A new United Methodist evangelical group urged bishops and other church leaders to find a way to hold clergy accountable on matters of sexuality or prepare for a denominational split.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association, holding its inaugural meeting in Chicago with more than 1,700 in attendance, affirmed a statement by saying “Amen” en masse. A small number of those at the gathering were there to observe and did not vote.
The gathering drew mostly people from the United States but also some United Methodists from across the African continent. The multinational United Methodist Church has about 12.4 million members in North America, Africa, Asia and Europe.
The association’s statement is addressed to the Commission on the Way Forward, which the Council of Bishops is still forming to review church polices on homosexuality and work toward church unity.
“We believe it is imperative for the commission to propose a plan that calls for accountability and integrity to our covenant, and restores the good order of our church’s polity,” the association’s statement said.
If the commission decides such a plan is impossible, the association says the group “should prepare a plan of separation that honors the consciences of all the people of the church and allows them to go forward in peace and good will.”
The Rev. Chris Ritter, one of the association’s organizers and directing pastor of a multi-site United Methodist congregation around Geneseo, Illinois, introduced the statement to those assembled. He said it calls for the virtues of integrity and accountability.
“If we are one church, we need to stop acting like two churches,” he said. “If we are two churches, we need to stop pretending we are one. I say this as someone who has worked for unity of the church.”
The Council of Bishops executive committee announced Oct. 5 that it is notifying eight bishops, 13 other clergy and eight laity of their nomination to serve on the commission. The bishops have not made their names public. However, the bishops already are getting pushback from United Methodists across the theological spectrum about the lack of lay representation among the nominees.
The group has committed to pray for the commission. The group’s statement expresses a hope for the commission’s unity work but also asks for a possible contingency plan if matters come to a head.
“We are not here to promote schism,” the Rev. Rob Renfroe, one of the group’s organizers, announced during the group’s morning session. “But we are certainly not here to be naïve either. Change is coming to The United Methodist Church. We all know that. The bishops know that.”
Source of contention
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s book of teachings and law, has stated since 1972 that all individuals are of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
A majority of delegates to General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly that typically meets every four years, has consistently voted to keep that language. Over the years, the lawmaking body has increased restrictions related to homosexuality.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association’s membership regards United Methodist teachings on homosexuality as biblical orthodoxy and supports the denomination’s ban on same-sex unions and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.
Given that track record, Renfroe described the new association as the “true centrists” within the denomination. He also is the president of the evangelical advocacy group Good News, which has worked to maintain church teachings on homosexuality.
However, church debate about these rules has intensified as more countries, including the United States, recognize same-gender civil marriage, and more United Methodist clergy publicly have defied their denomination’s prohibitions.
This summer, multiple conferences and two jurisdictions in the United States passed non-binding resolutions urging United Methodists to ignore the Book of Discipline’s bans on same-sex unions and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. The New York Conference in June also commissioned and ordained four openly gay clergy. Meanwhile, bishops in the U.S. Southeastern Jurisdiction described such of acts of noncompliance as “divisive and disruptive.”
Also intensifying the debate is the Western Jurisdiction’s election of Bishop Karen Oliveto, who is openly gay and married to a deaconess. She now leads United Methodists in the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone conferences.
No local option
The group’s statement encouraged the bishops to call a special General Conference in 2018 to consider the commission’s recommendations. It also said that any form of the “local option,” leaving questions of ordination and marriage up to congregations or conferences, will not be acceptable to the members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.
The Rev. Bob Kaylor, pastor of Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church in Monument, Colorado, is a pastor in the area Oliveto now leads. He does not want the church to alter its teachings on homosexuality and acknowledges that is a minority view in his conference.
“I think it’s prudent to have a contingency plan,” he told United Methodist News Service. “I am hopeful that when the dust clears there will be a place for mission, discipleship and a rebirth for the Wesleyan movement. I sense that here.”
The Rev. Pat Bodenhamer, a pastor at Gravette United Methodist Church in Arkansas, said as a lifelong United Methodist it breaks her heart that “we’re to that point” that denominational split is on the table.
She hopes the commission will receive the statement as a sign “of our deep concern for the church.”
“I hope the commission hears us and senses that we’re serious,” she said. “It’s a seriousness of the Spirit."
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]