The Progressive United Methodist’s Dilemma

06 May

My cousin is a United Methodist minister in the midwestern USA, so she’s interested in what transpired at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. Since she’s posted some items online about the General Conference, I’ve followed this year’s proceedings with a bit more interest than usual. The most controversial issue they considered – again – was gay rights. Unsurprisingly, the gays lost. Again. The thing that intrigues me is a report¬†that much of the momentum for retaining the status quo came from conservative Africans:

Christianity in some form will continue in the USA for quite awhile yet – at least as long as people want or need to

a) avoid thinking about their own mortality,
b) avoid taking complete responsibility for their lives, and
c) exploit the people in categories a and b.

The church in the USA is declining, but it’s not going to disappear. Over time, however, it may become more like the church in Europe: there for those who want or need it, yet letting the rest of society get on with life. I could live with a church like that in the USA.

I wonder how Machiavellian progressive American Methodists are willing to be to get their way? The bottom line is that the conservatives in Africa depend heavily on progressive Americans with money to pay their bills. Will the people with the money use their economic influence to persuade the conservatives to loosen up? Will the progressives say, go along with us on this or lose us and our money?

I doubt it, although I could be wrong. Instead, I think the progressives will continue caving in to the conservatives for the foreseeable future for at least two reasons.

1. A conviction that extorting cooperation would be unethical.
2. Perceived guilt over past colonialism, exploitation, etc.

As it happens, I agree that extortion is unethical. I also know that it happens all the time. Sometimes it’s called persuasion. When it’s more overt, it’s called manipulation. I don’t think, however, that splitting off from conservatives with whom they disagree strongly would necessarily be extortion. Progressives shouldn’t overtly threaten to take the conservatives’ money away, but, if they’re serious about treating gays fairly, they have to come to a conclusion about their priorities. If they truly believe that gay rights matter, they will have to deal with the question of what matters more – solidarity with their denominational cohorts, or doing what they believe is right with regard to gays. As long as they continue choosing denominational solidarity, they will also continue marginalizing gays. They have, in short, an ethical dilemma. If progressive Methodists are serious about treating gays fairly, they may have to split from the conservative branch of their denomination. An unintended consequence of that action would be that their money would go with them.

Another possibility is that some would cite the ethical objection to a split, but the unspoken reason for retaining the status quo would be guilt. Some may recognize this, but others may never look deeply enough into their own minds and motivations to see it. And there may be some who would openly cite guilt as their reason for staying with the status quo. I don’t think there would be many of these, but there may be some.

The irony I see is this: had the progressives won the debate, I’d bet my next month’s salary that at least some conservative churches would be splitting away within a few months. Here’s another irony I see: the progressives at the conference, and as a whole, may not split away from the denomination, but individual progressives may split from their local churches. They may join another church in another denomination, or they may just join the ever-growing ranks of the unchurched. As that happens, the UM church in the USA may grow more conservative, but it will also grow smaller. I hope the same would also hold true for the rest of the conservative church in the USA. All of us would benefit if their influence on American foreign policy, education policy, science policy, etc., diminished in accordance with their numbers.

— the chaplain


9 responses to “The Progressive United Methodist’s Dilemma

  1. Ric

    May 6, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    What? You expected reason and rational thought and compassion to win out?! Chappie, these people are Christians, remember? Out to reduce civilization to mud huts and shamans, like they’ve been trying to do for two thousand years.

    • the chaplain

      May 6, 2012 at 2:07 pm

      Sad to say, I expected exactly the result that transpired, and even figured that a lot of the conservative push would come from the non-Western segment of the council.

  2. robcrompton

    May 6, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    It’s fairly difficult to play the money card. I don’t know what the USA system is but here in the UK all buildings are centrally owned in order to comply with charity law. So if members of Gasworks Lane Chapel decide to pull out of Tafftown Circuit and go independent, they can only take themselves and the cash they stump up regularly. So even if they are the wealthiest congregation in the circuit, it might not do any damage in the long run. Gasworks Lane Independents have no building to meet in but the Circuit has spare one to sell – and pocket the proceeds.

    The solution? Bend over backwards to avoid facing contentious issues – and the status quo rules.

    • the chaplain

      May 6, 2012 at 2:18 pm

      Rob, I know that some, if not all, American denomination finances operate similarly to what you’ve described. If nothing else, incorporation, etc., eases the process of acquiring and keeping tax exempt status. I think you’re right to expect more of the status quo on an organizational level, which is why I figure protests will occur in the form of individuals leaving the church over the long run. The attrition will be slower, but I think it is, to some degree, inevitable. A recent study cites “anti-gay” teaching as a significant reason young people are leaving the church. Conservative Christianity is proving to be increasingly out of sync with Western social values. Progressive Christianity tries to integrate faith and reality, a struggle that I eventually decided was a losing proposition.

  3. Recovering Agnostic

    May 6, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    Change a few names, and this could have been written about the Anglican Communion – no wonder the churches are so close to each other.

  4. PhillyChief

    May 6, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    “Pro-homosexual”? Whatever happened to pro-equal rights?

    Btw, liberals have a harder time fighting conservatives because conservatives embrace “ends justify the means”.

    • The chaplain

      May 6, 2012 at 7:02 pm

      For all the conservative prattle about their superior morality, I think you’re right, Philly – many liberals resist “ends-justify-means” morality, and many conservatives rationalize it.

      • the chaplain

        May 6, 2012 at 7:07 pm

        Huh. My iPhone lost my clerical collar. There – I think I’ve found it. Good. I felt naked for a moment there.

  5. Lorena

    May 15, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    Are there any recent statistics about believers becoming unchurched? I would love to read about it. I know that my lowly blog gets an average of 150 hits a day, which is not much, but it is a lot for an unadvertised website.


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