A perspective from Dr. Paul W. Chilcote, Retired United Methodist Theologian & Historian.

My study of the life and work of John and Charles Wesley cultivated a deep love of the Anglican tradition in me. One particular collect that comes from the Book of Common Prayer continues to shape my thinking about the Christian life and the mandate to follow the way of Jesus. 

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross 
that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: 
So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, 
may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; 
for the honor of your Name. Amen.

This prayer celebrates a God with a wide embrace, known to us most fully in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I love the image of a God reaching out to take everyone into that loving embrace. But the prayer reminds us, as well, that we are called to imitate Christ. As ambassadors of reconciliation, we have a ministry of reaching out, welcoming, and embracing. This, in fact, is one of the main ways in which the world comes to know this God of love – through us.

We live today, unfortunately, in an age of restrictive walls and combative wills. People often seem to be more concerned about being right than cultivating loving relationships with people who are different. Rather than reaching out, even we all too often hold the “other” at arm’s length, maintaining some kind of defensive posture. In my book on Active Faith I talk about this tendency and the way it reaches into the life of the church, reflecting the brokenness that surrounds us. The “Christian” fundamentalist, for example, claims to possess all the truth above all other claims. But we find the truth, most certainly, by assuming a posture of humility and through a genuine desire to understand, as St. Francis taught us, more than being understood. In a world permeated with xenophobia (the fear of others), many come to believe that their tribe is superior to all others. But we find joy, most certainly, when we make room for and welcome others through our hospitality, when we embrace the diversity that surrounds us.

Attempting to make sense of what is going on in my own beloved United Methodist Church, I have been reflecting continuously on these issues. Without question, the larger social and political dynamics have affected how we view ourselves and others, but also how we view the church. In my teaching church history over the years I have often used a fairly common language to describe two different approaches to church. On one hand are those who view the church as a “society of saints.” In their view, we have a responsibility to keep the church pure. Obviously, if this is the case, someone has to determine what purity means, who is pure, and what the appropriate actions are to remove impurities. More often than not, either doctrine or Christian practice become the measures. I hope you can see the immediate danger in this, especially as this all becomes linked with power. On the other hand are those who think of the church as a “school for sinners.” They acknowledge the way in which all of us have sinned. They welcome all, but then provide a means of growing in love and grace toward holiness of heart and life.

This call to holiness has always been a central theme in the Methodist tradition. What makes holiness in the Wesleyan way unique, however, is its clear emphasis on a holiness of love – love of God and love of neighbor. Other traditions have often defined holiness in terms of adherence to the law, but this is not the Methodist vision. Holiness is all about love. No one captured this more fully than Charles Wesley in his hymns. The closing stanza of “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” provides this captivating image:

Finish then thy new creation,
Pure and spotless let us be,
Let us see thy great salvation,
Perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Holiness means restoration. Holiness means Christlikeness. Holiness means radiance. The shining lives of God’s restored children have a critical evangelistic role in the unfolding of God’s reign. Light attracts; those who radiate the love of God draw others into the reign of God.

So what does all this mean for us now? How can we seek to live this out today? In particular, what can we learn from our heritage about navigating the difficult and complex questions about human sexuality in relation to our faith? As a uniting Methodist the first thing I want to affirm is my strong commitment to the unity of the church. Jesus prayed for this (John 17) and we have a mandate to live this before the world as best we can. In light of this commitment I supported the One Church Plan and had every hope that other Methodists would embrace its “big tent” vision. As we all know, however, this was not to be. In my view, however, the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation offers the church another opportunity to celebrate our unity by means of a different vehicle. The legislation that has now been prepared for the 2020 General Conference makes this clear. 

First, the Protocol affirms unity-in-diversity. It celebrates the way God’s grace works through differences to create a space in which love of God and neighbor can be lived freely. It acknowledges the wide range of opinions that have characterized our churches for years within a context of grace and mutual affection.

Second, the Protocol is not coercive. It leaves decisions about the viability of fellowship to the conscience of the individual and the communities in which those disciples of Jesus find strength, hope, and love for the living of these days. It honors and does not vilify differences.

Third, the Protocol extends a wide embrace. It does not divide the community of faith into parties or perspectives; rather, it welcomes all. Rather than pushing out, it welcomes in. But for those who feel they cannot live in this kind of covenant community, it offers an amicable separation.

Fourth, the Protocol places a high value on “doing no harm.” Reflected in the General Rules of our Wesleyan heritage, this affirmation reflects both a penitent spirit and a pro-active way of life. It recognizes the way in which we have perpetrated untold harm against those within the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized and misunderstood siblings and seeks to “do good” in imitation of Christ.

Fifth, the Protocol provides a vision of how we might live out the “great commandment” and the “great commission” today with faithfulness. Even in the midst of potential separation, it keeps before the various segments of our family the clear mandates of the gospel and the responsibility we all have to be “gospel-bearers” in the world. 

I believe that this could be an answer to our prayer:

So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, 
may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; 
for the honor of your Name. Amen.

Let us be the people of a wide embrace.

Uniting Methodists is a movement rather than an organization. As a movement we are striving for greater inclusion and genuine representation in pursuit of shared goals. The statements found on this website represent our current consensus about important questions before the church. We invite suggestions, critique, and engaging conversations from persons across the UMC. The Uniting Methodists Leadership Team views this work as iterative and certain to be added to and enhanced over time.

* Uniting Methodists is a not-for-profit movement made up of members of The United Methodist Church and is not associated in any way with Room for All, Inc., an LGBTQ advocacy organization in the Reformed Church in America.

Contact Us

If you have comments, questions, or other feedback, we would love to hear from you! Please email us at .