Where is the Loyal Opposition in the UMC?

14th century depiction of Hosea and Gomer, courtesy Wikipedia.
14th century depiction of Hosea and Gomer, courtesy Wikipedia.

You remembered us when we forgot you.

You followed us even when we tried to flee from you.

You met us with forgiveness when we returned to you.

For all your patience and overflowing grace…

We praise your holy name, O God.

-Covenant Renewal Service, The United Methodist Book of Worship

In the British parliamentary system, in which whole parties are voted in and out of leadership in a given election cycle, the party out of power is referred to as “Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition.”  It is understood that the opposition party or coalition disagrees with the present government on any number of topics, but is nonetheless “loyal.” That is, whatever ideological disagreements are present, the loyal opposition still respects the form of government and how the present government came to be in power.

In the United Methodist Church it is hard to spot something akin to a loyal opposition, whether one looks left or right.  Of course, it’s easy to find opposition.  The caucuses occupying both wings in the church often talk as if they would rather see the church split than the other side “win.”

Many shy away from the language of covenant as a cover for the status quo, if not outright injustice.  Others seem to treat it as little more than a synonym for “enforcement.” Both of these are sadly truncated perversions of the biblical concept of covenant.  As James Torrance has pointed out,

“Theologically speaking a covenant is a promise binding two people or two parties to love one another unconditionally.  So the word was used of marriage in the English service book of 1549 and retained subsequently in the traditional forms of marriage service. A bride and bridegroom promise to love one another ‘for better for worse…’ i.e. unconditionally…It is precisely this which makes a covenant so different from a contract.”

Covenants are bonds of love that are, by definition, unconditional. Calls for schism in our denomination, whether in the name of a liberal/modern notion of “rights” or a quasi-fundamentalist demand for lockstep, uncritical biblical adherence, mistake the covenant that binds the people called United Methodists for a contract:

“A contract is a legal relationship in which two people or two parties bind themselves together on mutual conditions to effect some future result. It betokens a mutual bargain, a compact, a business deal, grounded on certain terms or conditions with some future state of affairs in mind. It takes the form, ‘If….if…then…’, as in the business world, etc.” (1)

God is in the covenant business.  Contracts are made to be broken. Covenants are not.  Both lay and clergy members of The United Methodist Church are members by virtue of covenants made at baptism, confirmation, and possibly ordination.  We vow that our loyalty to Jesus and our ministry among his servants will be carried out in this particular segment of the Body of Christ.

I am under no illusions that one should, in the name of covenant, accept any and everything that the UMC believes or represents.  We have too wide a variety of official statements and too great a diversity in intellectual/spiritual commitments (not to speak of geography) for this to be possible.  There are many recipes for good gumbo, after all.  But the covenant does mean that any and all opposition should have the character of a ‘loyal’ opposition: our opposition is in the name of the betterment of the church, and if she is wayward, our prayerful labor is oriented towards her return to fidelity.  I believe that if this approach were taken in our current church debates, they could be much more fruitful than they are at present.

I saw an excellent example of just such loyal opposition in a recent lecture by New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson. During a Q&A following a lecture at Fuller seminary, he was asked what needed to change in the Roman Catholic Church to address the pedophilia crisis.  His response:

“I think we need to have, first of all, women priests. That’s the first step.  Even more than having married priests, we need women priests. The sexism of Roman Catholicism, I have said – in print – is a sin against the Holy Spirit. The refusal to acknowledge that God gifts women with gifts of ministry and leadership is, I think, a refusal of acknowledging the experience of half of humanity, and how God has worked through half of humanity. So, I am a very loyal Catholic, but I am a back-bencher.  I speak out constantly on these matters, and, not because I am not fond of my community, but because I love it passionately and I think it needs to reform.” (2)

Johnson aptly names the difficulty and also the beauty of loving one’s community, even in its unfaithfulness, enough to passionately struggle, pray, and wait for reform. Perhaps there is no greater example of God’s patient fidelity than in the book of Hosea.  The prophet is commanded to go and love his wayward wife, just as God will woo Israel back to himself, despite her chasing after Baals and the like.  The narrative is summarized in Hosea 3:1 (NRSV):

The Lord said to me again, “Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress, just as the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.”

So, let there be opposition. Semper reformanda, and all that jazz.  But let it be a loyal, covenant, imaginative, God-shaped opposition.  If God can love us in our infidelity and mad pursuit of other deities, so much so that Christ was sent to us “while we were yet sinners,” then perhaps we can imitate that same faithfulness to our particular appendage of the Body of Christ.  After all, it is a covenant, not a contract.

P.S. After beginning this post, I discovered that over a decade ago a work was published by a group of UMC leaders titled, The Loyal Opposition: Struggling With the Church Over Homosexuality.  I have not had the chance to read the work, but I fear some have moved from struggling “with” the church to struggling against her.

