Where Do We Go From Here?
Honest Responses From Twenty-Four United Methodist Leaders
Compiled by Kevin Slimp
A review by Dwight A. Moody
I don’t know much more after reading this book than I knew before I started, mainly because none of the 24 writers in this book know where they go from here!
The word “here” in the title refers to a hell of a mess into which the dear people of the United Methodist Church have fallen. Several authors offer their assessments of how they got “here”, and several others suggest strategies for moving forward; but none of them know. They don’t know what will happen next year when their leaders convene for the annual General Conference (Minneapolis), and they don’t know what will happen after that or before that and any time.
I think I know.
I have been where they are, and I can tell you how ours ended. The fundamentalist/conservatives won and took over the Southern Baptist Convention; and the moderates and progressive left and formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Reading this book confirms my sense, looking from the outside into this wonderful network of people and preachers, that the fundamentalist/conservatives will win. They may not take all the institutions and agencies with them—they may not want them, and that prejudice against the denominational superstructure runs through these essays, expressed here and there by people on all sides of the struggle for the soul of the denomination.
Not that all sides are equally represented in this volume. It tilts heavily toward the progressive side of things. Except for the straight-forward essay by North Carolina pastor Talbot Davis. He contends that “minds are not changing, hearts are not softening, and there are no new compromises to be invented.” He calls upon his United Methodist people to “replace the frustration of Holy Conversation with the liberation of Honest Declaration” (66f). In other words, he wants to stop the endless dialogue and let everybody take a stand.
I, however, found the essays edifying, voicing passion for Jesus Christ, the United Methodist Church, the least, the lost, and the left behind, and indeed the whole human race. Time and again, their founder John Wesley is quoted; and time and again, I wish I had read more of the life and thought of the great 18th century itinerate preacher (whose first impact on these United States was right here where I write—on St. Simons Island, Georgia, now part of the South Georgia Conference).
Which is why one of the most compelling essays was the last, written by a young university student, J. J. Warren by name, a gay man himself, who concluded his passionate plea for conversation and understanding with this testimony: “I am convicted to remain a United Methodist, and I am convicted that we will find a way forward together toward God’s inclusive love. I hope you will remain in this family as well” (194).
But he might not be able to remain, unless he is content with sitting in a pew, keeping his mouth shut, and placing his money in the offering. Lutherans and Baptists have already demonstrated that the winners in these denominational fights make life so rough for the opposition that people like J. J. slowly slink away, salvaging what remains for their fervor for Christ and his mission in the world.
But things may not turn out so well for the victors, either. Learn a lesson from my own people, the Baptists. The winners took it all—seminaries, agencies, boards, endowments, state conventions, and a few colleges. They took it in order to save it from liberalism, theological innovation, and disregard of the Bible—that’s the rhetoric they used. But now, a quarter century after their victory, the denomination is dominated by Calvinists, is confronted by a wide-spread sexual abuse scandal, and is suffering from a dramatic and sustained drop in annual baptisms. And on top of that, the people and preachers of this Southern Baptist Convention (white Evangelicals) are the core constituency of the Donald J. Trump, whose impeachment was launched this week.
Which brings me to this: nobody in this entire volume mentioned a single time that one great religio-political reality of the last 50 years: the culture wars. That’s what this Methodist struggle is about, just as it was what the Baptist struggle was about—resisting the growing power of federal bureaucracies and judges, the expansion of human rights (to women—pregnant and otherwise—and homosexuals, for instance), and the influx of people alien to the vision of Christian America.
Of course, these motivations are rarely mentioned in pulpits and periodicals. The rhetoric is full of Bible, and Wesley, and sanctification, and historic orthodoxy, and the General Book of Discipline. That’s what Methodist people appeal to when they fight.
But underneath this veneer of religiosity is the reality of the times in which we live. The larger struggle is for the nation: its meaning, its values, and its policies; and these smaller religious battles, like the ten thousand tussles at polling places all over the country, are microcosms of this larger cultural war—will we be a free people, a hospitable people, a courageous people, a generous people? Or will we build walls around our country and our churches, restrict opportunity and enterprise to our kind and kin, and swallow our words when it is time to stand up for those on the outside—for Baptists, it was the women folk; for Methodists, it is the queer folk.
God help us all, and God help the United Methodists.