Can You be A Compatibilist & United Methodist?

It has become the standard United Methodist worldview that the denomination is made up of five major groups—traditional incompatibilists, traditional compatibilists, moderate compatibilists, progressive compatibilists, and progressive incompatibilists—and that the vast majority of United Methodists are in the middle three groups, but the incompatibilists on both ends are pulling us apart.

It is true that the composition of the denomination is complex and there are multiple positions. A color photo is often better than a black and white snapshot.  

But take a moment and question whether this standard view is in focus.

First, the panoramic description has a quasi-scientific feel to it, which gives it an authoritative glow. But the research on what United Methodists believe is limited and more complex than the label “compatibilist” suggests. Over the past few years there has been some shifting of views among North American United Methodists on the issues of sexuality. However, the majority hold “traditional” and “moderate” views on other religious beliefs.

The label “compatibilist” implies that the typical United Methodist congregation or member has a well-formed opinion. Most have not. Indeed, most of our churches have never talked about the issue. And most members see the issue solely in terms of their local church. It might be that the label “compatibilist” gives the appearance of a coherent position when, in reality, it reflects a mish-mash of ideas and a predilection for avoiding the logical consequences of one’s beliefs. So, other descriptors are just as apt: “contradictory,” “undecided,” or even “polite.”

(For more, read about a 2015 poll on sexuality and a 2019 poll on general theological perspectives among United Methodists. See also, sociologist James Wood’s analysis of General Conference delegates in his excellent but dated book Where the Spirit Leads: The Evolving Views of United Methodists on Homosexuality)

Second, the accepted view of reality implies that the denomination has been compatibilist up until St. Louis. Like it or not, our official stance has always been “traditional incompatiblism” that for 47 years has been eliminating the loopholes that allowed for a defacto compatiblism. St. Louis just exposed the ugly truth of our incompatibilism. All statements of inclusion to the contrary may unwittingly serve to mask the legal reality. In short, our system is incompatible with compatibilism.

All this raises two fundamental questions for those who claim to be “compatibilists:”

  • With what are you compatible? Progressive compatibilists must compromise their belief that LGBTQ believers should be treated equally in the church. If the shoe was on the other foot, traditional compatibilists would have to compromise their belief that biblical prohibitions on homosexual behavior must be followed. These beliefs are paramount, not things that one should compromise.
  • For what are you compatible? Those in favor of keeping the denomination intact make the argument that “we are better together.” They are willing to compromise their principles of human rights or biblical authority for something they believe is more important. What is that? Organizational loyalty? Missional effectiveness? Have these become buzzwords that have lost their integrity?

Third, the perceived reality serves a purpose for moderate leaders. It allows them to think that they are above the conflict and thus are the only ones who can lead the denomination. This can be rather patronizing and dismissive (Who wants to be called an “incompatibilist”?).  For moderates who want the denomination to stay intact, the idea of “compatibilists” is a powerful argument.

Thomas Lambrecht recently called out moderates who claim to be “compatibilists” but now advocate for inclusion of LGBTQ persons.  He accurately pointed out that they are talking out of both sides of their mouths.

All this raises a question for moderates: What exactly do you mean by inclusion?

Sometimes, I get the impression that for some moderates the only reason they want queer folk in the church is to reassure themselves that they are not bigots.

Tokenism is no substitute for true inclusion.

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An Open Table Post-GC 2019?

“Open table”—the belief that everyone is invited to receive communion—is a very popular United Methodist belief. It is a favorite rationale of moderates and progressives to argue for the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons. Yet, it has a different meaning for traditionalists who also believe that the table is open to all who repent of their sins, including the sin of homosexual behavior.

This Maundy Thursday post-St. Louis, we are confronted by our differences in the sacrament. Spread out on the table are the central questions facing us: What is inclusion? What is sin?

As a progressive United Methodist, I believe in the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons and I believe our understanding of the Lord’s Supper supports it. But the sacrament supports inclusion in ways that my fellow progressives do not understand.

Progressives have arrived at the right conclusion based on the wrong interpretation of Wesley. “Open table” does not mean that anyone can or should take communion regardless of their intentions, beliefs or desires. Wesley was not making a sacrament of modern liberal ideas of tolerance and equality.

Yet, Wesleyan theology works on a deeper, richer level that can enrich and reform our progressive convictions.

Listen in a new key to Charles’ hymn, “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast”:

“Come, sinners, to the gospel feast, 
let every soul be Jesus’ guest. 
Ye need not one be left behind, 
for God hath bid all humankind.”

