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Dis-United Methodists, Dis-United States

Bishop Karen Oliveto of the Mountain Sky conference of the United Methodist Church. She is openly lesbian and a face of progressive Methodism ((Mountain Sky Conference YouTube)

In Colorado Springs, there is grief among progressives United Methodists over the split within their international church body. Excerpt:

Pastors are acquainted with grief, and officiating at funerals is one of their duties.

But some local Methodist pastors say the loss they’re experiencing now is more painful. They believe they are witnessing the demise of their denomination, leaving them both heartbroken and confused about the direction forward.

“I’m a fifth-generation United Methodist clergyman, and in my mother’s womb I was woven for this purpose,” said Rev. Olon Lindemood, senior pastor of Sunrise United Methodist Church on Briargate Boulevard.

“But to me, our General Conference’s vote for the Traditional Plan that enforces exclusion of LGBTQ members from marriage or ordination feels like the death of my church.”

As you will see from the piece, this is fallout from a vote the international body (which includes African and Asian congregations) took last year over whether or not to normalize LGBT within the Mainline Protestant denomination. The traditionalists prevailed in the vote. The reader who sent it to me is a member of one of the congregations mentioned in the article. He asks to be anonymous here (though I know his real name). He writes:

This is to a certain extent “old news” since the conference vote on the Traditional Plan was several weeks ago and it passed, though only because of the global nature of the denomination as the majority represented traditional Methodists in North America, Africa, and Asia (again, old news).

What is “new” is that the denomination’s judicial authority has reviewed the Traditional Plan and essentially upheld those portions the Progressives had hoped would be struck down.  These included  forbidding the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” and penalties for conducting same-sex weddings. The effective date is 1 January 2020 in the USA and for some reason May 2021 in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.

This sets up 1 January 2020 as a date which may drive a split in among American Methodists. Congregations can vote to “disaffiliate” with the United Methodist Church as a denomination operating under the Traditional Plan. This would require a two-thirds vote of the congregation, followed by a simple majority vote at the annual conference. Those are the rules, affirmed by the Judicial Council.

Watching the shock and dismay of the Progressive faction (which I use in the Madisonian sense from Federalist 10), it seems to me that the Methodist experience mirrors that of the USA as a whole since November 2016.

I won’t recap the past 2 1/2 years we have all lived through, but instead consider what this may have to say for our future. The 2/3 majority rule is a pretty high bar to meet for disaffiliation. In a fairly conservative town like Colorado Springs, getting 2/3 to vote to leave will likely be difficult. I expect Sunrise itself is fairly evenly split as a congregation, even though the senior pastor, Rev. Dr. Lindemood, is clearly in the Progressive camp.

So the question is whether or not the Progressives will split if they can’t get what they want through the established, church-constitutional processes. They were clearly hoping the Judicial Council with invalidate the Traditional Plan, but that route is closed to them. Will they violate church law to get their way because they are persuaded of the (moral?) superiority of their views? Will they prove themselves to be impatient with, and intolerant of, their neighbors who hold to tradition? It makes little sense to me that a faction convinced that they are on the right side of an inevitable “progress” of history toward the change of traditional values and practices regarding sexual ethics has suddenly become seized by a desire to splinter their corner of the Church at this moment. Why now? What has happened to make this a sudden “drop everything” litmus test of Progressive (im)piety?

He goes on:

The same is true for the country as a whole. Why have Progressives become so aggressive and intolerant of their neighbors over this issue, above all? They don’t get this energized over helping the poor and downtrodden. Somehow, this is the battle they choose to fight at this hour, when so many greater challenges confront us as a society with regard to poverty, despair, drug abuse, child abuse, dislocation and loneliness or any other modern affliction. For the secular Progressives, my suspicion has always been that forcing the issue of sexual ethics was intended as a flanking attack on religion as a source of informing values and opinions in general. I cannot understand, however, how the same motivation could exist within a Christian denomination as the motivation to secularize the Church is, to me at least, an oxymoron. Perhaps it is best understood as just another phase of transition toward “moralistic therapeutic Deism.”

So here’s the closing question for Methodists and Americans alike. Will the Progressives decide to stop, once and for all, pretending to follow the Constitution (national or ecclesiastic)? We see clear signs of it today in politics, and now in churches. If the churches cannot agree to live together as neighbors sharing different beliefs on certain fundamental, but admittedly narrow issues, how long can we expect Americans to keep doing so? At some point, when the Progressives don’t get their way because either the President, or the Senate, or the Supreme Court are opposed to giving them what they want will they break out into even more open defiance?

I put the blame for seeking to split here on the Progressives, but if the vote had gone the other way it’s reasonable to assume the Traditionalists would have been exploring paths toward separation. The same may be true for the USA in January 2021.

I don’t want to end this on the tired theme of a “coming civil war,” so let me switch back to the issue driving this split–contested sexual ethics. What’s lost here is the uniquely Christian viewpoint that is both radical and moderate at the same time. There is no real Scriptural basis to declare one sin particularly worse than any other, with two exceptions. One is speaking out against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:32) and the other is, perhaps, contributing to the corruption of children (Matthew 18:6). Other than that, all sin is considered bad as it divides us from a proper relationship with God. Given that Jesus said “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” we should be careful in selecting attitudes toward one particular sin to divide us when there is so much more that should unite us in faith.

