by David Livingston
You may want to look at this survey that UM Communications commissioned. Right off the bat two shortcomings should be noted. First, with only a little more than 500 respondents it’s hard to know how accurate it is. A statistician I am not, so maybe it is a large enough sample. Second, it consistently uses the vague terms progressive, moderate, and conservative.
The second point is especially important now as next week we consider a “progressive’ Simple Plan (which some supporters argue is still not really progressive), a “centrist” One Church Plan (which some opponents call progressive), and a “conservative” Traditionalist Plan (which supporters call the status quo and some opponents call fundamentalist). But none of the three plans (and a fourth, the Connectional Conference Plan, which is a hybrid plan) focus on an overall theology. They focus instead of the question of how we include lesbian and gay people in the life of the church (note I only say the first two in the long string of letters LGBTQ+ because the plans only address those two initials – a significant shortcoming.)
This matters because between this survey and a separate Pew survey we have proof that our views on same-sex marriage specifically do not correspond precisely with our overall theology. The UMCOM study shows that 44% of U.S. United Methodists consider themselves traditional, a plurality but not a majority. 28% are moderate, 22% progressive, and the remainder unsure. For the record, I would put myself in the moderate camp. A 2014 Pew study reported that 60% of U.S. United Methodists believed that same-sex marriage should be accepted by society and 49% believed it should be accepted by the church. If every single progressive and moderate in 2018 believe in same-sex marriage AND if the UMC has defied all societal norms by not moving in a more pro-LGBT direction over the last five years then about 1 in 4 self-identified conservatives still believe that same-sex marriage is acceptable.
So, unintentionally, the UM survey tells us that what we are voting on at General Conference isn’t really the biggest issue we face.
The survey also shows just how much we need each other. In his 2008 book Staying at the Table, Bishop Scott Jones says, “Liberals need conservatives and conservatives need liberals. If one group leaves, we are all worse off.” One question in the survey stood out to me. The question was whether the primary purpose of the denomination is to save souls or transform the world. Our mission statement says both – Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Our statement is consistent with John Wesley who both preached about salvation and also visited prisoners in jail.
In the surveys conservative/progressive breakdown the difference is stark. 88% of conservatives said our primary purpose is to save souls as opposed to 32% of progressives. 62% of progressives chose transforming the world as opposed to 12% of conservatives. Moderates, predictably, fell in-between. But our mission statement and our history say that we need both. In other words, Bishop Jones is correct. In order for us to embrace the full call of our denomination, we need both. We need conservatives to hold us accountable for our lack of evangelism and we need progressives to hold us accountable to be the Body of Christ healing the world. The left wing and right wing keep the bird flying straight.
Our left wing and right wing keep our denomination going in the right direction even with the tension that we live in. And that, in a nutshell, is why I support the One Church Plan.
Here are just a few other pieces of insight:
1) None of us really agree about the role of Scripture. We are often told that progressive don’t take scripture seriously – that the Bible is unequivocally our prime authority. The survey tells us that only 41% of conservatives view Scripture as our prime authority. Granted that is far more that progressives and moderates, but as someone in the moderate camp who does believe Scripture comes first I think this is a significant issue.
2) Progressives do take the Bible more seriously than they are accused of. When asked more specifically about how they understand the Bible, virtually nobody in any theological camp dismissed it as just an old book. 2/3 of progressives still call it inspired. I am equally disappointed in the 1/3 of progressives who don’t think it is inspired as I am by the 30% of traditionalists who call it the “actual word of God and should be taken literally.” That is a fundamentalist view. Broken down, then, roughly 15% of UMs take a fundamentalist view, roughly 15% take a view clearly outside of our doctrinal standards, and the remaining 70% have an understanding someplace in between.
3) There is remarkable agreement in many theological views. If you read the full report you’ll see a series of theological statements that, with the exception of a belief in a literal hell, show a strong level of consistency. And also show no unanimity even among the three theological groupings.