First, we ALL come to the table as sinners in need of grace. Straight and LGBTQ alike are sinners, persons alienated and rebelling against God. On that, all United Methodists can agree. But, the sin is not in one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. More so, it is not a sin to express romantic love to someone of the same sex or gender. This is where I and my traditionalists brothers and sisters disagree.

The sin is not in who we love but how we love. Straight and LGBTQ believers are held to the same standard of bearing the fruit of the Spirit in all relationships. And the gift of the Holy Spirit empowers both LGBTQ and straight believers to produce that fruit in all their relationships, romantic and otherwise.

Just as we share the same sins, we express the same desire for Christ. This is the only criterion for receiving the Lord’s Supper. Do you want Jesus in your heart?

Second, we ALL receive God’s grace at the table:

“Let every soul be Jesus guest…the invitation is to all.”

LGBTQ persons receive God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ without having to deny their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Lord’s Supper is  “the grand channel whereby the grace of his Spirit was conveyed to the souls of all the children of God” (Sermon 26: “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount VI”, §III.11) and LGBTQ believers are children of God. As God’s children, the Spirit dwells in them without them having to be straight, act straight, or be celibate.

The mark of discipleship and new life in Christ is not the suppression or denial of one’s sexual orientation or gender identity but love. Both LGBTQ and straight believers alike express the love of Christ to their spouses. We violate belief in salvation by grace through faith when we make heterosexual behavior or celibacy a necessary mark of the new life. The hymn’s promise applies to all believers:

“Jesus to you his fullness brings,
A feast of marrow, and fat things:
All, all in Christ is freely given,
Pardon, and holiness, and heaven.”

You don’t have to be straight, act straight, or be celibate to be a Christian. We are save by grace through faith in Jesus Christ—nothing more, nothing less.

This Maundy Thursday, Christ pleads with LGBTQ seekers to come to the table:

“Do not begin to make excuse; 
ah! do not you his grace refuse;”

Don’t let the hypocrisy and hatred of some Christians turn you away from Jesus:

“your worldly cares and pleasures
leave, and take what Jesus hath to give.”

Leave behind your misdirected desires and malfunctioning anger that keeps you from God’s love. Stop resisting God’s embrace because the church has rejected you:

“Come and partake the gospel feast,
be saved from sin, in Jesus rest; 
O taste the goodness of our God, 
and eat his flesh and drink his blood.”

The Church is constituted at the table. Both straight and LGBTQ believers gather at the table because Christ has called all to repent of their sins and promises to give pardon and holiness and heaven to all believers without requiring them to sacrifice who God made them to be.

The Shape of a New Tent

I wrote in my last post that the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons is a non-negotiable for a progressive vision of a new Methodism. And this non-negotiable may put progressives at odds with moderates. If the church is a big tent and fidelity to Jesus Christ is the pole that holds up the tent, then following Jesus means offering the rites of marriage and ordination to his followers who are LGBTQ so that they can live out their discipleship under that tent.

I serve North United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. North believes

that through God’s redeeming love, all are one in Christ. YOU are welcome at North.

North United Methodist Church is an inclusive and reconciling community. We welcome all regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, domestic or marital status, physical or mental ability, economic status, political affiliation, faith history, education and all other ways in which we are human.

We believe that all have received God’s love and grace. We seek to transform our church and world into the full expression of Christ’s inclusive love. We celebrate the diversity of North Church.

We respect the inherent worth and valuable contributions each member makes to the Body of Christ.

As we journey toward reconciliation, we proclaim this statement of welcome to all who have known the pain of exclusion and discrimination within the church. We welcome all persons to full participation in the life and ministries of North United Methodist Church [North UMC Welcome Statement].

Over the course of thirty years they made steady progress in the practice of inclusion that culminated in becoming a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network. November 9, North will offer a conference for churches wanting to learn how to become inclusive.

However, I have served other, more conservative congregations over the past 29 years. I know that most congregations are not at the same place that North is. Indeed, the great irony is that we are on the verge of separation over an issue that probably 90% of our local churches have never discussed. If full inclusion is to be a non-negotiable, what are we to do with those congregations?

Two things.

One, there must be a window for discernment after the 2020 General Conference for each local church to decide with which denomination to affiliate. That window should be left open for an ample number of years. This will take time because it is a formational issue, not a political one.

Two, in a new Methodism that practices full inclusion, appointment-making must include the empowerment of the local church to determine whether an appointment is appropriate for them. It means that local churches will have more than a consultative role. It means that we will trust the laity and share the decision-making authority. Quite frankly, I have more trust in the laity to do the right thing than my fellow elders.

