I like to run. Often I’ll run in my neighborhood. I’ve come to look forward to approaching a certain section of a nearby street because on one of my running loops when I reach that particular point I get to turn around and begin the home stretch. (As much as I enjoy running, there’s still nothing like the feeling of finishing a run.) The point I’m talking about is a quiet cul-de-sac.
In discussions about the future of The United Methodist Church, there is a logical cul-de-sac that often goes unacknowledged as such, much less explained or justified. It is a cul-de-sac because this passage is closed at one end. Some influential figures within United Methodism have joined their voices and are seeking to lead the church in that direction. Would that be a wise move?
In a recent campaign, a group called Uniting Methodists—representing the pragmatic strand within United Methodism that stresses moderation and seeking common ground—have espoused the phrase “Room for All” to describe their views in support of the One Church Plan. They promote those views in, among other ways, well-produced videos featuring various people explaining what they love about The United Methodist Church and why they believe we should find a way to stay together as outlined in the One Church Plan. I recognize the sincerity of the people featured in materials associated with this promotional effort, but that sincerity does not compensate for the fact that the position they are advocating is theologically and morally incoherent.
It seems to me that the One Church Plan, for all its emphasis on unity, relies on a vision of unity that is superficial at best. Such calls for unity must be expressed in quite general terms because of the attempt to hold together contradictory convictions about marriage and ordination standards. Yet the frequent obfuscation in those calls for unity by seemingly well-intentioned people (“room for all,” “better together,” “we are one church,” etc.) cannot hide the substantive differences on crucial theological and moral questions that really must be addressed. What actual theological rationale—beyond rather vague appeals to there being room for all—exists for a plan like this?
Further reflection exposes a logical cul-de-sac of United Methodist pragmatism that needs to be properly accounted for, or else we will face the unintended consequence of having to stop, turn around, or, I suppose, veer from the path into someone’s yard, a field or forest, or who knows what. The issue can be expressed in these basic questions: Who says there is room for all (something that is agreed upon across the United Methodist spectrum, and fittingly so, but on what grounds)? Do we say that (a largely sociological claim)? Does God say that (a theological claim)?
Moreover, if we can know that God says that, then how can we not also know other things that God has revealed? How can we not also know, for example, God’s design for marriage and what to God constitutes appropriate sexual expression and genuine, holy love for one another in Christian community? Those are prominent biblical themes, arguably just as prominent as calls for unity, and they deserve to be taken seriously. In addition, biblical calls for unity assume, and in some cases specifically require, agreement on such matters.
Many who support church teaching ask how the church could condone activities prohibited by Scripture, were that teaching to change. Many who are advocating for change ask how it is possible to remain in the same church with those who cannot affirm people for who they are. People on either side wonder how we can leave matters of such importance—not merely in perspective or position, but in actual practice—to one’s individual conscience and still be “united” in any meaningful sense.
What is the justification for elevating biblical calls for unity while downplaying the significance of deeply held convictions that are simply incompatible? The question takes on added urgency when in support of these convictions people cite various biblical principles, whether that be direct teachings about marriage and sexual practice or general exhortations to love and respect all people. How could these principles apply less to our current situation than biblical appeals to unity? What gives unity, and in particular institutional unity, the priority?
One possible response to the pragmatist dilemma is to reduce our understanding of the Bible to a matter of subjective experience with regard to theological and moral claims, leaving it largely devoid of any significant objective content. Then decisions about what is normative can be determined—conveniently—by ourselves, depending on our own presuppositions and preferences. And, we could therefore choose to privilege a certain brand of unity for such a time as this.
Yet this kind of deflationary account of divine revelation presents another set of problems. For a host of reasons, I believe it is untenable.
Is there a way out of this dilemma? Prominent United Methodist pragmatists, with the tacit and in some cases public support of a majority of active bishops, wish to lead us toward what is—whether we openly acknowledge it as such or not—a logical cul-de-sac. In my judgment, what they have failed to provide up to this point is any compelling, substantive reasons why to head in that direction given its attending logical, as well as theological and moral, problems and contradictions. I see no reason to believe that their thinking can produce the good outcome they envision. Of course, in February we’ll find out what the General Conference delegates ultimately decide.
The cul-de-sac in my neighborhood is the place where I turn around and begin the journey home. We are approaching the cul-de-sac. We have a choice. We can turn around and go home or end up in the wilderness.
Lord, help us run with perseverance, and in your time and way lead us home.
Ken Loyer is pastor of Spry Church (United Methodist). He holds a Ph.D. in Theology from Southern Methodist University and an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School. He is an assistant editor of the journal Wesley and Methodist Studies, is the author of Holy Communion: Celebrating God with Us and God’s Love through the Spirit: The Holy Spirit in Thomas Aquinas and John Wesley, and has taught courses in Theology and Methodist Studies at four seminaries. He lives in York, Pennsylvania.