A Happy Death and a Hopeful Future

by Prof. William J. Abraham

The unravelling of The United Methodist Church has reached one more turning in the road. The Feinberg Protocols are the bridge into the future that is now taken with radical seriousness on all sides. There is little to add to the responses already available on social and other media. The level and high quality of engagement makes clear that the debate about the future is now joined in earnest. We can expect all sorts of surprises as we move into the next phase of reception. There is a time and place for unraveling the amazing political dimensions involved, dimensions that are concealed in the pious and positive language that shows up in the Protocols and the commentary on them. I leave that for another day; my moral assessment of what has happened is not pretty. My interest here is to come clean on my sense of where we are and where we should go.

Looked at over the short span of recent history, what we have is the end of the experiment that was worked out after the uniting of The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren. The church was saddled from the beginning with three forms of internal incoherence. First, the effort to have a pluralist church, a church which housed a wide variety of doctrinal and moral options, was incoherent because it excluded from the very beginning any robustly conservative or orthodox version of Methodism. While claiming to be inclusive it was built on an exclusive ecclesiology that as a matter of simple logic excluded a more substantial vision of what a church should be. Pluralism as applied to a church is in fact a highly partisan way to think of what a church should be. Churches, like any organization, cannot exist without boundaries; pluralism excluded traditional boundaries even as it depended on its own meta-boundary that rejected the rejection of pluralism. This is not a matter of semantics or logic-chopping; it is a matter of social and political reality. In the end, the whole thing was bound to unravel; it was destined to collapse from within.

Second, there was a very particular incoherence at the very heart of United Methodism. On the one hand, it endorsed pluralism in the arena of doctrine (including the option of the death of God theology); on the other hand, it developed a very specific orthodox commitment in the arena of sexual morality, marriage, and ordination standards. Few, if any, saw that this is utterly incoherent. Doctrine is just a fancy word for church teaching. The general vision of church teaching (allow as many options as can be grounded in the quadrilateral) was clearly at odds with the very specific teaching carried forward by that same General Conference with respect to sexuality. Albert Outler fought with all the skill he could muster for both these commitments; late in life he stepped back from the first (doctrinal pluralism) but held resolutely to the second (conservative views on sexuality). Again, no organization can live for long with this kind of incoherence lodged in its bosom.

Third, the implementation of pluralism and the effort to impose the quadrilateral on the whole church was also incoherent. On one hand, we said that we can allow diversity on theory of knowledge in theology; on the other hand, we committed United Methodism to a very particular theory of knowledge. Putting the issue uncharitably, the quadrilateral is akin to flat earth theory when it comes to debates about how we know what we know. Unfortunately, it is useless in actually resolving issues in that those who use it can manipulate the outcome to get whatever results they desire. It simply adds to confusion in debates about sexuality. Perhaps, we are already overdosed on incoherence, so this last observation does not matter; however, informed observers naturally feel the dissonance at issue. In so far as they do, we have yet another cause which has brought us to the brink of dissolution.

I see no way forward other than to opt for a happy death and a hopeful future.

In speaking of a happy death, I do not mean us to take the happiness involved as psychological. I mean it in a more ontological and providential sense. Early Methodists had a strong tradition of a happy death. By this they did not mean that one could avoid the usual phenomena of grief, denial, anger, anxiety, and the like. Nor did it mean that there was no work to be done on the property and assets of those who died. They meant that one should handle death with assurance and even gratitude. We have all seen situations where we have thought (if not said) that death was a blessing in disguise. This is how I see things at present. Or, to turn to another more singular observation from early Methodism: when Wesley’s marriage failed and his wife left him, he noted that the water had been spilt and could not be gathered up again. We have all heard the hackneyed references to divorce and the conventional aftermath; these embody some truth, or we would not repeat them. It is time to face reality and look upon the death of United Methodism as a happy death.

Technically, of course, this is inaccurate. Technically, it looks as if The United Methodist Church will continue as a legal entity complete with name and restricted assets. However, the post-separation United Methodist Church will not be the church that we have known across the years. Preachers who tell this to their local congregations in order to calm troubled waters (I could name names) are being fooled if they believe this. Put simply, you cannot lose a significant network of conservative pastors and members and not be radically altered. When Methodism left or was pushed out of The Church of England, the losses theologically and evangelistically were serious. However, Methodism would never have developed the rich heritage that it did if it had remained inside the Anglican womb. When Pentecostalism left or was pushed out of Methodism at the turn of the twentieth century, the loss to Methodism was incalculable. One historian once remarked to me that the only good thing Methodism ever did was to give birth to Pentecostalism. Perhaps the most important gift of United Methodism to the world may be the birth of a fresh and invigorated version of Methodism. This is exactly what we should now pray and work for with gusto.

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