by Allen T. Stanton
When I talk to people about why I am involved in the Uniting Methodists movement, they often say that they too want a solution that will end the divisions in The United Methodist Church. They want a solution that is clear and compelling, and that can pass without a fight that could damage our denomination. They often ask me whether I think the Uniting Methodists movement’s proposals could get enough votes at General Conference. They frequently follow that question with a long recitation of the political calculus, testing each motion to see whether it could pass. I can’t blame them for that. After all, the longer our possible division looms, the costlier it becomes to our mission.
A recent article in Good News Magazine painstakingly detailed all the various solutions to the impasse in our denomination. Each one appealed to a certain demographic, but the author declared that each was untenable. This included Rob Renfroe’s ideal solution of having progressives and center-left groups leave the denomination. That leaves us in the same place we’re in now: doing nothing but prolonging the debate.
I assume that the members of the WCA and their partners at Good News want more than to prolong our current and painful reality. The members of the WCA that I know care deeply about the future of The UMC. Yet, each new idea that’s brought to the table receives a hopeless assessment of, “Well, that’s not possible.” Just look at Rob Renfroe’s recent critique of the Uniting Methodists movement.
Admittedly, I have been involved in these debates far less time than others, for the sheer fact that I was not born into The UMC. I grew up in a denomination recovering from its own fractious history. I went to college a spiritual orphan and happened to make friends with the Wesley Foundation’s campus minister. I was introduced to the works of John Wesley, and I compared it to what I saw in our campus ministry. I learned that grace and evangelism walk side by side, that a call to confession is not devoid of God’s love, and that the church is not a dead institution. Rather, I heard the clarion call of hope. I entered college wanting to leave the church. I left as a candidate for ordination in The UMC.
Over the past few years, I’ve often wondered where that hope went. In seminary, at annual conference, and in meetings with pastors, pessimism sometimes seems to rule. One of our denomination’s leaders, commenting on The UMC’s presence on Twitter, observed that tweets about The United Methodist Church are filled with self-loathing, usually coming from people employed by The UMC.
But if the future of the church is so dire, and if the Uniting Methodists movement’s offering is so bleak, why have thousands of voices, representing a diverse ideological and demographic spectrum, signed onto our movement?
I think it’s because, just like I did, they’ve heard the Uniting Methodists’ call to be persistently hopeful.
In May, I joined 47 other United Methodists in Nashville for an informal conversation about the future of the United Methodist Church. Like others, I was skeptical about what would come out of the meeting. I imagined that it would be filled with fluffy sentiments about healing the church, but devoid of reality and vision.
Instead, I heard a group of fresh voices, all brimming with excitement about the future of The UMC. I returned to my small conservative parish feeling optimistic about our future. As we sat down over the next few months to begin fleshing out that vision, my optimism only grew.
It grew because I met people who were just as committed as I am to grounding ourselves in our Wesleyan principles. As we wrote our theological statement, we took seriously John Wesley’s original mission to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land. We routinely turned to our history and traditions for help. We enveloped ourselves in the story of scripture. We prayed often and listened for the ways the Holy Spirit might still be speaking to us.
Out of that process grew a robust theological vision for our denomination. It’s a vision that calls the whole church to confession and reminds us all of what Christ has already done in us. It’s a vision that takes seriously how our ways of doing and being church are changing, and with that, how our institutional needs will also change and adapt. Our hope as Uniting Methodists is one that reaches deep into our past, recalling the renewal that John Wesley brought about in 18th-century England and that sparked a revival on the American continent. As we embrace our evangelical identity, theology, and doctrine, we also remember that we must be open to the ways in which the Holy Spirit is seeking to transform us.
It’s a vision that recognizes that there are people who are in disagreement, while acknowledging that we are all on a path toward holiness, striving for perfection. We recognize that this journey is one with growing pains. Being a clarifying and unifying movement does not mean that we avoid tough and painful conversations by glossing over our differences. Rather, we commit ourselves to exploring those tension-inducing spaces. We linger in those moments to study scripture, pray, and converse. We can do that because we have embraced a common vision. It’s a vision that remembers our evangelical roots and orients us toward a future of forming new disciples in our Wesleyan tradition.
That is not a naïve and shallow hope. No one paying attention is anticipating that the decisions General Conference will make are going to be easy. I imagine that even as the Commission on a Way Forward offers its recommendations, there will be varying levels of excitement and optimism. The path forward certainly won’t be an easy one.
But here’s the truth: the Christian hope, the one we proclaim in Christ, is not an easy hope. To arrive at the resurrection, we must pass through the difficulties of Good Friday. The journey toward perfection includes the work of sanctification. In the early days of the church, I’m sure there were disciples who said, “Listen, this is just too hard; it’s too impossible.” Fortunately, it’s the nature of God, and the nature of the church even, to surprise us all.
I joined the Uniting Methodists movement because it reminded me of the deep hope I first felt in encountering The United Methodist Church. Here was a group of people taking seriously the difficulty of discipleship, wanting to embrace our Wesleyan heritage and work for a denomination where devotion to scripture, grace, evangelism, justice, and repentance could be known and explored within the same breath.
This is what critics of the movement seem to miss. The Uniting Methodists movement isn’t just a group of people signing on for an easy solution. We’re not naïve about the hard work ahead of us as a denomination. The thousands of people who signed our statement, and the many who will be added in the months to come, know that the work ahead of us is no easier than it was for the disciples in Book of Acts.
We’re not simply a group of people excited about a repackaged solution. Quite the opposite. We’re a group of United Methodists who are tired of being pulled in the cynical tug-of-war, dismayed by the perpetual “sky-is-falling” commentary that surrounds us. We’re a group committed to our Wesleyan heritage and mission, who long to make disciples of all nations. But most of all, we’re a group committed to our future, because we know that God is not done working in us, with us, and through us. No matter how hard it may be, we stand in this center, because we know it’s a hopeful place to stand.