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Open Letter: "We are divided beyond dialogue"

An Open Letter from a United Methodist Pastor

Many of you read in the Saturday, February 12th Fresno Bee of the decision of Bishop Melvin Talbert and the investigative committee to not press charges or pursue any further action against Rev. Don Fado and 67 other clergy who were co-celebrants in a same-sex service of holy union in Sacramento last January, 1999.

Whether you agree or disagree with this decision, it reflects an arrogant disregard for the order, discipline and common will of the United Methodist Church as decided upon by church representatives from across the world.

The United Methodist Church is (a) not united and (b) has lost its theological compass. We are theologically and missionally dysfunctional. We huddle in our caucus groups for identity, security, hoping for our corporate voices to be heard. We are divided beyond dialogue.

In crisis times, we often ask basic identity questions like: "What does it mean to be a United Methodist and why am I United Methodist?"

I want to tell you what it means for me to be a United Methodist. In so doing, I want to use the acrostic F-R-I-E-N-D-S :

Faith - Our faith heritage is rich, rooted in a Wesleyan tradition: reformational, pietistical, social reform, spiritual renewal and awakening, growing out of a nominal state church in England in the 18th century. We affirm, respect, love our roots. In the spirit of that faith tradition, we embrace the contemporary with a passionate commitment to recontextualize the faith in each generation.

Relational - While our relationship to Jesus Christ is personal, it is not a privatized religious experience we promote. Our faith grows best as we are committed relationally to a community of believers (the church). In this community, our faith and witness is nurtured, sustained, broadened and deepened.

Integrated Piety - We emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. In our secular culture, with an ever increasing gap between a person’s social and private ethics, we seek the Holy Spirit’s help to integrate (balance) faith and practice. Our focus is intentional and prayerful . . . to develop the character of Christ (fruits of the Spirit) in each believer, so that how we live out our faith increasingly reflects what we say we believe.

Evangelical - There are core (non-negotiable) affirmations of faith that identify us as evangelical. We are (1) a biblical people emphasizing the centrality and authority of the Word of God; (2) a hopeful people, emphasizing the new birth in Christ, extending the possibility of conversion and transformation of life to whomsoever will receive Christ; (3) a called people, given the dual task of evangelism/Christian discipleship as well as to advance social justice; and (4) an ecumenical people, promoting Christian unity among denominations emphasizing unity in the essentials and freedom in non-essentials.

Non-Creedal - While we acknowledge the contributions of historic Christian creeds as formative to our faith, such as the Apostle’s Creed, we enjoy a wholesome freedom and flexibility in doctrines considered non-essential to our salvation. We do not promote or practice a dogmatism, legalism, rigidity that sometimes characterizes more fundamentalistic denominations.

Diversity - It is a gift of God, recognized as part of God’s creative nature. We acknowledge, as we seek to identify the core of Christian beliefs, diverse interpretations of the biblical message. We are committed to the process and principle of religious tolerance, theological diversity, dialogue within the Christian community, mutual trust and respect of differences as a means to understand and contextualize biblical truth in practice.

Structure - The structure of the United Methodist Church is interdependent (connectional) rather than independent. Local congregations value partnership on district, conference, national levels, recognizing that more can be accomplished together than separate. But what holds an interdependent pluralistic church together is not hierarchical and political structure, it is sharing a common vision around a common mission, centered in core theological affirmations. . . "one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Eph. 4:5).

Can we still be friends?

I would like to believe that. I would like to be optimistic; proactive, politically correct, supportive of the "party-line." Frankly, I am not of that hope or persuasion.

We have prided ourselves in being an inclusive church. Unfortunately, we have sacrificed our core (non-negotiable) affirmations at the altar of inclusion. Paradoxically because our inclusion means anything, it also means nothing. Because we’ve lost our theological center, we have lost our freedom in Christ. So we have substituted political means in a vain attempt to accomplish spiritual purposes. Read your Old Testament. It has never worked.

Several months ago, I was in a meeting in Visalia with over 50 UM clergy from our CA/NV Conference. As we were sharing, several clergy said they could not recite all the Apostle’s Creed, because when they get to the part about the resurrection, they don’t believe it. Apart from any discussion on human sexuality, that is an unholy union. While I support the civil rights and freedom of anyone to believe whatever they want, this is an un-Christian belief. Clergy who persist in this un-belief need to be removed from the representative, ordained ministry of the United Methodist Church. Unfortunately, we neither have the theological center nor the backbone to make such difficult discernments.

Don’t misunderstand me, I have been weaned and nurtured in a United Methodist heritage. There are 1000's upon 1000's of salt-of-the-earth, dedicated Christian people in the United Methodist Church. I have been immeasurably blessed by people like this in every United Methodist Church I have attended or served as pastor. There are also clergy colleagues that are dedicated, gifted brothers and sisters.

Ironically, in our "theologically center-less inclusion" we have produced a neo-dogmatism, a neo-legalism. If you don’t buy the party-line, you are homophobic, lacking in the compassion of Jesus. As in a nasty divorce, we can’t talk to each other. "We’ll see what General Conference does or appeal to the Judicial Council for interpretation of church law" are religious synonyms for "talk to my lawyer." But in light of the recent decision made in the CA/NV Annual Conference, what does it matter what General Conference does?

The Council of Bishops and clergy colleagues who promote a "unity at any price" are in denial about how deep and broad the schism is. It’s like trying to put a band-aide on a gaping wound. Given the current direction of the United Methodist Church, I have no hope for reconciliation. No amount of legislation reform, appeal to judicial process, or restructuring is going to fix it.

My only hope for the United Methodist Church is divine intervention, God saying "enough is enough." This week, I received in the mail a book by Dr. Terry Teykl, Pray the Price: UM United in Prayer. He has been a UM pastor for 28 years and now directs a nationwide prayer movement in our denomination. He is calling for 2,000 men and women to attend General Conference in Cleveland in May as prayer delegates. May this tribe of United Methodist’s increase. Apart from this, I hold no expectation or hope for renewal or reconciliation.

Pastor Ray L. O’Neil

Selma United Methodist Church


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