[1. James B. Torrance, “Covenant or Contract? A Study of the Theological Background of Worship in Seventeenth Century Scotland.” Scottish Journal of Theology / Volume 23 / Issue 01 / February 1970, p. 54 (emphasis original).  I owe the insight about the distinction between covenant and contract, as well as this particular reference, to Douglas Campbell of Duke Divinity School and his outstanding work on Paul.

2. “The Body in Question: Response,” Given at Fuller Theological Seminary’s 2010 Payton Lectures. Accessed: https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/spirit-body-corinthians-new/id380159569?mt=10 (see question beginning at 25:55.)]

16 comments

  1. It takes two parties to maintain a covenant but only one to break it. If we have clergy who are not upholding their vows to maintain the discipline of The UMC how do we even talk to them? And having proven themselves as oath breakers how can we trust them?
    We also have this from the Love Prevails folks.
    “The time for polite persuasion has passed. To ensure discrimination no longer flows uninterrupted, we will protest and disrupt local, national and global events. We will undermine all policies that limit or deny the full participation of LGBTQ United Methodists in the life of the church. Through our media campaign and physical presence, we will stand in the way of business as usual.”

    That reads like a declaration of war.

    1. Kevin, thanks for stopping by. As best I can tell, “Love Prevails” represents the furthest feather of the left wing, and I don’t think they are representative of the progressive UMC more broadly. I have found their tactics disturbing as well, though I have encountered folks as equally intransigent and nasty on the right wing as well (IRD, anyone?). In any case, if God can stomach the covenant-breaking and waywardness of Israel and the Church, then we should be able to find it in ourselves to continue the hard work of life together as the Body of Christ. Love does prevail, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of our united witness. Peace to you and thanks again.

      1. i appreciate much of what you have written here (regarding covenant and contract and loyal opposition), and i’m presuming that you know the link between the Love Prevails effort and the book THE LOYAL OPPOSITION, which you mention in your PS. My colleague Amy DeLong is a central figure in both. In the Wisconsin Conference we are trying to have conversation around the full nature and possibility of covenant. Personally, i would not think of Amy as a “furthest feather of the left wing”….

        1. Dave, thanks for stopping by. I only noticed that Amy’s name was on that book, but I don’t know who else is involved with LP. I apologize if that the feather/wing comment is not a fair metaphor. From what I can tell, Love Prevails has positioned themselves in a more radical position than other progressive groups like RMN. An analogous comparison would be the tea party’s position vis-a-vis the Heritage Foundation, or the IRD compared to Good News. But if I have misread them, again, I am sorry.

      2. I do not know much about IRD’s tactics. I have not heard that they are calling for disruptive displays. If there is a Methodist organization more left wing than LP I would like to know who they are. All I see are trust issues and tensions building within The UMC and it is not getting any better.

  2. Drew, I have come to see the governmental form of our church structure as the KEY problem in our church. When I joined the church, I had no idea I was joining a community that had an itinerate ministry, a church that uses “majority rules” to make decisions, and I didn’t even know the church had bishops! I just wanted to be part of the community that introduced me to Jesus, and I wanted to publicly proclaim the wonder of the risen Lord.

    As a young seminary student, I learned more details about our polity. And as my ministry ensued, I experienced how the STRUCTURE of our polity shapes our faith community. I discovered that many of the leaders of our churches were more interested in establishing their own position in the church rather than putting Christ at the center. I saw little reliance on or interest in prayer among church leadership. And I faced rejection, after rejection as an appointed clergywoman. I did not look like a pastor should look.

    I learned that our polity promotes partisan behavior and even encourages dissension in the church. I promised to be loyal to The United Methodist Church, and I agree with our current Social Principles, and our current position on sexuality. However, I am no longer able to work within the STRUCTURE of this church with integrity. I retired early 11 years ago in order in an attempt to follow Jesus. I attended worship in a “vital” United Methodist Church for 10 years following my retirement, but now I have dropped out. I see church “leaders” promoting themselves and seeking followers for themselves, rather than leaders who are passionate about preaching Christ.

    I do not think a renewed sense of “LOYAL OPPOSITION” will be a helpful concept to the church. Rather, we need a renewal of our commitment to following Jesus Christ.

    1. Holly,

      I regret your negative experience as a clergywoman. I try regularly to teach my folks why it matters and why it is biblical that we ordain women, and bring in women regularly to preach in my stead.

      If Paul’s experience on the Damascus road indicates to us that persecuting the church is coterminous with persecuting Jesus, then I would posit that being loyal (and loyal does not mean blindly uncritical!) to the church is very much related to being loyal and committed to Christ.

      1. OK, Drew. That’s nice theory, but I no longer see the UMC as the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ (Church) is not tied to a denomination, an institution, or a building. It IS tied to the people who have been grasped by God’s grace and who have decided to follow Jesus. There may be some overlap with the buildings and institutions, but the overlap has been deteriorating.

  3. The UMC never was the Body of Christ, though it contains elements of it. In other words, just like Paul said that “they are not all Israel who are of Israel” (Rom. 9:6), not all of us who are associated with the UMC are regenerate members of God’s holy church. In those areas of the UMC which are best, we are a part of that living universal Church; in our worst areas, we “have the form of religion, but not the power”–and in many areas, we’re even losing the form of it.

