In every crisis there is an opportunity, and in the current crisis of the United Methodist Church there is an opportunity for us to rediscover the roots of our Methodist identity. According to Merriam-Webster such moments are ‘radical:’ ‘of, relating to, or proceeding from a root.’
The roots of my Methodist identity have led me to this ‘radical’ conclusion: a church-wide policy and practice of marriage equality and ordination of LGBTQIA believers who are called to ministry are the faithful fruit of our Methodist roots.
Anything less—such as the One Church Plan disguised in the UMC Next’s plan—or anything that delays this—such as the Connectional Table’s U.S. Regional Conference proposal—poisons those roots and will bear bad fruit.
What are the roots of Methodism? Simply put, it is Jesus Christ in your heart. It is the love of God which we have been given in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit forgiving, freeing, reforming, and animating us from the inside out to love others, especially our enemies and opponents, and to do the works of mercy, justice and peace in the name of Jesus. It is the Spirit of the risen Christ filling us with love to be the agents of liberation.
For those keeping score of my theology, this is the doctrine of holiness, sanctification, Christian perfection, perfect love to use Wesleyan parlance. It is theosis, to put it on the broader theological map. The doctrinal basis for this is a thorough-going Trinitarian understanding of God that includes a deeply orthodox affirmation of the Incarnation.
I know that there are other progressive United Methodists that arrive at these non-negotiables by way of liberal Protestant theology. But not me. When I speak of divine love, it is not an abstract ideal or a human aspiration; it is the gift of the Holy Spirit. When I talk about the Incarnation, it is not the watered-down reinterpretation of the creeds; it is the actual hypostatic union of the Second Person of the Trinity kind-of-stuff. Ireneaus and Athanasius, as well as Cone and Gutiérrez, inform and inspire my thinking.
The root of Methodism produces radical fruit. If you really believe in Orthodox teachings then this heart-felt religion is no opiate of the masses or Americanized consumerist faith. True Methodism includes both altar calls and picket lines. If it is really Jesus the Incarnate and Risen One in your heart then it will lead you to acts of nonconformity and liberation. The Jesus who is in your heart was the one who confronted the Pharisees, fed the hungry, ate with the outcasts, and ran the money changers out of the Temple. He will do no less when he takes up residency in your heart.
Just as Jesus lives in my heart, so too does Jesus live in the hearts of my LGBTQIA kinfolk. I have experienced the witness of the Holy Spirit in them. They manifest the fruit and the gifts of the Spirit. They lead our churches in the Spirit and they witness to the love of Christ. Any interpretation of scripture that rejects their ministries and marriages is an interpretation that blasphemes the Holy Spirit.
Despite our sexual and gender differences, there is a deeper spiritual unity. Out of this spiritual unity comes the affirmation—not the suppression—of our diversity. It is an affirmation grounded in the Incarnation, and the Holy Spirit creates this unity without uniformity. This unity in the Spirit of Christ is the fundamental nature of the church. This is the root definition of a Methodist church.
If this is the root of Methodism, then the work of the Holy Spirit takes precedence over organizational unity and institutional preservation. This is why the starting point for renewal must include
‘church-wide protection against discrimination based on race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or economic condition, and that practices full itinerancy of LGBTQIA+ pastors and same-sex weddings in all their churches (Indianapolis Plan, Basic Provision #5).’
Many centrists argue that we need to give people time to grow into this, that you cannot dump it on them. They are partially right; one dimension of sanctification is gradual growth in grace. However, gradualism applies to the individual’s faith development. It should not be the official policy of the denomination. Making gradualism our policy does nothing but grieve the Holy Spirit and poisons the roots of Methodism.
Indeed, for me—a straight, white guy—to continue to make progress toward Christian perfection means that I need to be part of a church with such a clear policy that creates the kinds of practices and relationships that decenter my privileged sins and challenges me to receive the Holy Spirit through others who are different from me.
Given the current political dynamics in the UMC, I feel that the only option, at this time, is to support the formation of a new Methodist denomination whose orientation is this kind of holiness. I do not believe it is possible for the United Methodist Church to become that kind of church. Our dysfunction is too deeply entrenched. Unity for the sake of institutional preservation (disguised in the rhetoric of “missional” and “global”) reinforces relationships and attitudes that do not foster the love of Jesus in our hearts.
What we must seek is revival. A revival of holy love is the roots of Methodism. In the future, God will give us new forms of unity, but only after we return to our roots.
[Postscript: Given the recent development of Protocols for separation, the possibility of a liberationist Methodist denomination remains unclear. I have real concerns about its practical viability. In that case, we may not see the formation of a denomination but rather an association within the post-separation UMC that looks different from the current progressive caucuses. Revival takes many forms but what is clear is that it will not find expression in the current political organizations whose livelihood is drawn from this present conflict.]