Some will say that this will be the end of itinerancy. Yes, as we know it. But there can be other forms of itinerancy that do not mistreat local churches by imposing ineffective clergy on them and mistreating pastors with ill-fitted appointments. Regardless of the issue of sexuality, our system does not work very well. The wedge issue of homosexuality diverts our attention from the dysfunctions that transcend the ideological divide. We must create a connectionalism that is functional.

Some will say this will be the end of connectionalism. Yes, as we know it. But there are other forms of connectionalism—within the larger Wesleyan family and in other denominations such as the Presbyterian Church USA. It is time to do away with our hierarchy and our corporatist practices. That does not mean an end to the episcopacy, but it will certainly entail a radical redefinition of what the title “bishop” means. We must create a connectionalism that is conciliar.

Some will say that this will create a backdoor of discrimination against LGBTQ pastors. That may be true. However, the process of living into full inclusion is as important as the policy of full inclusion. That process must include the difficult work of spiritual formation, pastoral leadership, and trusting the Holy Spirit. It takes more time, but it creates a stronger denomination in the long run.

It is the only way to keep from creating a progressive version of the same kind of coercion operating in our current polity. Beware: A new Methodism could degenerate into cheap identity politics that protects narcissistic and incompetent clergy. The only difference would be that a new Methodism would include both straight and queer ineffective pastors! We must create a connectionalism that is collaborative.

(Of course, a new Methodism can only be birthed–within the United Methodist Church or outside of it–depending on what the 2020 General Conference does.)

Even big tents need tent poles. It is time to stop impaling our LGBTQ members to hold up the United Methodist big tent.

The Progressive Non-Negotiable

There is a lot of talk lately by moderates about being inclusive while at the same time being “compatibilist.” Social media is awash with rainbows and declarations of “I stand with LGBTQ United Methodists” while at the same time spitting and cursing the destruction of the big tent of United Methodism.

It raises a question for Moderates: What is your vision of an inclusive church that includes traditionalists? They want a big tent but even big tents need tent poles.

We all agree that Jesus Christ is the center of the church. But what does that mean in this historical moment?

As a progressive, I believe that our allegiance to Jesus Christ demands our full inclusion of LGBTQ believers. This is a non-negotiable. Here is how I explained it in my sermon on March 3 [hear the full sermon]:

Because the Holy Spirit confirms queer believers, we must embrace them fully and completely. They must be offered all the rites of the church—the rite of marriage to live out their faith in covenant relationships and the rite of ordination so they can fulfill what God has called them to do.

In the new Methodism, the debate is over. There is no place anymore for equivocating on this issue. For forty seven years we have argued and studied and fussed about this. For forty seven years General Conference has turned against this notion. And for forty seven years our LGBTQ kin have been inflicted with that pain. In a new Methodism the pain ends. It is beyond debate.

Now that may sound like I am violating the very notion of inclusion because the argument goes that if you are going to be inclusive you should include people who do not agree with you.

Let me draw this analogy: In 1968 when the United Methodist Church was founded it became a church that was explicitly, officially opposed to racism.  In our [denomination’s] Constitution it says that persons of color are full members of the church. It is the official teaching. We are clearly an anti-racist denomination.

That does not mean that there are not individual members who are racist. There are—I’m related to most of them! But we did not leave that to be a local option. It was beyond debate. And we have lived with that.

No, it needs to be clear, unambiguous, non-debatable: LGBTQ persons will be fully included in membership and leadership. We welcome folks who may be struggling with the issue of accepting LGBTQ persons, but we are going to help them along and be patient with them under the umbrella of a church that practices the full inclusion of our queer members.

A democratic society is about balancing power and competing interests. Equality is the basis for inclusion that is the unity of a donut. But that is not the church. The church is not society. The church is the community of Divine Love. And in Divine Love those with more power and comfort make a way for those who have been rejected. Love is the basis for inclusion in a unity of the Spirit of Christ.

I am a straight white man. And issues of sexuality make me feel uncomfortable. That’s a need that I have; I have a need to be made comfortable. But my need is secondary to the greater needs of LGBTQ persons who have been rejected from the church. Specifically, what comes first are the needs of millennial LGBTQ persons who have contemplated or attempted suicide. My need to be comfortable takes a back seat to their need to live!

My need to be comfortable in the church, for you to not disturb me with something that might make me feel uncomfortable, is secondary to the needs of people who have been turned away from the church for decades because they have seen what has happened and they say, “I’m never going to church ever again.”