However, this turn in the story is not really about traditionalists seeking to expel people with same-sex attractions from their congregations. Far from it. Nor are traditionalists seeking to actively chase out their Progressive neighbors. This is about Progressives attempting to change the traditional definition of what is a sin and what is not. Again, I have to come back to the puzzling question as to why, suddenly, it is so unacceptable to Progressives to maintain traditional teaching with regard to sexual morality? Why should people who feel tempted by same-sex attractions be taught that giving into those sentiments is something not simply to be accepted, but celebrated or even consecrated by “marriage.” I don’t worship in a particular denomination of a church to have my sins accepted or celebrated, but instead to celebrate that I can be FORGIVEN for my personal trespasses and seek to lead a better life.

In the end, is that what unsettles Progressives the most about Christian doctrine? it’s not that we profess certain things to be wrong and condemned by God, but that our faith is even more securely grounded that we can be forgiven by God? I think the latter is far more disruptive and dangerous than the former.

I thank the reader for this thoughtful and challenging letter.

Progressives have long engaged in a kind of doublespeak about LGBT in the church. On the one hand, they say it is a minor issue in Christianity, one about which Jesus never personally spoke, at least not as recorded in the Gospels. On the other hand, it is so overwhelmingly important that they are prepared to force this radical revision in teaching down the throats of the entire church, and when they fail within specific denominations, destroy the unity of the denomination. It really is incredible to see how LGBT has become the golden idol for progressive Christianity. On my last two visits to Boston, walking or driving around, and passing Protestant churches, you see rainbow banners everywhere. I even passed by one church in a Boston suburb that had no cross displayed outside or on its big church sign, but did have a small rainbow banner permanently carved into the wooden sign.

If you lived in a place where the American flag, and flag motifs, were just as prominently displayed outside churches — not on the Fourth of July weekend, but permanently — you would wonder what, exactly, the people inside those churches worshipped.

Why? Here’s an attempt at an answer, from The Benedict Option:

Future historians will wonder how the sexual desires of only three to four percent of the population became the fulcrum on which an entire worldview was dislodged and overturned. A partial answer is that the media are to blame. Back in 1993, a cover story in the Nation identified the gay rights cause as the summit and keystone of the culture war:

All the crosscurrents of present-day liberation struggles are subsumed in the gay struggle. The gay moment is in some ways similar to the moment that other communities have experienced in the nation’s past, but it is also something more, because sexual identity is in crisis throughout the population, and gay people—at once the most conspicuous subjects and objects of the crisis—have been forced to invent a complete cosmology to grasp it. No one says the changes will come easily. But it’s just possible that a small and despised sexual minority will change America forever. 

They were right. Tying the gay rights cause to the civil rights movement was a strategic masterstroke. Though homosexuality and race are two very different phenomena, the media took the equivalence for granted and rarely if ever gave opposing voices a chance to be heard.

Though the unrelenting media campaign on behalf of same-sex marriage was critically important to its success, it wasn’t the most important thing. Americans accepted gay marriage so quickly because it resonated so deeply with what they had already come to believe about the meaning of heterosexual sex and marriage.

We have gay marriage because the straight majority came to see sexuality as something primarily for personal pleasure and self-expression and only secondarily for procreation. We have gay marriage because the straight majority, in turn, came to see marriage in the same way—and two generations of Americans have grown up with these nominalist values on sex and marriage as normative.

To be modern, as we have seen, is to believe in one’s individual desires as the locus of authority and self- definition. As philosopher Charles Taylor writes, “The entire ethical stance of moderns supposes and follows on from the death of God (and of course, of the meaningful cosmos).”

Gay marriage and gender ideology signify the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution and the dethroning of Christianity because they deny Christian anthropology at its core and shatter the authority of the Bible. Rightly ordered sexuality is not at the core of Christianity, but as Rieff saw, it’s so near to the center that to lose the Bible’s clear teaching on this matter is to risk losing the fundamental integrity of the faith. This is why Christians who begin by rejecting sexual orthodoxy end either by rejecting Christianity themselves or by laying the groundwork for their children to do so.

“The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling,” Rieff writes. By that standard, Christianity in America is in mortal danger.

The gay Nation essayist, whose name escapes me now, intuited something profoundly true about the cultural politics of the gay movement. Those Americans (Christian and otherwise) who identify generally with “liberation” movements — racial, sexual, etc. — quite naturally identified (and identify) with the LGBT movement. After all, from what are they being liberated? The chains of tradition and the past, including religion. To be precise, they are being liberated from anything that restrains their autonomous will and desire. 

