As churches in the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church go through the discernment process about whether to disaffiliate, I’ve gotten wind of a fresh wave of disinformation and misrepresentation about the future of the UMC being told by advocates of disaffiliation. It seems only right to address some of those misrepresentations head on. I’ll take them in turn.
I’d like to point out that not all advocates of disaffiliation (probably not even most) are participating in this disinformation campaign, but those who are are loud enough to overshadow the others.
Additionally, I’d like to point out for fairness’ sake that this discussion necessarily oversimplifies complex issues of theology and doctrine and falls into the error of creating monolithic categories where there is diversity of thought. But, this is a blog post, not a full-length book, and I must resort to these shortcuts in service to some modicum of efficiency. Keep in mind that the statements that follow intend to follow major trends in thought rather than to be definitive; please read as such. Both conservative and progressive members of the UMC have a diversity of belief in the particulars of all the issues discussed below.
Theology and Doctrine
Claims are being made that the progressives, like myself, within the United Methodist Church don’t believe in the following:
- The authority of Scripture.
- The Trinity.
- The Resurrection of Jesus.
I’m not aware of any pastor or layperson within the Texas Conference of the UMC who does not believe in these things. Before delving into details, I’d also like to point out that the ordination process in the United Methodist Church is a rigorous, difficult, and long one. Candidates are tested as to their belief in UMC theology, doctrine and polity, and I cannot think of a Board of Ordained Ministry that would recommend for commissioning or ordination a candidate who did not subscribe to the above.
My cynical suspicion is that the people pushing these lies want you to believe that progressive pastors are themselves liars who obfuscated their true beliefs to become inside agents of the destruction of the UMC. Such conspiracies have no basis in reality, and this slander should be seen for the purely ad hominem attack that it is. Nevertheless, let’s address the assertions.
Authority of Scripture
What conservatives mean when they say that we, as progressives, do not believe in the authority of Scripture is that we don’t hold the same view of Scripture that conservatives do. It is true that progressives tend to: view the Scriptures with more nuance, use a larger set of critical tools to search for meaning, reject the idea that the superficial meaning is always the correct one, acknowledge that there are places where passages disagree with one another and must be synthesized, and believe that human minds participated in the creation of Scripture.
This is not a rejection of the statement that Scripture is “God-breathed” or that Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation–these are core beliefs of United Methodist Church doctrine and of the clergy and laypersons who make up its membership. The disaffiliation of conservatives from the UMC will not change that.
It is, however, largely a rejection of certain interpretive stances that tend to be taken by conservatives. We reject that the Bible provides easy and binary answers to the difficult questions of life and existence without critical interpretation. Thus, while there are certainly some statements within Scripture that ought to be read literally, we reject a blanket literal reading of the text as a matter of course.
I would, personally, argue that the conservative stance about “Biblical authority” often falls into the error of elevating Scripture beyond its proper place in our faith. Ultimate authority derives from the Trinitarian God, not a written text. I follow theologian Karl Barth’s statement that the greatest gift of the Scripture is that it brings us to a personal encounter with the Living God, not that it provides an easy manual for the living of life. There are many things the Bible is not clear about–Jesus speaks in parables doesn’t he?–but there is one thing that Scripture makes absolutely clear without equivocation or nuance: that we are to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. With that foundation, I believe that the ambiguity in the Bible prepares us for the ambiguity of life and existential questions far better than any literal text ever could. I have written about these things in more depth in other posts on the blog.
These stances are very different from the statement that progressives “do not believe in the authority of Scripture.” My own moment of conversion happened while participating in a program to read the entire Bible in ninety days; I will never take the stance that there is no power and authority in the Bible–but I believe that God’s authority is superior to Scripture, that the Bible is not the fourth person of the Trinity, that the example of Christ, as God on Earth, is the clearest indication of God’s will and should be adhered to when other parts of the Bible seem to disagree, and that the conservative treatment of Scripture is at best misguided and at worst idolatry. I know no Methodist who would reject Scripture as having authority or value or being inspired by God.
There is a specific example pointed to in making these assertions, and I’ll address it shortly.
In all honesty, I’m not sure of the basis for this assertion. For many progressives, the focus of God’s plan is not on God’s glory (as many conservatives seem to believe, and which strikes me as something that needs no action from mankind) but in relationship, in that relationship of perfect love between all things that brings a joy that never ends. Given the focus on relationship, the mystery of the Trinity is a powerful and central one in progressive faith, for it is the image of God in relationship with God’s self just as the Incarnation affirms God’s relationship with us; the perichoresis of the three persons of the Trinity represents the perfection to which we are called.
The Resurrection of Jesus
Again, I’m not sure who is being pointed to here as an example of this assertion; I certainly know no pastor within the UMC who does not believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus. This would be contrary to UMC doctrine and I have a hard time believing that anyone holding this position would make it to ordination as a pastor.
While the argument could be made that there is a difference between historical truth and existential truth, and thus the resurrection of Jesus could be indicative of God’s plan for us even if it did not happen, that is not a stance I know anyone (myself included) within the UMC to have taken. While it might be fair to say that progressive tend to take a more skeptical view on issues of Biblical historicity, there are limits to that skepticism. Conveniently, those limits are described in the various creeds. At my home church, a UMC church in Houston that could be staunchly placed on the progressive side of UMC issues, we say the Apostle’s Creed every Sunday. This, of course, confesses a belief in the resurrection of Jesus.
