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No, Dr. Jackson, Splitting the UMC is a Bad Idea

Back on October 19th the United Methodist Reporter ran an article by Dr. Thomas Glenn "Jack" Jackson III, E. Stanley Jones Assistant Professor of Evangelism, Mission, and Global Methodism at Claremont School of Theology entitled Breaking up is hard, but right thing for the UMC. (His picture is on the left.)

Some people linked to it on FaceBook. There has been quite a bit of discussion about it since it appeared.

It came out at the same time I was having major computer (and some health) difficulties (see:
Personal Update 10/30/12), so I did not comment on the article here.

I did post
John Wesley’s comments on schism — that was a comment of sorts.

On the off-chance you haven’t read Jackson’s article, here is my overview:

At the last General Conference the United Methodist Church re-affirmed it’s traditional stance on same-gender sex and on the ordination of actively gay and lesbian clergy. This, in spite of years and years of protest by progressives in the denomination. With the growth of the denomination in Africa and Asia, and its decline in Europe and the U. S. A., it is likely that this stance will be maintained in the UMC for many years to come. So, what are progressives to do? Jackson says, well, they have four options: (1.) “The first, to stay in covenant with the UMC while working toward inclusion….”; (2.) “The second option is to leave, or never join, the UMC in favor of progressive, fully inclusive denominations”; (3.) “The third option for progressives, one increasingly in play, is civil disobedience”; (4.) “…dividing from one UMC to at least two new, distinct denominations.”

The main part of the article is an argument that option 3 — civil disobedience, the option already chosen by the Western Jurisdiction — will not work and is actually destructive for the progressives’ cause. He says: (1.) “First, progressives don’t seem to have the resources to both stem the tide of decline nationwide and work towards inclusion”; (2.) “Second, there is little if any chance the denomination will become inclusive over the next generation”; (3.) “Third, the civil disobedience option ignores the reality that many progressives are choosing the second option of leaving the UMC or never entering it”; (4.) “Fourth, many advocates of civil disobedience ignore, or seem unaware of, the way many traditionalists will respond if current prohibitions are overturned.” He says that if even 10% leave, the results will be crippling to the denomination.

It’s all very well and clearly stated.

The overwhelming conclusion, he says, is that progressive United Methodists should set forth a plan to split the church along traditionalist / progressive lines.

I found the article annoying when I first read it, and I find it amazing that people are actually taking it seriously.

I have some questions.

What is the basis for the split of these two denominations? Here is what Jackson tells us: “Progressive and traditionalist visions of human sexuality are simply incompatible. Most of Protestantism recognizes this. We can argue all we want, but there is no solution to our theological quandary that offers unity, common visions of Christian mission and an ability to focus on the deep systemic issues which plague the UMC.”

Oh, so the split is over sexuality issues. The two positions are not spelled out — or even hinted at — but they are “incompatible” (familiar word). So, rather than organizing around the great affirmations of the faith or the sources and norms of the faith, these are simply the pro-gay-marriage and anti-gay-marriage denominations? Really? I realize that the controversy is serious and deep — but, is that really a sufficient basis for the self-identity of either denomination?

So, the disagreements that are currently tearing the UMC apart will be solved if the denomination splits in two? Oh, really? So, no same-sex attracted people will be born to traditionalists? No progressives will have access to the Bible and the traditional teachings of the church? No gays will ever choose celibacy? No traditionalists will ever again argue that same-gender sex is morally okay? The same controversy — though possibly silenced to some degree — will continue in the new remnant churches. Will the traditionalists no longer be influenced by culture — or by their own same-gender attracted children and relatives and friends? Will the progressives simply mute the influences which have led others — including some gays and lesbians — to believe that same-gender sex is wrong?

Even the comment thread to Jackson’s article contains a comment that shows how the polarities are breaking down. A women named Caroline Tabor remarks:

I registered with UM Reporter just to leave a comment. I’m 29 years old. Female. White. Heterosexual. Raised in Tucson, Berkeley, Phoenix, Fairfield, San Jose. College in Santa Cruz. Then lived in San Francisco and Berkeley. Proud Sacramento resident for 5 years. Entire family in Kansas. A 14th generation birthright Friend, born into the Evangelical Friends Church. United Methodist since I was around 3. Daughter of deceased Elder in the United Methodist Church (CA-NV Conference), Dennis M. Taber. Born Again when I was 26 years old and encountered Jesus Christ in a jail I was visiting for work. Super Fan of John Wesley. Passionate believer in LGBT equality. I don’t believe the UMC is at the point of separation. I want the dialogue to continue. I think both sides have work to do. For some on the left – I pray they actually evangelize in their own communities. For some on the right – I pray they tone down some of the righteousness. I don’t mean to proof-text here, but I offer up Matthew 7:16 as something that often pops into my head all the time when thinking about this vital issue. Respectfully, Caroline Taber

Which of these UMC remnant denominations would you tell Caroline to join? She seems to me to want to be in both!

And, she illustrates how the polarities are, in fact, beginning to break down. She illustrates why this is not the time to talk about amicable separation.

I know that I shouldn’t criticize an article for what it does not say, but I am deeply suspicious when the nature of these differences is not even mentioned. The Christian
Side B stance on same-gender sex is understood by those who hold it to be an implication of their basic stance on the authority of the Bible and the Christian tradition in informing faith. (See: Why Christian Opposition to Homosexuality Never Dies.) But, Jackson, while seeming to speak with great sympathy to the progressive cause, really never spells out the core values of the progressives that could be the rallying point of the new denomination.

And this makes me suspicious of his intentions in this whole article. There are two ways of reading this: this is a progressive (he teaches at Claremont, after all) addressing his fellow progressives about what their best options are. And, it could be that. But, read it again. It can also be read as the reflections of a traditionalist politely asking his progressive colleagues to go take a hike.

And, why would I (suspicious person that I am) even suggest reading it that way? In the first place, because it
can be read that way. While he seems to have sympathy for the progressives’ cause, he never really hints that he understands what its core values might be. And, then, take a look at Dr. Jackson’s bio at the Claremont web site: he has two degrees from Asbury Theological Seminary, his studies focused on John Wesley and he teaches evangelism. Additionally, Dr. Jackson is listed here as having been a John Wesley Fellow. This means that he received financial assistance for his education from a fund specifically designed to assist conservative, evangelical students.

Which leads me to suggest that the article is deliberately deceptive. I am tempted to say that it is an insult to the intelligence of every self-proclaimed progressive in the UMC — except for the fact that it seems to have worked!

Hey, United Methodist progressives: I think you just got asked to leave the church. Are you actually taking this seriously?

Ben Gosden and Jeremy Smith have written a response here: A United Methodist Church united for our daughters. I understand that they have had some criticism for their stand for a united UMC.

Personally, I think they’ve taken the Jackson article more seriously than it deserves.

Look, folks, it is high time that everyone in the UMC — traditionalist and progressive (whatever you think those labels mean!) — sought to find ways of making our church fellowships safe spaces for all of us. We need to carve out safe spaces for people to explore and discover their faith — even it that means sometimes coming to differing conclusions. We need to find ways of supporting one another in spite of our differences.

The time to do this is now. Don’t wait for General Conference. Don’t wait for all of Africa to become gay-affirming. Don’t wait for all self-proclaimed progressives to see the error of their ways. Or: whatever! Jesus said:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34, 35.)

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