Lisa Katzenstein Detail of Methodist mural.jpg

Speaking Truth to Power:
What Does It Mean
to Be Methodist?

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany • February 10, 2019
Scripture Lesson: Galatians 5:1-6 (adapted from The Message)
Rev. Jeff Wells, The Church of the Village

After 20 years away from the church and from God, in 1999,
I returned to Methodism by accident (actually by the power of God’s Spirit that had never abandoned me). In the midst of a profound spiritual reawakening, a mentor and coach recommended Christ Church in Manhattan as a place to explore my feelings and longings. It turned out the be a United Methodist Church – the denomination in which I was raised in Wisconsin. Before long, I decided to become a member. And the day that I joined, I remember thinking, “I am not sure I believe these vows I am about to take in front of this congregation.” I was not sure I actually believed all of the stuff I was about to say. I was skeptical of the focus on sin. I was not at all sure about accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior. But I already loved this community and wanted to be a part of it – I felt called to be part of it – and so, I took a leap of faith. I thought, “I’m going to take this one step, throw in my lot with these folks, and see where the journey leads me.” And here I stand.

A week after I joined Christ Church, I went on a mission trip to Puerto Rico to help rebuild a church damaged in a hurricane. Soon I became a member of a large Disciple Bible Study group that I journeyed with for 32 weeks and came to love. In December 1999, when I learned that I could submit a personal petition to the General Conference, I immediately drafted a resolution to overturn the anti-LGBT language in the church rule book. That led the Senior Pastor, Rev. Stephen Bauman, to invite me to co-lead the first discussion group on “homosexuality” at Christ Church, which has since become a fully welcoming congregation with a vital LGBT ministry. Sadly, the General Conference that met in early May of 2000 voted to reaffirm the church’s homophobic and discriminatory positions by wide margins.

Yet, I loved Christ Church and I quickly learned there were a lot of things I loved about Methodism and that were distinctive and about this tradition. From its origins in the middle 1700s, the Methodist movement has emphasized grace and mercy over judgment. It proclaimed that faith must be expressed through love in action – as the scriptures say, “faith without works is dead.” Methodism’s founding leader, John Wesley, deeply connected personal and social holiness. It’s not enough to care for a person’s spirit. We also must be concerned about their physical, psychological, and social well-being. We have to be committed to racial, economic, social, and environmental justice.

I was also intrigued and inspired by what has come to be known as “the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” Wesley never spelled it out, but we can discern it in his writings and preaching. In brief, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral says we should examine any question or issue from the four perspectives of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Most traditions include the first three, but it is unique to Methodism to include experience as a crucial part of our spiritual and practical discernment.

Finally, I have always loved the freedom allowed in the Methodist movement and in the United Methodist Church – most of the time. From the beginning, Methodists celebrated a high level of theological diversity and liberty of thought, worship, and practice, as Wesley proudly spelled out in the quote Sam read. For most of its existence, there was a general sense that the UMC was not a “creedal” church. Here is a statement that used to be on the UMC website, but has recently – and I would say ominously – been removed:

“While the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith are considered foundational documents, they are not legalistic or dogmatic creeds that do not allow for differing interpretations. They are guidelines that themselves require continuing reflection, interpretation and expansion in light of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.”

I have loved that about Methodism – that one did not have to subscribe to a specific set of doctrines and creedal belief in order to be part of the Body of Christ. Isn’t this view affirmed for us this morning in the Letter to the Galatians? – “neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything” compared to our “faith expressed in love.”

Yet, while diversity of belief and practice has been the majority opinion in Methodism, there have also been great struggles and schisms throughout the history of our movement. Some of these were focused internally, but often they were connected with larger forces at work in society. In the very early years of the Methodist Church in the U.S., there was a mass exodus of black members who were fed up with being forced to sit in the balcony and treated as second-class church members. We’ve had battles over whether or not to have bishops that led to splits and new denominations. In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church split in two – north and south – over slavery. The movement battled for a century first over whether to allow women to preach and then over women’s ordained. So, one thing that being Methodist has nearly alway meant is that we are constantly trying to stay connected with those with whom we differ in belief and practice, on the one hand, and struggling with the outbreaks of conflict over those same differences.

Since 1972, the UMC has experienced a titanic struggle between a tradition of openness, curiosity, acceptance of differing views versus the move by conservative forces within and outside of the UMC that want to severely constrict any freedom of thought, theology, or practice. Groups like Good News, the Confessing Movement, and now the Wesley Covenant Association have pushed to transform the denomination into something resembling the Southern Baptist Church. They have been supported and funded by wealthy right-wing ideologues and organizations outside of the UMC such as the Institute for Religion and Democracy.