A couple of years ago, Karen Oliveto, an out lesbian who was consecrated as a United Methodist bishop (her diocese includes Colorado Springs), said that Jesus of Nazareth had to overcome bigotries too. She went on:

Too many folks want to box Jesus in, carve him in stone, create an idol out of him. But this story cracks the pedestal we’ve put him on. The wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting one, prince of peace, was as human as you and me. Like you and me, he didn’t have his life figured out. He was still growing, maturing, putting the pieces together about who he was and what he was supposed to do. We might think of him as the Rock of Ages, but he was more like a hunk of clay, forming and reforming himself in relation to God.

As one person put it: ‘Jesus wasn’t a know-it-all, he was also learning God’s will like any human being and finally he changed his mind…if Jesus didn’t have to know it all innately, but rather could grow into new and deeper understanding through an openness to God’s people [even those he formerly discounted], maybe if Jesus could change his mind then maybe so can we!

This is trite, but also extremely profound, in that it discloses the way progressive Christians view the world: as ever-changing, evolving to something better … something which, lo!, looks a lot like what secular progressives want. God as the ultimate permissive parent, as the Play-Doh Of Ages.

This, broadly, is what the modern project has been about. It’s why, according to Patrick Deneen, liberalism has failed: because it succeeded so brilliantly in what it set out to do, namely liberate (“liberate”) the individual from anything not self-chosen. The trouble is, you can’t hold a society of radical individualists together. Liberalism, if it is to succeed as a governing philosophy, must be rooted in something axiomatic and prior to itself.

Anyway, if Enlightenment liberalism is true, at least in its popular understanding, then LGBT liberation is reasonably taken as the ultimate expression of that truth. (Or at least it must have seemed so once; in fact, as we will discover polygamy and transhumanism will be the next frontier in liberation.) Progressive Methodists may not be seeing their cause in such deep terms, but this is what is implied by their belief, and can explain why this matters so much to them.

(It is also the case that LGBT liberation is the moral summum bonum of middle-class educated Americans, who populate the Mainline churches, and many Catholic parishes. It would be fascinating to examine how this came to be, but it is beyond the scope of this blog entry to speculate.)

The Colorado Springs reader who sent me the original post is no doubt correct to say that if the Methodist vote had gone the other way, traditionalists within the denomination would be exactly where progressives are today in grieving the break-up of the church, and in planning their exit. Actually, I think this might not be exactly true. There will always be a set of trads who can’t imagine leaving where they have settled, and who will dig in their heels and stick with the community they have, even as they radically dissent from the views of the majority in their congregation. But mostly, I believe trads would be looking for the exits.

This raises — or should raise — some interesting challenges for the trads. If legitimizing homosexuality was the line that they could not cross, why was that the case? Yes, it’s obvious that this is a big red line in Scripture (a line that progressives bizarrely denied existed), but if trads reflect even a little bit on why Scripture makes such a big deal of sexual purity, they will come to be more critical of liberalism itself. In other words, if homosexual liberation is the consummation of all liberation movements, and we understand why that is the case, then logically, a trad’s support for contemporary liberalism as a way of construing the world begins to unravel.

It might not. People aren’t logical machines. My point is simply that if we accept as true what very many progressives do about the meaning of LGBT liberation, but we cannot accept LGBT liberation, then in a deep sense we reject liberalism.

(Speaking for myself, I still find much to like about liberalism, and am still liberal in important ways. But I believe in a liberalism informed and bounded by Christianity. I doubt that is tenable in the real world of the 21st century.)

One reason I am pessimistic about the near future is that I cannot discern a resistance spirit among American conservatives or traditionalists. For better and for worse, we are a liberal (in the classical sense) nation to our marrow. So far, the progressive “riot” has been in their calamitous march through the institutions. It is difficult for me to imagine any one issue that would cause routed conservatives to no longer feel allegiance to the United States. Frankly, it is difficult for me to imagine what would drive progressives to that point. From a purely practical point of view, it’s one thing to exit your ecclesial body; it’s quite another to secede from your country.

So I suspect we’ll just muddle along miserably for the foreseeable future, with the country sheepily following pop culture, becoming more and more progressive until such time that people have forgotten that there was any other way to think and to be. This is what Slovaks call “the salami solution”: the way to destroy a salami is by a thousand small cuts. (This is their version of the frog-in-boiling-water parable.) We who can see this coming need to start organizing now to resist — to resist in the present time, and into the future. We need to understand first and foremost that resistance cannot merely be a matter of voting for more Republicans. When I was in Slovakia last week, I learned about a Jesuit named Kolakovic who, in 1943, foresaw the role Communism would play in Czechoslovakia after World War II ended, and began organizing nonviolent Catholic resistance to it. Our resistance in 21st century America, come what may on the political front, must first of all be religious and philosophical. We’ve got to go deeper than American conservatives are accustomed to. Unlike the postwar generation of intellectual conservatives, our main problem is not the State; in fact, the ideology of the free market, for various reasons (including Woke Capitalism), is every bit as much a threat.

I’m going afield here from the Colorado reader’s original letter, but that’s because in that letter, the reader discerns that the chasm between progressives and traditionalists in his church, the United Methodist Church, is in fact a fracture that goes much, much deeper below the surface than we can see.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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