A new voice appeared this week on the landscape of United Methodism. Or, at least, a new configuration of old voices. Uniting Methodists hopes “to be a unifying and clarifying voice in a divided conversation and a polarized culture.” Asserting that we can live together despite our differences on issues of sexuality, Uniting Methodists seeks to “forge a pathway through the current impasse” by allowing space for that disagreement within our denomination. Prominent United Methodists listed as part of their “team” include Adam Hamilton, Mike Slaughter, and Barbara Boigegrain, General Secretary of Wespath (formerly the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits).
In many ways a movement like Uniting Methodists would seem to be just the place for someone like me. Although I espouse traditional positions on the subject of sexuality I have never been entirely at home in the circles of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and have in fact spent much of my adult life worshiping in Reconciling congregations. I count among my mentors, friends, and confidants United Methodists on all sides of the present schism. Furthermore, I do not think sexual ethics is the deciding issue of our time, when the basic doctrines of the Church—the Trinity, the person of Christ, sanctification—are almost unknown to most United Methodists.
Despite this natural affinity, I am skeptical of Uniting Methodists for two related reasons. The first is the absence of intellectuals on their leadership team. Although I myself have serious reservations about the theological emphases which have made their way into the WCA’s materials, there are professional scholars in their leadership (David Watson of United Seminary, Bill Arnold of Asbury, Billy Abraham of SMU). There are no such scholars on the leadership team of Uniting Methodists. David McAllister-Wilson, although the president of one of our seminaries, does not hold a Ph.D. and is not a scholar. Similarly, James Howell holds a Ph.D. but is a pastor more than a scholar. This omission is puzzling. As someone in the world of United Methodist scholarship, I can assure you there are a great many of us who would be sympathetic to the intentions of this group.
In many ways, this is a nitpicky sort of objection—the kind of thing you would expect from an intellectual, especially when his tribe is the one left out. However, the absence of scholars and intellectuals from the leadership of Uniting Methodists points to a second, more serious problem: simply put, this group advocates no meaningful change. It seems fair to say that this group wishes to see the current status quo continued. Nothing makes this so clear as their name, only a few letters different from the name of the denomination itself. But it is also clear in the theological positions advocated on their website. Three of these positions amount to restatements of official denominational positions (these are Disciples, Evangelism, and Standards). Two advocate for making de jure the current de facto condition of American United Methodism (these are Officiation and Ordination). Only one (Interpretation) might be seen as an actual constructive claim pointing to a way forward, but even that is largely a quarrel of semantics.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association, by contrast, advocates in its written beliefs certain principles which, while not alien to the received faith of our denomination, have never been before elevated to the status of official teaching. For example, the phrase “classical Wesleyan doctrine and the historic faith” expresses the traditionalist ecumenical theology which has become an increasingly important stream in our intellectual life in the years since the formation of the United Methodist Church. One might associate it generally with the heritage of Albert Outler, but more specifically with theologians like Geoffrey Wainwright and the late Thomas Oden. While this has been an important stream, it is by no means a received consensus. The WCA’s embrace of this traditionalist ecumenism is part and parcel of its rejection of theological liberalism, which, in all its varieties, forms another major but non-consensus stream in our received theology. But elevating this one sort of theology as a new standard, the WCA suggests a new way forward which jettisons a major part of our current received theology.
Uniting Methodists offers no such suggestion of a new theological paradigm (or a new paradigm of any sort) to guide our way forward. I am skeptical of the success of anything which offers so little substantive change. If there is to be a way forward for the United Methodist Church which does not simply involve a hardened schism along the lines already laid down it must be accompanied by serious and rigorous theological imagination. It cannot afford to be untheorized, because we do not need a technical tweak, but a new way of conceiving of our denomination. There must be a new framework within which the Church can articulate herself anew. Traditionalists aligned with the Wesleyan Covenant Association have proposed one and there is likewise a clear theological vision on the far progressive side. If unity groups like Uniting Methodists truly want to offer the denomination a way forward, they too must paint a compelling picture of who we are, how we shall think, and what we shall believe.
Now there is of course a popular strain in Methodism which eschews doctrine itself as inherently divisive. No doubt many who are drawn to something like Uniting Methodists would say that the lack of theological specificity is itself part of the vision. This is certainly a Wesleyan virtue, one which John learned from the deep riches of the monastic spiritual tradition and its suspicion of dogmatic zeal. Nevertheless, if a non-theological centrism could hold the denomination together, we would not be currently in the midst of schism. There is not a way forward from our current impasse without new theological vision.
Perhaps an illustration from church history will make this clear. In the late 350s controversy raged over the doctrine of the Trinity and the person of Christ. A generation earlier a coalition of bishops referred to by historians as the Eusebians (after their leaders Eusebius of Nicomedia and Eusebius of Caesarea) had been able to forge a consensus which rejected the excesses of both Arius of Alexandria (who separated the Son and the Father to such a degree that the Son was not wholly divine) and Marcellus of Ancyra (who united the Son and the Father to such a degree that there was no real distinction between them). By the 350s, however, the old wounds were open again and the arguments about the relationship between the Son and the Father raged across the Roman Empire and beyond. In an attempt to resolve this conflict and permit the Church (and the Empire) to move forward, the Emperor Constantius called a series of councils which forbade bishops and theologians from arguing about the disputed points and banned some of the technical terminology at issue (including the infamous term homoousios or “consubstantial”). But the conflict ran too deep for compromise unaccompanied by new vision to move the Church forward. It was not until a generation later when a new theological paradigm was able to unite both the heirs of the Eusebians and the followers of Athanasius of Alexandria (who had been an ally of Marcellus of Ancyra) that the conflict is said to have come to an end.
The Emperor Constantius’ aim was laudable: he wanted something analogous to “getting the Church back to just making disciples and doing kingdom work.” Nevertheless, his desire to just bring the conflict to an end caused him to act without boldness. As such his solution ended up being barely a bandage. To my eye, Uniting Methodists offers just such a Constantian solution. Our denomination is too broken for that to suffice. It was not an Emperor, for all his administrative and political prowess, who was able to bring the Church to a new consensus. Rather it was a group of theologians whom Church history remembers as some of the most eloquent and profound in all her heritage: the Cappadocian Fathers. It is not another Constantius that United Methodism needs. It is another Gregory of Nazianzus and another Basil the Great.
Charles “Austin” Rivera is an elder in the Great Plains conference and a Ph.D. student in Ancient Christianity at Yale University.
Image: Depiction of the Emperor Constantius from the Chronography of 354.