This battle is not just about “homosexuality” – that now old-fashioned term for the beautiful variety of sexual and gender expressions captured by the ever-changing acronym, LGBTQIA [1]. They have used “homosexuality” as a wedge issue, but they have a whole host of other ways they want to remake the UMC. They have fought against the UMC’s involvement in social justice advocacy. They would completely restrict any support for reproductive rights. This is a struggle over fundamentally different approaches to scripture, theology, and what it means to be church.

From the beginning, the ultimate goal of the right has been to force out anyone who disagreed with them. The Good News organization offered a strategic plan [2] in 2004 that explicitly laid out their efforts to undermine the UMC. These now form the basis of the Traditional Plan being offered at the Special General Conference. The document openly stated that, “Inclusiveness has become the new idolatry of The United Methodist Church” and that their intention, if they take over the church, is to “expel the minority party” – meaning the entire progressive Methodist movement. For them, unity means complete homogeneity, including imposing a loyalty oath.

They would first try to make life in the denomination so unpleasant that people would leave, but they warned that ultimately, “There will need to be more explicit methods of direct forced departure.”

Progressives in the UMC are not united in what to advocate or what we think has a chance to pass at the General Conference. Even within the Church of the Village, we are not all of the same mind, although I believe we desire the same outcome and share the same spirit. We don’t know what will happen at the General Conference. I support the Simple Plan (as does the MIND steering committee) which removes all of the offending, discriminatory language from the Book of Discipline. That still would not get us to where I hope we will be someday. It would not end discrimination, but it would at least eliminate the official endorsement of discrimination. However, I also understand the position of those who believe that One Church Plan would at least provide us with some breathing room and the chance to continue the struggle for justice.

I believe any of the plans could triumph at the General Conference in two weeks. Or, it is possible that nothing will pass and we will be left with the status quo. But my prayer is that the Spirit of God will win out and we will experience a significant reduction of the harm currently being done in the denomination.

I know that many of you along with millions of people in the denomination are feeling anger and fear and pain worrying that the church we love, that many of us grew up in and that others have come to love, is going to be taken away from us.

I had a long conversation about this with Rev. Dr. Althea Spencer-Miller on Friday. She wanted to be here today and I told her we would love that, but cautioned her to take care of herself as well. She will need her strength to get through General Conference. And we need her to be a strong leader there. She has been very active in leading presentations and participating in panel discussions across the country. Just last week, she was on a panel with Rob Renfroe, the president of the Good News organization. She told me how angry she became listening to him and that it recalibrated her perspective. She sees the Traditional plan, of which he is a primary backers, as not just wrong, but indecent. She said,

“The Wesley Covenant Association needs to be rebuked. They do not deserve the name United Methodist. Why have we allowed them to get away with so much? Their actions need to be denounced as evil. What they have done to the church is like what Trump has done to the country. It is pathological.”

Yet, she believes, as I do, that the Spirit of God will be victorious and that, with the name United Methodist or without it, we will find our way forward to a renewed and transformed Methodism, that will be a radically inclusive, life affirming, Body of Christ for the world. She punctuated her point by affirming the bible passage that says, “No by power, not by might, but by the Holy Spirit of God” – that is where our strength and our way forward are found. As another clergy friend of mine said this week, “I put my faith in God, not in the United Methodist Church.”

I, myself, have remained in the United Methodist Church because this is where God called me to serve and called me to ordained ministry. And I have believed up to now that it is still possible to influence the outcome of this struggle by staying and continuing to fight for a just and loving outcome. Yet, I confess I struggle with the desire to stay and fight and the sentiment expressed by my friend Dorothee Benz, who said, “Our theological differences are so vast; why are we in one denomination?”

Friends, this is the state of the UMC and the situation we face going into this General Conference. No matter what happens at the Special General Conference, the Church of the Village will continue to be what it is and to do what it does – a progressive, radically inclusive, and anti-racist congregation committed to welcoming and celebrating each person for just who God created them to be. We follow the way of Jesus. And we will continue in that way no matter what the New York Annual Conference decides in the aftermath of the General Conference. We will be the Church of the Village with or without this building. Because our way of being Methodist and being church is not dependent on institutional bodies or physical structures. It is founded on who we are, what we stand for, and what we are building together. It is built on the solid rock of God’s love, justice, mercy, and grace and on the power of the Holy Spirit. I pray the God of grace and glory will pour out her power upon us, that we will be strong in our resolve to continue to practice extravagant love, radical inclusion, and fierce justice in the way of Jesus. O God, make it so. Amen.

Copyright © 2019 by Jeff Wells
All rights reserved.

[1] lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual, etc.
[2] “Options for the Future – With Some Strategic Implications,” Summer 2004.