(Editor’s note: The following column is in response to an opinion column, Time to have ‘The Talk,’ which was published in the November issue of The Current by Rev. Chris Ritter, pastor of Geneseo First UMC. The Current is committed to being a forum for Christian conversation and providing differing viewpoints on issues within The United Methodist Church.)
By Julie Smith
As an Elder in The United Methodist Church appointed to serve a local church I do not believe it is my responsibility to “shield” the members and friends of Bradley Wesley UMC from the difficulties of life, including the difficulties facing The United Methodist Church. If God does not, then why, in my hubris should I? Therefore, unlike my colleague, Rev. Christ Ritter, I have been talking with the people I serve for some time about the issues that could possibly lead to the schism of our beloved church. What I have not done, and regret, is being open and to where I stand on the issue of schism and the causes for the possibility of schism within our Church.
I find it extremely helpful to read opinions and theology by others, including Bishop Sprague, or to try and understand the view point of Rev. Amy DeLong, or the view point and feelings of many men and women in my congregation and the world who find the work of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice to be important.
I sometimes find it extremely frustrating and depressing to read opinions and theology of others who don’t seem willing to allow me to have my own opinions and theology and still be an Elder in The United Methodist Church. The vows of Ordination do not trump the vows of baptism. I have honored the ordination vows even though many of the provisions within The Discipline contradicts itself.
As an Elder I ask the people I serve to form an individual relationship with Christ first, and then, seek to understand the institutional identity of United Methodism. I ask them to read our history as a denomination and to see that from our very beginnings we were a diverse group. That from our very beginnings our unity was a love of Jesus the Christ and a belief and hope in the promise of salvation, given to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
Rev. Ritter calls himself a “centrist.” A centrist is one who holds moderate political views or policies. I think it would be fair to say that as a body in whatever form we constituted ourselves that a centrist position has held. Where we broke was over the issue of slavery and sides were taken and we became The Methodist Episcopal Church and The Methodist Episcopal Church, South. In April 1939, The Methodist Church was formed bringing home members of The Methodist Episcopal Church, The Methodist Protestant Church and The Methodist Church, South. Our membership was 7.7 million members. In 1968, some would say that we opened our doors even wider and welcomed into our family The Evangelical United Brethren Church and became The United Methodist Church. At that time the EUB had approximately 700,000 members.
After the 1968 merger of The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church to form The United Methodist Church, membership in the church continued to decline, from about 9.9 million members in 1974 to 8.54 million members 20 years later in 1994 (General Council on Finance and Administration, April 2006). Between 1999 and 2004, membership in The United Methodist Church again decreased overall by 3.5 percent, meaning there were 291,855 fewer members in 2004 compared to 1999. In 2005, membership figures suggested a continued decline, dipping just below 8 million members. (Changes in Church and Clergy Membership The United Methodist Church 2000 – 2005, Prepared by Michelle Fugate, PhD., Director of Research and Data Management General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, The United Methodist Church, accessed November 10, 2016).
Our membership continues to decline despite the fact since 1972 various statements have been inserted into The Book of Discipline and our Social Principles that have become more and more extreme and non-centrist on the issue of human sexuality. Could it possibly be that our membership has been in decline because of the restrictive language?
In 1988 the General Conference commissioned a study asking for a way forward through the muck and mire of political movements within the Church. In requesting this study the General Conference stated: “the interpretation of homosexuality has proved to be particularly troubling to conscientious Christians of differing opinion.” (p. 10, The Church Studies Homosexuality).
This is a centrist position. Understanding that conscientious Christians could actually disagree. And it is more reflective of the actual thinking of the members of the United Methodist Church and their delegates to General Conference. A survey of 1996 General Conference delegates from the United States revealed that more than half (54 percent) disagreed that homosexuality is sinful.
During the study time of the Commission different theological consultants were contacted and attention was drawn to “diverse streams of tradition present within The United Methodist Church. Each of them [emphasizing] that different viewpoints on human sexuality exist among Christians because of differences in how the sources and criteria for theological and ethical reflection are understood and interpreted.” (p. 19, The Church Studies Homosexuality).
What was the result of the study, commissioned and paid for by The United Methodist Church?
Both the Committee’s majority and minority acknowledged that the church has been unable to arrive at a common mind on the subject and that the church needed to pursue greater knowledge and insight than it presently had on this subject. Did the Church do that? No.
