The World Methodist Conference is, by and large, a feel-good event. Once every five years, denominational representatives from around the globe gather for preaching, teaching, singing and celebrating their common Wesleyan heritage.
But the current conference, underway through Sept. 3 in Houston took a somber turn when one speaker frankly addressed the schism threat in The United Methodist Church over the issue of homosexuality.
The Rev. Ted Campbell, a United Methodist elder and professor at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, argued in his Sept. 1 plenary address that the denomination cannot hold together.
“The question at this point is not whether we divide or not,” said Campbell, standing under a “One” sign that signified the unity theme of the conference. “That I fear is a given now.”
Campbell’s talk brought a response from United Methodist Bishop Bruce R. Ough, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops. The council is, at the direction of the 2016 General Conference, preparing to name a commission that will study and consider revisions in church policies on homosexuality.
“I think it’s helpful to have voices that are being realistic about how divided we are,” Ough said in an interview after Campbell’s talk. “At the same time, I believe it’s important that we not start the work of the commission making assumptions that we’re already divided and there’s no way back.”
Essentials and non-essentials
Campbell used much of his talk for what amounted to a church history lesson, rooted in the old saying (often incorrectly attributed to John Wesley, he noted) that a church should have “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
Rupertus Meldenius, the 17th century Lutheran who introduced the phrase, meant the church should have unity in necessary beliefs, flexibility in other beliefs, and a charitable attitude regarding both.
Campbell noted that a large majority of delegates to recent United Methodist General Conferences have voted to uphold restrictive church law regarding homosexuality.
“So this matter now has the functional status of an ‘essential’ or ‘necessary’ teaching alongside the teachings of the ancient church and the Reformation and the Wesleyan movement as something that unites and divides us,” he said.
Campbell pointed out that some United Methodist annual conferences disagree so strongly with church law on homosexuality that they have passed non-conformity resolutions. That includes ignoring the restriction against ordaining “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.
“When annual conferences declare that they will not follow the law of the church, I think that is in fact a division,” Campbell said.
Though his talk was scholarly, Campbell shared a story about a Perkins student whom he described as the school’s academic star and one whose commitment to prayer exceeded Campbell’s own and that of most other faculty.
But the man eventually left school, understanding that his homosexuality would prevent his ordination in The United Methodist Church.
“These problems are not hypothetical,” Campbell said. “They take the form of real human beings.”
Campbell asked the World Methodist Conference audience to pray for The United Methodist Church and offer it counsel and other support.
Ough said he approached Campbell — his friend for years — after the address to counter the view that the denomination can’t hold together.
“I think it’s far more helpful, and also far more faithful, to assume that God’s imagination is greater than our impoverished imagination, and that if we surrender to that we might discover ways to be together that might look different, but nonetheless continue and affirm our unity,” Ough said.
Campbell said a few hours after the address that he’d heard from many United Methodists at the conference who were grateful he’d spoken on the subject.
The Rev. Robert J. Williams, retired top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, said he appreciated how Campbell built a case through the first part of the address by looking at how the church, particularly the Wesleyan branch, has grappled with doctrine over the centuries.
“It was so substantive, solid,” Williams said. “It was really seminary, graduate school-level teaching.”
Williams also appreciated Campbell’s candor about The United Methodist Church’s troubles.
“I don’t think I would have the courage, in this setting, to put it out the way that Ted did,” Williams said.
Claudio Paravati, a layman in the Evangelical Methodist Church in Italy who is here for the conference, said he believed Wesleyans around the world will indeed support The United Methodist Church through prayer and other ways.
“We are one people,” he said. “We are ready to give what we can.”
Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]