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Commentary


Honest Liberal Theologian Highlights Hypocrisy of UMC Establishment, Branded as "Risk to Methodism" by "Progressive" Pro-homosexuality UM Leaders


Risking Methodism

D. Stephen Long
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

I am one of the “cast of characters” who place “United Methodism at risk.” As nearly everyone in United Methodism knows, a group calling themselves “Information Project for United Methodism” has issued a call to action for all United Methodists to “wake, awake” because “our denomination is at great risk.” Certain groups “threaten” United Methodism such that “we can no longer afford to think” that “all persons of good faith must be part of the dialogue” (see Methodism@Risk, p. 3-4). Of course this kind of language simply mirrors that of Bishop Joseph Sprague’s in his Affirmations of a Dissenter when he expressed his “incredulity that neoliteralism has been permitted” to put forth its theology without challenge (See Sprague, p. 22). He issued the first call for “progressivists” to speak out against the neoliteralists, but he left the groups he meant vague. No one was sure who these “neoliteralists” were. But now the “Information Project” has named these groups and lo and behold I find myself to be one of them!  

Methodism@Risk lists as part of the “cast of characters” that threaten Methodism as “John Wesley fellows” who teach at some of our United Methodism seminaries. The “expose” of this threatening conspiracy states that these John Wesley fellows “are teaching at theological seminaries, including Duke, Wesley, Asbury, Dubuque, Princeton, Garrett-Evangelical and Perkins.” I assume at this point the reader is supposed to gasp in horror that these persons, obviously in collusion with the Institute for Religion and Democracy, are permitted to teach at our United Methodist Seminaries. We are clearly presented as a serious threat to United Methodism (an odd assertion against persons whose title is “John Wesley fellow”.) It is almost as if the Information Project has now dragged some of us out of hiding and asked us, “Are you now or have you ever been associated with the John Wesley fellows?” I am guilty as charged.

When I first read this I had to laugh at the irony of it. I am, like many other John Wesley fellows, a pacifist and something of a socialist. But I am concerned about the argument that “orientation” alone settles the issue of a faithful Christian sexuality and that gets you in trouble these days, especially with the “progressives.”  In the Northern Illinois Annual Conference that issue has been settled. They recently adopted a dogmatic stance and urged that it be taught in every church to all age levels. Methodists in Northern Illinois have now accepted the following dogma: “human sexuality is a good gift of God and the Northern Illinois Annual Conference understands that homosexuality, heterosexuality and bi-sexuality all share that gift.” I don’t find this argument theologically persuasive even for heterosexuality. Are all heterosexual orientations legitimate? Does this legitimate consensual incest? (If you think this is not a serious ethical argument today read the book Daddy Dearest.) I think we need to question these kinds of statements, but the “progressives” no longer seem to allow these kinds of questions. If you are part of the “cast of characters” listed in Methodism@Risk, then the time for dialogue is over.

I am proud that I won a John Wesley fellow. I am grateful to Ed Robb who started this program and I have had several conversations with him. I disagree with much of his politics; we have discussed pacifism and the IRD. However I find him much more open to conversation than the interactions I have had with Joseph Sprague because Ed Robb has to take biblical arguments seriously. His commitment to the Christian faith requires an openness that Sprague’s liberal scholasticism does not. Sprague’s “progressivist” theology comes ready-made and so convinced of its own superior humility and righteousness that it issues “calls to action” that can easily turn into a theological McCarthyism. Don’t get me wrong, I have not been silenced. (Although a member of Sprague’s cabinet, whom I have never met, who is not a member of our faculty and with whom I have not had a conversation did interfere in my tenure review, evidently trying to prevent it.) It is this threat of theological McCarthyism stemming from the “yellow journalism” of Methodism@Risk that requires me to speak out at this time, even though I know that to challenge the so-called “progressives” is to be labeled a threat to Methodism and placed in collusion with the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

I am no fan of the IRD. I find their vision of United Methodism weak, especially in its theology. They seem to want to make us nothing more than the chaplain to the Republican Party. But Bishop Sprague’s progressivism and the Information Projects’ call to action simply mirrors the IRD trying to insure that the major institutions of the United Methodist Church – the seminaries and Boards and Agencies continue their unchallenged role as chaplain to the Democratic Party. If you think this is just rhetorical excess, simply inquire how many members of the Republican Party teach in our seminaries or are on our General Boards and Agencies. It has been the exclusive nature of these institutions that made the IRD possible. They reacted against them and embody the same exclusive partisan spirit of those other institutions. Having no where else to go, conservative Republicans formed their own independent institutions and they are having some success, which obviously worries the progressives who have controlled Methodism’s institutions. Now the Information Project simply mirrors the IRD’s excess. I hope you will join me in rejecting both options. But that will require a deeper vision than these two options present; it will require a common vision, a common life, practice and liturgy for the people called Methodist.

At this point some persons will clearly think that Methodism@Risk is correct; people like me “threaten” John Wesley’s “think and let think.” But of course Wesley never thought one could think and let think about the heart of Christian doctrine – the Incarnation, Trinity, Virgin Birth, Bodily Resurrection – or a common quest for Christian holiness, which includes specific worship practices. That is why he gave us the gift of something called a “discipline,” Articles of Religion and a sermon called “the duty of constant communion.” He urged the Methodist people – out of “duty” – to frequent the Lord’s table as much as possible. If we have no common vision, doctrine, moral practice or worship life then we may as well become a confederation of independent churches. That is not Methodism, but recent Annual Conference actions tend in this direction.

We do not need to invent common doctrine, practice or worship for it is already present in our Discipline and Book of Worship. The Information Project, Bishop Sprague and the “progressives” in the Northern Illinois Conference find the threat to Methodism to be a common confession and argue that this is something new in Methodism. In a recent letter sent to Annual Conference members, the following statement was made:

“There are many threats to our traditional understanding of what it means to be United Methodist, including groups that are moving to promote an exclusive understanding of scripture and theology, and a movement away from an evolving and ever-changing understanding of God guided by the Holy Spirit. This statement is one way to affirm the belief that our knowledge of God cannot and must not be put in a box.”

So what do the progressives do to challenge this threat to an “ever-changing” doctrine of God (whatever that would mean and how could it possibly be called a “traditional understanding of Methodism”?) They ask their members to sign a confession that begins “We believe . . .” and then has nine propositions of faith based on the acronym OPEN TO ALL.  Without any sense of irony the N proposition states this:

N Non-creedal

The United Methodist Church has always been a conciliar church, with members working together in a dynamic way to explore our beliefs, our theology, and the issues of the present day. We will continue in this Wesleyan tradition, and will not succumb to the pull of those who would require the affirmation of a solitary creed or statement of belief in order to be a member of the United Methodist church, but we embrace faith in Jesus Christ.”

The “progressives” don’t seem to get the irony in putting forth a solitary creed called “Open to All,” that begins “we believe,” asks people to sign it and then states that the United Methodist Church is non-creedal. But that of course is not true – either of the progressives themselves, who seek to impose their “Open to All” creed on us all. Nor is it true of historic United Methodism. We have Articles of Religion and a Confession of Faith. Pastors are asked if they understand these confessions, if they find them consistent with Holy Scripture and if they will “preach and maintain” them. Our baptismal liturgy asks those about to be baptized to confess the Apostles’ Creed, a sign that we are part of the church catholic both diachronically and synchronically.  If anything is under threat in the Methodist Church today it is this sense of a common teaching, practice and worship that comes from our own tradition, and it is under threat by both the so-called “progressivists” and the church-growth gurus who came up with the “open hearts, minds and doors” campaign. Can we take the risk of Methodism and recover a common life?

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