I have heard from several people–all intelligent, conscientious, and with a history of membership in the UMC–who are being told that, should they stay with the UMC instead of disaffiliating, they should expect to have a gay or transgender person leading their church as a senior or associate pastor.
My first response is to say, “so what?” There’s an assumption in this statement that a member of the LGBTQIA community cannot pastor as effectively as a straight, cis-gender person. At the churches I have attended throughout most of my life, the congregants tend to be well-educated white people of substantial means. People, like those of the LGBTQIA community, who have experienced othering, persecution (actual persecution, none of this “war on Christianity” drivel) and existence as an outsider have something to offer us that other cis-gendered white people from “comfortable” backgrounds cannot, just as people of color, with differences in theology, from different nations and other experiences do.
My second response is to question the logistics of such an assertion. The exclusivity of the UMC’s official position on homosexuality, pushed by the conservatives all these decades, have driven most members of the LGBTQIA community out of the church. Of those who remain, even fewer are clergy–the cost of ordination in the UMC as a gay person is to forsake romantic relationships, and that is an unfathomable burden. Simply put, there are not, and probably never will be (if we go by statistics) enough ordained members of the LGBTQIA community within the UMC to appoint one to every church. And that’s a shame. More important for this conversation, it shows the ridiculousness of the assertion in the first place.
Ms. Penny Cost
This is a name I’ve only first heard in the past few weeks. Ms. Penny Cost is the drag queen alter-ego of Isaac Simmons, a candidate for ordination in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the UMC. She has been used by the conservative proponents of the GMC as a bogeywoman for those on the fence about disaffiliation, as if, the moment disaffiliation from the UMC is complete, those of us who remain will ensure that someone like Ms. Cost is appointed to every single church in the denomination so that moderate members of the UMC can be confronted by gender and sexuality issues at every service.
Again, I personally say, “so what?” Ms. Cost either has something to offer her congregation or she doesn’t, and that has little to do with her clothing or appearance. As important, diversity of viewpoints is one of the strengths of the UMC that is often lauded by progressives; it is something we hope to preserve in our church. That means that there will be diversity of identity and theological positions (within the doctrines of the UMC) between pastors and different congregations. There’s been no movement or suggestion that only female pastors, or pastors of color, be ordained to make up for their exclusion in the past, and no such notion will take place with respect to gender identities and sexual orientation. As a practical matter, members of the UMC will continue to have options to find a church where they feel welcome and appointments of clergy will continue to be made with consideration of how a particular congregation might feel about the appointment of a particular individual. Between you and me, I’d also argue that discomfort in the name of spiritual growth isn’t a bad thing.
But Ms. Penny Cost has suffered more than having her identity used to scare conservative-leaning moderates. She has been lied about.
First, the way I hear it told, they (Simmons and Cost) are described by conservatives as an ordained person within their conference (presumably to argue about how the conference is breaking the rules of the UMC polity). They are not; Simmons is a candidate for ordination. Further, there is nothing about Simmons (provided that he not engage in a same-sex relationship) that would prohibit him from being ordained under the current rules of the UMC.
As concerning, Ms. Cost is being pointed to as “evidence” that progressives do not believe in the Bible. It is true that Ms. Cost’s website has a video of Simmons entitled “The Bible is Nothing…” on its front page (www.mspennycost.com). Let the pearl-clutching ensue!
What is not stated is that the video entitled “The Bible is Nothing…” is not a statement of belief–it’s a performed poem. Nor is the title intended to be taken literally. If I interpret the poem properly, it is a statement that the Bible has no power when we refuse to follow its teachings by standing for justice. That is not a controversial statement, and you could find many beliefs similar to those expressed in Simmons’ poem in the Book of Ecclesiastes (I have to credit K for this observation). It is, perhaps, poetic that conservatives cannot seem to see past the literal to the true meaning. But it’s also infuriating, saddening and a little scary that they cannot or will not do so.
Elsewhere on the site, Simmons/Cost expresses a sincere belief in the doctrine of the UMC. This includes the authority of Scripture. Mischaracterizing them for shock value is shameful.
A Final Thought
My own personal meditations of late have focused on my struggle to see those with whom I disagree not as adversaries, but as siblings in Christ to be treated with love, compassion and respect. There are some people, particularly those within my own family, for which this comes easily, even when we disagree. I am comfortable assuming that they have come to their beliefs in good faith and with due consideration. But they have not (and I expect will not) participate in the kind of slander and misinformation I’ve spent this post opposing. For those who do, the task is substantially harder.
But that is what Jesus calls us to, to love our enemies to the point where we no longer think that they are enemies. To pursue justice and fairness through means that do not other or denigrate those we believe responsible for injustice. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, to be sure, but one that offers peace.
It is, perhaps, the most quintessential struggle of politics within the United States and the UMC. How we pursue justice is important and how we treat those who are ideologically opposed to us matters.