    1. James, I never claimed that the UMC was the full Body of Christ, just a part (a great part, of course!). I agree with what you say – there is always a distance between what the Church is called to be and the actual lives of her individual members and leaders – including me. Though I would not, as you imply, put this in terms of regional variations. It is up to God, the one good and just judge, to divide wheat from tare.

  4. Thank you, Drew, for your reflections. I think it is important to note that all biblical covenants were not unconditional. Some were and some were not.

    Jeremiah notes that the old covenant was broken, necessitating a new covenant (Jer. 31:31-32). Many evangelicals believe that progressives have broken the covenant by their refusal to abide by the requirements of the Discipline. Where the covenant is broken, it is not necessarily required that the other party to the covenant continue to abide by it. Even the marriage covenant can be broken by one party (I Cor 7:15). If progressives are no longer willing to live by the covenant, we should let them go. We are not “bound” in such circumstances. That is (in my opinion) the only way we can continue to live in peace, to which God has called us.

    It is also important to note that Wesley’s sermon on the catholic spirit was aimed at relationships across denominational lines. In that context, we can love one another and “think and let think” regarding opinions that do not strike at the root of Christianity. But at the same time, Wesley was very rigorous in maintaining agreement among Methodist preachers and societies on what doctrines were to be preached. So much so, that Calvinists were excluded from the Methodist societies in the 1740’s.

    The application of this principle is that United Methodist should be willing to love and work with churches of other denominations and see them as vital parts of the Body of Christ. At the same time, we can be firm about what United Methodists must believe and maintain in order to be considered United Methodist. That is not to “un-Christianize” anyone who disagrees with Methodist doctrine, but merely to say that this is what Methodists believe and practice. If you disagree with that, you can still be a brother or sister in Christ, but you can’t be a Methodist.

    1. Tom,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I think it is important to remember that there is a great deal of continuity between the old and new covenants, and that Romans 9-11 seems to indicate that God has not forgotten his covenant with Israel. The other Biblical reality, on which the early Methodists cited the annual service mentioned above, is the necessity of covenant renewal. I would suggest that our need is for renewal, not breaking, of our covenant.

      I appreciate the distinction you raise vis-a-vis ‘Catholic Spirit.’ I think it is still useful in intra-Methodist debates, however, because the level of mutual distrust (if not hostility) between Anglicans and Catholics in Wesley’s day was quite similar to our present divides. His willingness to reach across so great a chasm should inspire our willingness to do so within our own house.

      I sympathize with your insistence that one cannot be a Methodist and simply believe anything. I would be quite happy if we were putting clergy on trial for being unitarians, or rebaptizing, for instance. Our doctrinal standards should be just that. I don’t think we disallow people from leaving who wish to no longer abide by their covenants. Both progressives and conservatives leave on a regular basis for a host of reasons. Of course we have to let individual clergy go when they feel they must, but I don’t think this should be scaled up to allowing whole caucuses/conferences/interest groups to leave, which would amount to a formalized schism.

      Again, thank you for your engagement with our project and your comments. Peace to you.

  5. Drew, I’d be interested in your take on The Loyal Opposition after you’ve finished reading it. An entire chapter of my recent book Forgetting How to Blush dealt with the book’s worldview and proposed denominational strategy. I don’t think the editors (Amy DeLong and Tex Sample) and contributors would define “loyal opposition” quite the way British politicians do.

    I am disappointed in your article that you dismiss Ben Witherington’s thoughtful four-part response to Bishop Roy Sano as an example of simplistic “caucus” opposition. Though I was happy for the link so I could read his entire series for myself.

  6. Karen, I don’t have a copy of The Loyal Opposition and probably won’t get to it for quite some time. But yes, I don’t see very many people at all that are part of the caucuses that would fit the British notion of loyal opposition. All the open talk of schism is evidence enough of this.

    I wasn’t trying to dismiss all of Witherington’s work, though I don’t think it was his best stuff. I linked to part four specifically because it’s where he called for schism (though in the comments he said he was just calling for the progressives to leave). I generally find myself a fan of BWIII, and even met him a time or two. Be began his ministry close to where I am currently. But hey, we can’t always hit a homerun! Thanks for stopping by.

  7. I follow this conversation with interest as I learned close to a decade ago that the United Methodist Church is not a welcoming denomination. Many clergy and clergy spouses are in the closet about the sexual abuse they have been through. My spouse who is a sexual abuse victim was told by more than one superintendent that her story was not to be shared. Furthermore the Bishop (who is identified as a progressive) supported their position. I chose to retire early rather than promote such rank hypocrisy. If my wife is not welcome, I am not welcome. I have deep roots in the Methodist Church. I am named after the Methodist Minister who led my parents to faith, married them, and baptized me as a young child. But what difference does it make to me if the homosexual is or is not welcome when I am not welcome at table.

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