Yes, I have a need, but my need comes second in the community of Divine Love. And I can scoot over in the pew. You know what it’s like to sit in the pew. You have those nice pew pads and you create a groove because you have been sitting there for years. And it fits just right. You know that if you scoot over you will have to sit on the hump. Nobody wants to sit on the hump. Well, scoot on over. Sit on the hump because there are some folks who have never had a place in our pews.

In the new Methodism there will be full inclusion of LGBTQ persons into membership and leadership and that debate is over. Because what did Paul say about love? “Love does not insist on its own way.”  

While my other posts represent my own views, this affirmation represents the church I serve, North United Methodist Church. November 9, North will be offering a one-day conference for churches wanting to learn how to become inclusive.

However, I have served other, more conservative congregations over the past 29 years. I know that most congregations are not at the same place that North is. Indeed, the great irony is that we are on the verge of separation over an issue that probably 90% of our local churches have never discussed. If full inclusion is to be a non-negotiable, what are we to do with those congregations?

….Read next week’s post.

Only a Trademark?

In his post-General Conference podcast, Adam Hamilton recounted his spiritual journey from the Holiness Tradition of his undergraduate days at Oral Roberts University to finding a home in the United Methodist Church. For him and many of us, United Methodism has been the sweet spot that combines personal piety and social concern. It brings together conservatives, moderates and liberals as a big diverse family.

The outcome of St. Louis is truly the demise of the denomination as a big family. Rightly so, moderates and progressives are going through the stages of grief of the denomination as the matriarch.

But maybe we need to see the United Methodist Church through a different metaphor. Instead of familial images, we should see the denomination as a corporation.

The corporate metaphor echoes what our leaders have been promoting for years. We have talked about “making disciples” like a corporation markets its services to consumers. We have assessed our “fruitfulness” with quantitative metrics through “vital sign” reports. This is no accident. Our leaders have consciously, enthusiastically adopted the tactics and strategies of Corporate America without a hint of critical self-reflection.

The metaphor fits our size and practices. Increasingly, itinerancy and the covenant of ministry reflect a corporatist approach. For example, my district has over a hundred churches. Due to an economy of scale for appointment-making, pastors are known, good or ill, by truncated descriptions. Our anxiety over numerical growth is a religious version of a corporation’s market share.  Like corporate marketing, buzz words, like “missional,” abound. We confuse mere rhetoric for real transformative ministry.

We are the victims of our own marketing because our real problem was never effectiveness but authenticity.

One prescient way to understand what happened in St. Louis is to think of “United Methodist Church” as a trademark. For progressives, the trademark was tarnished beyond repair. The brand is now inseparably linked with the traditionalist agenda.

If it is only a trademark, then let the traditionalists have it. Let them have full reign over the rebranding process.

The trademark problem may largely be an American issue. Outside the United States the label “United Methodist” is more than branding. In the former Soviet Union countries, the organizational lineage has legal ramifications. In parts of Africa it has vital poignancy. All the more reason, traditionalists should probably keep the title.

To be sure, vast parts of the denomination will not follow the traditionalists, regardless of the trademark. For example, most of our colleges, universities and seminaries will refuse to be defined by the brand. In the next few years, the various parts of the denomination could realign with a yet-to-be named denomination.

In other words, even though the trademark “United Methodist Church” will be traditionalist, “United Methodism” as an ethos that Hamilton and others love will continue. It will just be under a different name. For the sake of creating closure at the 2020 General Conference, it is prudent that moderates and progressives start seeing the difference between the trademark “United Methodist Church” and the ethos of United Methodism.

It may be that the unintended gift of separation will be the opportunity to disentangle the spirit of United Methodism from the spirit of capitalism. A new Methodism will carry the best of United Methodism with it while leaving the worst of it behind. What needs to be left behind is the corporatism, which is a problem that goes beyond the issue of sexuality. Quite literally, we will not be able to afford it.

And that’s a good thing. The hope is that a new Methodism can become a real church family of God’s grace.

For more perspective order my book The Secret Transcript of the Council of Bishops

“Done!” a Poem by Brenda Wills

My friend Rev. Brenda Wills from OI AC who worshiped with us at North while she sojourned in Indiana for a couple of years sent me this poem. She wrote it in the wake of the 2012 GC. Thanks, Brenda!

DONE!

More icicles in the middle of March

Yet yesterday 

      the checkered lily bloomed, 

and tiny tulips.

