A new evangelical United Methodist group is taking shape just as the denomination’s longtime homosexuality debate appears to be reaching a turning point.
Some United Methodists are anxious about the group. Even before its first gathering set for Oct. 7 in Chicago, the new Wesleyan Covenant Association faced suspicions that it is trying to force a church divide and form a new denomination.
However, that is not the association’s intent, organizers maintain.
“This group was not formed to be the start of a new denomination,” the Rev. Jeff Greenway told United Methodist News Service.
“It was formed to provide a new, broader voice and encouragement to persons who are dedicated to the very best of scriptural Christianity in our Wesleyan, evangelical, orthodox tradition within The United Methodist Church.”
Greenway, the lead pastor of Reynoldsburg United Methodist Church in Ohio, was among nearly 50 United Methodists who gathered to write the group’s bylaws Aug. 1-2 in Houston.
Organizers regard United Methodist teachings on homosexuality as biblical orthodoxy and support the denomination’s ban on same-sex unions and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.
One of the goals is to respond to any recommendations put forth by a special commission the Council of Bishops is appointing to review church policies regarding gays and lesbians.
Depending on what the commission does, Greenway acknowledged the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s direction could change.
“I do not know if the WCA will become the foundational framework for a new denomination. I do know that we are committed to our originating purpose — to advance vibrant, scriptural Christianity within Methodism,” Greenway said.
“My heart has always been to do this within The United Methodist Church. However, it is my sense that a variety of factors other than the WCA will decide what the future holds.”
Bishop Bruce Ough, Council of Bishops president, in a statement listed the new association’s emergence among recent moves that have “fanned the fears of schism.”
Those moves, the Dakotas-Minnesota Area bishop wrote, also include conferences voting noncompliance with restrictions related to homosexuality and the election of the denomination’s first openly gay episcopal leader, Bishop Karen Oliveto. The association announced its launch on June 30 before Oliveto’s election.
Association organizers strongly object to Ough’s characterization, noting they have done nothing to violate the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s governing document.
Greenway noted group organizers are loyal United Methodists who have kept their ordination vows, paid church apportionments and worked to keep fellow evangelicals from leaving the denomination.
Ough told UMNS that he included the association in his statement because “what we see around the church right now are actions and counter-reactions.”
“It’s not a productive pathway for us,” he said. “And I think many — if not most — in the church really do want the commission to succeed, without defining what that success looks like yet.”
The bishops plan to announce the commission’s membership Aug. 31. Bishops also are considering calling a special session of General Conference in 2018 to take up the commission’s recommendations. General Conference is the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly that largely determines the Book of Discipline’s contents.
Reason for a new association
Since 1972, the Book of Discipline has proclaimed the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
For just as long, advocacy groups have been urging the denomination to change what they see as discriminatory teaching while other advocacy groups have worked to hold the line on what they see as a doctrinally required. General Conference has repeatedly upheld this teaching while adding restrictions under church law.
Still another group, the similarly named Wesleyan Covenant Network, tried to get off the ground in 2014. Ultimately, the group folded its work into Seedbed, which provides resources for United Methodists.
The Rev. Maxie Dunnam, retired pastor, seminary president and longtime leader among the denomination’s evangelicals, was one of the network’s organizers. He supports the new Wesleyan Covenant Association and expects it, like the network, to help “provide mutual support” and keep traditionalists within the United Methodist fold.
Unlike the now-defunct network and longtime advocacy groups such as Good News and the Confessing Movement, the new association will rely on its members for governance and financial support. Other advocacy groups are supported by donors and governed by self-perpetuating boards.
The Rev. Madeline Carrasco Henners, association organizer and pastor of First United Methodist Church in Luling, Texas, said the group’s membership will agree to abide by a covenant.
“This is saying we want to become a mutual body of accountability,” Henners said. “The people who become members will help shape what the WCA is, what its purpose is and what it hopes to accomplish.”
Greenway envisions the group collaborating on mission development, leadership training and planting new churches.
Concerns about association
The association’s membership-based structure worries the Rev. Jeremy Smith, prolific blogger on church matters and minister of discipleship at First United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon. He is also part of the Reconciling Ministries Network, which advocates for full LGBTQ inclusion in the church
Smith said the Wesleyan Covenant Association seems distinct from other advocacy groups across the theological spectrum.
“It has membership fees, and it has a structure with voting delegates almost like an annual conference,” he said. "The whole structure feels fundamentally different from minority groups that have worked within Methodism." He added that he wonders if the group is trying to replace the denomination’s structures.
Smith said United Methodism is a big tent, and he hopes it can remain that way.
In recent years, other Protestant denominations after they changed policies on homosexuality have seen evangelical members split off into new denominations.
The North American Lutheran Church formed out of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 2010 after the ELCA ended its ban on the ordination of gay clergy. Since voting to allow pastors to perform same-sex weddings in 2014, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has seen congregations depart and align with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
But even before the denominations changed policies, many traditionalist members already had left — essentially voting with their feet.
The Rev. Carolyn Moore, like other Wesleyan Covenant Association organizers, is hoping like-minded United Methodists will sit tight. She said disobedience to the Book of Discipline has accelerated the group’s desire to make its plans public.
“We want to give folks a place to land while we wait for the commission to perform its function,” said Moore, founding pastor of Mosaic United Methodist Church in Evans, Georgia.
“We are doing our level best to cooperate with the will of the General Conference, and hope that by banding together we will help others to wait and watch the Lord work, too.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].