The study and its recommendations were shelved and have been collecting dust ever since. What has happened to provisions within The Book of Discipline and our Social Principles? Have we drawn together to try and understand that there are legitimate differences between people of faith within the Body of Christ, known as The United Methodist Church? No. At each General Conference since 1992, more and more restrictive language has been proposed and passed concerning human sexuality and the role and authority of the clergy. Is this centrist action? What has been happening to our membership? Did the decline stop once all the restrictive language was passed and Clergy began to be charged, tried, and stripped of their God-given call to ordination?
I would suggest that the answer to the above questions is No.
On the same page of The Current as Rev. Ritter’s article was an Open Letter from Philip Amerson, former Dean of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, to friends in the Wesleyan Covenant Association of which Rev. Ritter is a founding member. One of the questions was this:
If Wesleyan, what of John Wesley’s concern about schism and his clear guidance to learn from others who differ as expressed in ‘A Plain Account of Christian Perfection’?
In Wesley’s sermon, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, he states in Question 37: “Beware of schism or causing separation within the church of Christ. Such internal division begins when sisters and brothers in Christ, the members of his body, no longer have love “for one another” 1 Corinthians 12:25 (NRSV). This is the beginning of all conflict that ultimately leads to every outward separation. Beware of everything that contributes to such discord.”
The discord within the body of Christ, known as United Methodism, was out in the open in 1972. When a new paragraph was proposed for the new Social Principles was proposed which stated that homosexuals no less than heterosexuals were of sacred worth. An amendment was proposed and accepted which stated: although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. It was at this point that the door of schism was opened. And with each General Conference the door became wider and wider.
Rev. Ritter suggests that it is only those who oppose this restrictive language and who perform same sex weddings who are causing the split within the church. This is not accurate. In 2014, 80 pastors and theologians posted a statement on the Good News website calling for an amical split. This same group of individuals cited that their differences with the body of Christ, The United Methodist Church, was not just around sexual orientation, but also authority of scripture and discipleship. I quote from the site: “‘Talk of a middle way’ or ‘agreeing to disagree’ is comforting and sounds Christ-like. However, such language only denies the reality we need to admit. Neither side will find ‘agreeing to disagree’ acceptable.’” (http://goodnews-mag.org/2014/05/regarding-united-methodisms-future/, accessed, November 10, 2016).
How do they know? They’ve never allowed such a statement to be passed by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. In addition, this stated belief, belies our history up until 1972, when we stopped agreeing to disagree and began to impose “right doctrine and theology.”
On one point Rev. Ritter and I do agree. It is time to break the luxury of my silence. It is time to break my silence and to name what I see as a failure. A failure of what it means to be Christian, to hold the entirety of the polity, doctrine and ethics of both my baptismal and Ordination vows. A failure of courage given to me as a gift from the Risen Christ to name wrong and to stand for what is right. A failure to honor the Wesleyan traditions which brought me to The United Methodist Church. What is right for me is the understanding that God’s gift of grace and salvation is a “gift for us ALL—something that draws us into the future TOGETHER; it is the power of God’s Spirit at work in the world and it is beyond our ability to limit this.” (Philip Amerson, The Current, p. 3, Nov. 2016).
Unlike Rev. Ritter, I do not stand on the national stage, whether by peer selection or self-promotion. I simply stand as one who has a personal relationship with Christ that has guided and directed me for many years. But on Reformation Sunday, Oct. 30, I remembered who I am. A child of God created in God’s own divine image. Called to the ministry of God in The United Methodist Church. And as I bring the ‘good news of Jesus the Christ’ to the people of Wesley and the larger communities I serve, I remembered the words of Martin Luther as related by Reformation Scholar Heiko Oberman’s, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil.
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one's conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.
At my ordination one vow was this:
Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?
I answered, I will with the help of God. To fulfill this vow, I will no longer be silent. I will be loyal to The United Methodist Church by defending it against all doctrines that are contrary to God’s Holy Word, including rules of the General Conference which violate God’s Holy Word, to love our neighbor and to remove the log from my own eye, before going after my neighbor’s.
I will no longer be silent.
(The Rev. Julie Smith is pastor of Bradley Wesley UMC, Vermilion River District).