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Progressive Christianity Strategy Report

From Kairos Comotion Conference
February 2002 – Madison, Wisconsin

by Tom Lambrecht, Good News

This report is based on information from two observers who attended the Kairos CoMotion event in Madison, Wisconsin, February 21-23, 2002.  The purpose of the event was to rally the troops on the “liberal” side to work toward General Conference 2004.  The main speakers were Bishop John Shelby Spong, Bishop Judith Craig, and Bishop Sharon Rader.


This group now wants to be known as “Progressive Christians” rather than “liberals.”  I guess they feel this circumvents the political connotations of “liberal” and enables them to define their movement in a new way.

The movement is based on an entire worldview that is different from traditional Christianity.  They took pains to clarify that they are not just organizing around the inclusion of homosexuals, but more basically a view of ongoing revelation that can supercede Scripture.  This is in keeping with the findings of the liberal-conservative dialogue sponsored by the CCUIC several years ago.


The new organizational umbrella for the Progressive Christianity movement is “The Church Within a Church Movement.”   They see themselves creating a new church based on this Progressive Christianity worldview that can grow within the mainline denominations before separating from them.

They intend to model their movement on the Good News movement, which they see as the paradigm for developing a cohesive alternative structure within an existing denomination.  The multiple other groups would then fall within the umbrella of The Church Within a Church.  These other groups include the Reconciling Network, the Clergy Alliance, Affirmation, and the ethnic minority group pushing acceptance for homosexuality.

They intend to use the Open Hands magazine as their flagship publication, modeled on Good News magazine.

The Church Within a Church will have four focuses:  1) General Conference legislation, 2) formation of the shadow church, 3) Radical Obedience (using that new name instead of ecclesiastical disobedience), and 4) theological reflection and writing.  Some will work within the system for change, while others will try to break the system.  They are trying to develop mutual support for people working toward the same goal with different means.  Right now, there is some animosity between those who are trying to break the system and those who are trying to work within the system for change.


They look at 2004 as the watershed year in their movement.  They plan to again pull out all the stops in attempting to legislate change at the 2004 General Conference.  They actually expect to lose, however, and plan to come to General Conference with a plan for division in hand.  There is still quite a bit of anger from people who left the UMC after the 2000 General Conference toward those progressives who stayed.  Some thought everybody should leave after 2000.

In addition to the organization work outlined above, they plan to hold rallies around the country similar to the Kairos CoMotion event.  They plan some rather aggressive publicity events, as well as some rather dramatic disobedience of church law.  They hope to provoke the church into making martyrs of them.  Their goal is to gain public support for homosexuals and make the institutional church and evangelicals look bad.  They want to portray evangelicals as all being in the mold of Fred Phelps.  They want to make 2000 General Conference protests look like a Sunday School picnic in comparison with what they do in 2004.

They are linking with progressives in other mainline denominations, believing (as we do) that there is more in common across denominational lines.  They are working with Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Roman Catholics.  They see a Progressive Christian denomination emerging that would cross traditional denominational lines.  I believe this means they see their progressive theological approach as more important than denominational distinctives.  They also expect the black Methodist denominations (AME, AMEZ, and CME) to join with them in the new progressive denomination.  (I see this as unrealistic, but they are trying to cultivate top leaders within all of those denominations, and they are trying to portray the issue as a racial one.)

They see this as not just a theological divide between progressives and evangelicals, they also see it as a north-south split along regional lines.  In that context, they are trying to portray the southern church as a good old white boys’ network, made up of evangelical rednecks.  They are working with all of the ethnic caucuses except for the Hispanic caucus.

They see John Shelby Spong as the Martin Luther King of the Progressive Christian movement.

Of the 300 people who attended the Kairos CoMotion event, about one-half were from Wisconsin (mostly clergy), one-third were from Northern Illinois (including large representation from Broadway UMC, Greg Dell’s church), and the remaining 20% were from the Western Jurisdiction and from Madison academia (University of Wisconsin professors and students).


I see several implications for our evangelical strategy, in light of this information.

1)      We ought to continue keeping the pressure on the other side through accountability actions (publicizing disobedience, filing complaints, etc.).  However, we should take care not to overreact and create martyrs when it is not necessary.

2)      We need to prepare our constituency to expect the onslaught that will come, as the progressives attempt to stage media events.  We shouldn’t get flustered or intimidated by their tactics.  If we can just stay strong for two more years, we may be able to bring closure to this conflict.

3)      We should continue focusing on the theological issues of disagreement.  We need to help the mainstream UMC find its theological identity as a point of unity.  Otherwise, even if the progressives leave, we will not have anything more than institutional unity (with an even stronger tendency to minimize conflict and disagreement).  We need something positive to hold us together and give us our identity as a denomination.

4)      We could consider setting up behind-the-scenes contacts with leaders of the other side to work out a mutually agreeable plan for them to leave.  Several years ago, we were saying that we wished there were a way for us to help them leave.  Now we have the opportunity to do that.  In working out the plan, we should not be vindictive or greedy.  Instead, we should work out a reasonable plan that penalizes no one.  After all, we might have been in the same situation ourselves.  We should treat them as we would have wanted them to treat us.


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