A perspective from Rev. Dr. William O. (Bud) Reeves, Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas
I have been following the United Methodist discussions about human sexuality since I was in high school and the first discriminatory language was put into the Book of Discipline in 1972. For about forty of those years I was solidly in the traditionalist or conservative camp. I only began to change when I started to study and question the biblical interpretation on which the traditional view of homosexuality was founded. I have now been in ordained ministry for almost forty years, and I was looking forward to the 2020 General Conference with both anxiety and anticipation—not because I wanted a separation in my beloved church, but because I had hopes that a fresh expression of an inclusive church would be born out of it. Now, of course, all our hopes regardless of our perspective have been put on hold by the pandemic. We will take up the issue again in due time.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) has continued apace to lay the groundwork for their “new expression of Methodism.” In a meeting in Atlanta in March, they issued a fourfold vision about their new denomination:
- It is passionate about Jesus and his gospel.
- It is characterized by joy.
- It is truly global in its mission, membership, and leadership.
- It trusts the Bible, in which the living core of our faith is revealed.
I could join a church like that! In fact, I am already in a church like that. So where is the need to separate into different denominations?
What Separation Is Really About
Of course, what the publicity doesn’t mention is that the intractable disagreement in The United Methodist Church is over human sexuality, specifically over the endorsement of gay marriage and ordination of LGBTQ persons. On a deeper level (and this has been part of the traditionalist argument for years), there is disagreement on the interpretation of key passages in the Bible that are opposed to certain same-sex practices. However, one has to dig deeply into the WCA material to find their support of the Traditional Plan (so misnamed) of the 2019 General Conference, which “reaffirmed our church’s sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and ordination standards, and added enhanced accountability measures.”
In the run-up to denominational separation, the rhetoric has changed. No longer is the WCA and the traditionalist wing of The UMC concerned so much about sexual ethics or even scriptural interpretation. The issue has now become even bigger. As one WCA pastor wrote to her congregation recently,
There are two major reasons the UMC denomination is proposing to move forward with multiple expressions of faith: (1) Christology, and (2) the primacy of scripture. I can no longer stay in a denomination with those who do not, first and foremost, profess Jesus as Lord. And, I cannot remain in a church with bishops and clergy who deny and question basic, foundational tenets of the Christian faith and are not held accountable.
Why this change in the rallying cry for the new denomination? I suspect two reasons. One is that, as time passes, it will be increasingly difficult for a denomination that is opposed to full inclusion to be attractive, especially to younger generations. A denomination really does not want “opposed to gay marriage and ordination” as its banner headline in 21st-century America.
Second, there are significant numbers of traditional United Methodists who are not willing to leave the mother church over the issues of sexuality. This has been my anecdotal experience in my own church, as a number of my people have said, “I am a traditionalist all the way, but I don’t think we ought to split the church over it. We just need to get along.” Bishop Gary Mueller estimates that “30% – 40% of the United Methodist Church in the United States…is more traditional concerning human sexuality, but wishes to stay in the United Methodist Church.” Since the publication of the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation,” several conservative pastors have elucidated reasons for a continuing traditionalist presence in the post-separation UMC (e.g., Rev. Steve West of Alabama on the Uniting Methodist website). In order for the WCA to engineer a mass exodus of traditionalists into their new denomination, there has to be something more compelling than differences over human sexuality at stake. How about Jesus and the Bible? That’s as big as it gets.
Orthodox, Wesleyan, Progressive, and Inclusive
The problem is, there are many of us with centrist and progressive beliefs regarding human sexuality who are also orthodox in Christian theology and Wesleyan in perspective. Many of the leaders of the movement for inclusion have impressive orthodox, Wesleyan, even evangelical pedigrees: Steve Harper, Stan Copeland, Adam Hamilton, Ken Carter, Jim Harnish, Junius Dotson, Janice Huie, just to name a few I know. At the UMCNext meeting in Kansas City in May of 2019, the first statement affirmed by this diverse group was, “We long to be passionate followers of Jesus Christ, committed to a Wesleyan vision of Christianity, anchored in scripture and informed by tradition, experience and reason as we live a life of personal piety and social holiness.” I am an orthodox Wesleyan Christian, and so are the people I know in Arkansas who nevertheless believe in full inclusion. We profess Jesus as Lord and Savior. We say the ancient creeds with nary a wince or crossed fingers. We believe scripture is our primary authority, informed by tradition, experience, and reason. If the issue were truly about Jesus and the Bible, we would be packing our denominational bags, too.
But it’s not. I respect and love those who feel the inclusive direction of The United Methodist Church is untenable for their practice of the faith. For most of my life, I agreed with them. But I believe the WCA and its proponents need to be honest that the issue in our denomination lies in a division over inclusion of same-sex oriented people and the interpretation of a few passages of scripture (for which there are multiple interpretations). To characterize those of us who would stay in The United Methodist Church as weak in Christology and devaluing scripture is inaccurate and diversionary.
In the end, it is about Jesus. It is about following his summary of the Law and Prophets, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. It is about following his commandment to his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you.” It is about including all of God’s children no matter how they were made. It is about welcoming everyone into full participation in the rites and ministry of the church Jesus founded. It’s all about Jesus—but that’s just my Christology showing.