I had just tasted fresh greens and planted seeds: 

beets, parsnips, rutabagas, lettuce, leeks

Then ten inches of snow. 

     DONE!  Done with cold and wet.

Will growth – spring -new life –

    God 

 ever come back to this place again? 

I am so DONE with winter!

Done!

A body too ill to live, 

Too infused , pumped, drugged

  to die.

She might have said, “I am so done with living!”

   Yet her voice was unheard.

DONE!

Waiting for his children to find healing 

     in his dying

  He waited, they watched,

They knew but needed to live into that knowing.

Finally he moved on without them 

  and they followed.

I am so done with church

     Methodist not united.

     Critical care needed

Life support: physical and prayer 

   pouring in

      bleeding out

Is this church going to survive?

I do not really expect acceptance – love- welcome.

  When it comes 

   I question – deflect – distrust

      Love in the un-tied Methodist church.

I am so done with church

  Absent vital signs disguised by life support

Perhaps God moves on without us, 

   inviting us to follow.

God understanding why we hold on

  unwilling to trust the resurrection

  resisting eternal transformation.

Letting go of old dust 

  to blow into star dust

becoming new life dust

DONE!

And still…

I saw the checkered lily bloom, AGAIN!

   Hope seen AGAIN in green spouts, 

         bursting branches

I KNOW it is spring and 

  I KNOW winter is worthy of thanksgiving.

I KNOW both / all are needed

  I feel conflict when joy meets dead

     Whole meets broken

      Sin shows up again, in me.

And the church:  

   deep joy in connecting hand to heart

      In music, song, ritual, sacred story

While belief claims God hates, kills, 

  un-welcomes some from 

     a banquet of transforming love.

Hope & home with anger and despair —

  right on the cross together

How might I be torn open by love

   in the heart place

     and be reborn?

It is coming home to myself

  Inviting full presence

Giving my queer or questioning voice 

      to the conversation.

  No longer silent.

Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn’t been opened…

  But I saw the checkered lily bloom, again!

6/10/12 Reverend Brenda S. Wills

read – June 13, 2012 at OI RUMs’ 

Annual Conference Coffee House

Posted RUMS website and on GRIEFWORKS  Newsletter JULY 12 

The Burden is On Us to Leave

In Sam Shepard’s play Buried Child the grandson leaves the family farm but returns in the end to keep the dysfunction going. He should have left and kept on driving.

In the United Methodist Church, the burden is on us progressives to leave. And it should be. General Conference after General Conference had drifted rightward on the issues of sexuality and the most recent General Conference confirmed that direction to the point of no return. And so, it falls upon us to leave.

This is a hard truth for progressives to accept. We have lobbied and protested for change for years. We have suffered recriminations for our witness. It is very hard to acknowledge “defeat” after all those years of organizing. It makes us feel weak and brings out a fear of being seen as a victim. Yet, developing a martyrdom syndrome is neither politically effective nor emotionally healthy.

This is a hard truth for moderates to accept. General Conferences in the nineties and early 2000s reaffirmed the traditional policies because moderate American delegates acquiesced to the wishes of conservative American delegates—long before there was a marked increase in African delegates. And now the change of heart among moderates is too late. I believe the last realistic chance for something like the One Church Plan was in Pittsburgh 2004. Guilt for past sins of omission is hard to confess.

The political reality necessitates progressives leaving the denomination. It is highly unlikely that this will change in 2020, despite efforts to flip the North American delegations at this summer’s annual conferences.

Not only is our leaving inevitable, it is desirable for our sake. Dr. Jack Jackson, Director of the Center for Global Methodism at Claremont, lays it out in his recent piece for um-insight.net . The denomination is like a dysfunctional family and we should leave for the sake of our emotional and spiritual health. Why keep going back home when Daddy has rejected you year after year? The equivocations of moderates over the years created false hopes that are now exposed.

We are not wanted in the United Methodist Church so let’s be at peace with this and forge a new church family.

Our kinfolk in the Western Jurisdiction seem to be bent on standing their ground. They might have the luxury of doing that because they are, for the most part, protected by the checks and balances in our polity. But for those of us outside the Western Jurisdiction we have no such protection. I am a pastor of an RMN congregation in Indiana. They need to consider the impact their (in)action could have on churches like mine.

Let us forge a new Methodist church family for the sake of all those who have already realized this hard truth. When disgruntled conservatives leave the United Methodist Church they go to another church. But when disillusioned liberals leave the United Methodist Church they stop going to Church. Let’s give them a new Methodist church to come home to.

For more perspective order my book The Secret Transcript of the Council of Bishops