Yesterday Rob Renfroe, a United Methodist pastor and the president of Good News, sent me a letter (found here) with a critique of the document A Way Forward (which you can read here). The letter was entitled An Open Letter to Revs. Adam Hamilton and Michael Slaughter and was signed by 87 other pastors and laity. Shortly after that he released the document to the press. Rob had previously released a document calling for an amicable separation in the denomination. The document, A Way Forward, was written in response to his original call to divide the church. I am grateful for Rob and believe that these public discussions can help The United Methodist Church as it seeks a solution for the current impasse over homosexuality. I offer the following response to Rob’s letter in the same hope. One note of clarification: there are multiple pastors who helped craft A Way Forward.
June 13, 2014
Thanks for your note and critique of A Way Forward. I think we’re all looking for ways that The United Methodist Church might move forward in light of the current impasse regarding homosexuality and the church. Your proposal is to divide the church in an “amicable separation.” We’re looking for an alternative to that; one which would hold together most of our churches by focusing on what we share in common while allowing for differences in interpretation and practice concerning homosexuality. We wrote A Way Forward as a discussion starter, not a finished document. I take your critiques and questions as an opportunity to continue that discussion.
Like 90% of the United Methodist laity surveyed several weeks ago, the 2,145 pastors and church leaders who signed A Way Forward to date do not believe the church should divide over this issue. The signers don’t all agree on how to read and interpret the biblical texts often cited regarding homosexuality. What they agree upon is that it is possible to be faithful, orthodox, Wesleyan, United Methodist Christians and hold to differing ways of understanding these texts and to come to different conclusions regarding homosexuality.
I’d like to briefly address several of your critiques.
You’ve mentioned that our proposal is a “fundamental shift” of United Methodist polity from connectionalism to congregationalism. We don’t believe this is true. Our connectionalism is not based upon uniformity in our interpretation of scriptures related to homosexuality. Our connectional form of polity is largely built, as I see it, around 1. Our way of assigning clergy (appointed by a bishop, not “called” by a local congregation); 2. Our shared mission and ministry funded through apportionments; 3. Our trust clause indicating that United Methodist property is held in trust “for the benefit of the entire denomination”; 4. Our common Discipline; and 5. Our shared convictions and practices described in the section of A Way Forward entitled, “What Unites Us as United Methodists.” There are no doubt many other elements of connectionalism, but these seem to me to be the foundations of a connectional polity.
Rob, you note that A Way Forward would “add major complications to our system of itinerancy as bishops seek to match pastors willing to perform same-sex unions with supportive congregations.” Bishops are already assigning clergy to churches based upon theological and social affinity and fit. They don’t assign “conservative” clergy to “liberal” congregations or “liberal” clergy to “conservative” congregations. We have Reconciling churches in the UMC and the bishops take this into account when assigning clergy. I’ve spoken with several bishops and superintendents about this and all agreed that they routinely take into account this kind of “fitness” when making appointments.
Your point about conflict in the churches is a very real and valid concern. It has the potential of simply pushing the conflict from General Conference once every four years to each local church. We’ve spent time talking about this. One attempt to address this was requiring a super-majority vote and the senior pastor’s approval in order for a congregation to adopt an alternative position to the current position of the Discipline. We agree that the process for discerning and voting on adopting a variance from the current position would need to be carefully spelled out by the Discipline. We also believe appropriate resources to help pastors and local churches navigate the process and potential potholes would need to be developed.
Local churches are already wrestling with the questions of biblical interpretation as it relates to homosexuality. The issue comes up in small groups, in Bible study classes, in Sunday school classes and at church councils. Rob, you have gay and lesbian people in your church, and parents, aunts and uncles and friends of gay and lesbian people and at least some of these people disagree with your position. But they stay at The Woodlands because they love you and Ed and the rest of the staff, and they find their lives enriched through your ministry. You’ve found a way to agree to disagree on the issue.
You note, “Our connection to one another would be undermined by significant variations in teaching and practice, as well as constant continuing conflict.” We already have significant variations in teaching and practice and constant continuing conflict. Yet we minister alongside one another in communities, sit by one another at annual conference, consider one another brothers and sisters in Christ and share together in our connectional ministries. Our hope in allowing churches to minister with gay and lesbian people according to their theological and biblical convictions while upholding celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage would be to reduce the level of conflict. In agreeing to disagree, we would hope to take the focus off of homosexuality and set our focus as a church back on the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We hope that what would bind us together as churches would be the kind of common convictions we listed in the section, “What Unites us as United Methodists” in A Way Forward.
You mention the churches in the Central Conferences and the concern that a change in the Discipline “would be devastating to their witness” and “potentially expose them to harm.” I agree with you, which is why our proposal allows them to maintain the current disciplinary language. Under your original proposal, that the church “amicably divide,” you would force African churches to decide which of the two churches they would align with. Wouldn’t this have tremendous negative consequences for the Central Conferences? If they aligned with the churches that left the denomination they would sever the relationships they have with many of the churches that have been their partners. We are suggesting that A Way Forward is a better solution for Central Conferences than an amicable separation.
You note that this new policy would be asking you to approve a practice you deem contrary to scripture. Under our proposal you would not be asked to approve of a practice you deem contrary to scripture. You would be able to continue to profess that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Discipline would contain permissive language for those churches whose convictions are different from yours to enter a process of discernment that would allow them to express their own convictions. Under this scenario the left could not dictate a position to the right, nor the right to the left.
Your question on what guarantee could be given that this compromise would end the battles being fought at General Conference is a very good one. I believe the left would have to enter into this negotiation with good faith and that they would need to agree to restrictive language regarding these concerns. This is precisely where this proposal must protect the convictions of both sides, and where it is not fully satisfactory to either.
Is A Way Forward a perfect proposal? No. If there is a better proposal to address the current impasse, I suspect most of the 2,145 people who signed A Way Forward would gladly defer to it. The proposal you’ve offered so far is to divide the denomination in an amicable separation. Those of us who signed A Way Forward are looking for a way to hold most of the church together.
Thanks for writing, Rob, and for asking questions and offering critiques.