” so as to have a salvation experience. No, Jesus preached “The Kingdom of God is here,” bringing forth and understanding that the values of God’s kingdom were not just of the sweet by and by, but for this world as well.
Okay, I suppose that last statement fully declared me as a raving liberal, to be disregarded and removed from fellowship in the church. But here is who I am, really. I am one who believes that the genious of Wesley’s theology was the balance between loving of God and love of neighbor. The message of the gospel is that God loves us, that God’s intentions from the beginning have been for us to be in relationship with God, and the story of faith (the story we find ourselves in, to use a book title by a good friend) is about God’s work to restore that relationship and for us to be restored to be the people God created us to be in the first place. I think that is a message that is part and parcel of what it means to be Methodist.
I have no illusion that you will be moved by this letter. You have an agenda. I do too, and its hard to enter into conversation when those agendas are so diametrically opposed.
And yet, the conversation matters. Why? Because I believe that we have much more in common than that which separates us.
You see, we worship the same God.
In light of all this, here’s what I want you to do. While I’m locked up here, a prisoner for the Master, I want you to get out there and walk–better yet, run!-on the road God called you to travel. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands. I don’t want anyone strolling off, down some path that goes nowhere. And mark that you do this with humility and discipline–not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences.
You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly. You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness.