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Addressing denominational tensions

Vine and tendrils

In this month’s Joyful Journey, Bishop David Bard addresses denominational tensions by correcting misinformation that is spreading about the Michigan Conference’s disaffiliation process and what theology he believes will guide the future UMC.

Michigan Area

We are not yet through the COVID-19 pandemic. People are still getting sick, and some are dying, but we seem to be doing much better. Vaccines for the Omicron variant are coming online. We have learned that taking precautions allows us to participate in many of our regular routines. Some events that had been postponed or canceled for the past two years are back.

In 2020, I was scheduled to lead a tour of Michigan United Methodists to the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany. The Passion Play takes place every ten years and has been so performed once every decade since the 1630s, with a couple of exceptions. In 2020 and 2021, the play was postponed. Finally, last month we went. It was a marvelous experience, one which I continue to process and about which I plan to write more in upcoming blogs.

Yet even in Germany, denominational tensions made their presence felt, and it is about those issues that I need to write this month. On a single day, two communications related to the separation occurring in The United Methodist Church arrived in my text messages and email.

First, I received the email sent by the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) naming Michigan among 19 annual conferences in which laity were being encouraged to lobby their church councils to withhold all apportionments/ministry shares. I was surprised to see our conference on this list as one “making disaffiliation processes extremely difficult.” I wrote to the national WCA’s president and asked why, as we have only one requirement in our disaffiliation process not specifically identified in paragraph 2553, the only paragraph currently providing a disaffiliation process. We ask for two years of conference ministry shares for release of the trust clause. I found out that this is the reason for our listing. The national WCA considers this onerous and punitive.

Let me begin by sharing that our trustees have been in the process of revising this requirement since May, but more about that later. Why might it have been added in the first place? The United Methodist trust clause has existed since the beginning of the Methodist movement. The trust clause specifies that local churches hold their property “in trust” for the denomination. The trust clause is not, at heart, about property or power. It is about presence. The trust clause is intended to help preserve a Methodist ministry presence in a community, acknowledging that such a presence is what previous generations have contributed toward with their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. The funds collected through this trust clause provision in our disaffiliation process will be primarily directed toward maintaining such a ministry presence.

However, when the Global Methodist Church launched in May, the conference trustees and our disaffiliation task force began to consider a waiver of this provision for those disaffiliating churches who, upon disaffiliation, would be joining another Methodist denomination, including the Global Methodist Church. The trustees are in the process now of finalizing language that would waive this disaffiliation requirement for churches that have been supporting The United Methodist Church and the Michigan Conference through their ministry shares and will be disaffiliating to become part of another Methodist denomination. We think this preserves the intent of the trust clause and provides added graciousness in this process. I expect this language to be finalized in the coming days and made public at that time.

I understand that our disaffiliation process is not the only reason some congregations are choosing to withhold ministry shares. To every congregation that informs me of their intent to withhold, I remind them that a blanket withholding of all ministry shares is detrimental to some ministries they may want to support. Additionally, for those churches who withhold ministry shares and whose pastors receive Michigan Conference health and pension benefits, know that the persons who administer such benefits for our pastors are paid from our ministry shares budget.

The other communication came to me from Adam Hamilton at Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City. He received a phone message from a Michigan United Methodist who said she attended the Wesleyan Covenant Association presentation at the Michigan Annual Conference and was told there that Bishop Bard endorses a theology very different from the current theology of The United Methodist Church. She was convinced that this different theology is the future of the UMC. Rev. Hamilton asked me about this, and I shared the story, as it was not the first time I had confronted it.

One of our local churches made a presentation at the WCA gathering that took place during our annual conference. They were sharing their discernment process about whether or not to disaffiliate. During their process, they had invited me to meet with their discernment group and I was only happy to do so. The result of their work was a lengthy report to the congregation which included notes about whom they had consulted and their views of the future theology of The United Methodist Church. I had not been asked about that “theology” in my conversations with the discernment committee. I was given an opportunity to review the report, which I did. Given that the conclusion was the church would likely leave the UMC, I did not offer a point-by-point criticism of the report’s characterization of this future UMC theology, though I had a number of objections. When I first heard that this “new theology” was being attributed to me, I contacted the church and was assured that no such statement about my personal theology was made at the WCA presentation. I further asked them to clarify that a review of a document does not entail agreement with its contents.

Let me be clear about the theology that I think will guide the future United Methodist Church. Our theology will be anchored in our historic statements, The Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith, along with Wesley’s sermons and notes on the New Testament. I would invite your attention to the Doctrinal Standards section of The Book of Discipline. Included in our standards are statements about Scripture that will remain our grounding. We believe that the Scriptures contain all that is necessary for salvation, that they reveal “the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation.” Further, Scripture is “the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine.” Scripture is the inspired Word of God.

Also included in our statements are affirmations of the trinitarian nature of God, traditionally phrased as God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Alongside that is the affirmation that Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity.

I share these in particular because there is currently a lot of chatter online and in publications that is questioning whether the future United Methodist Church will be anchored in these historic statements, and that includes chatter attributing to me views that I do not hold. The statements I have shared about the inspiration of Scripture, that it contains all that is necessary for our salvation, and about the Triune God are my own affirmations.

Let me also call attention to another part of our doctrinal material in The Book of Discipline, “Our Theological Task.” “Theology is our effort to reflect upon God’s gracious action in our lives. . . . The theological task, though related to the Church’s doctrinal expressions, serves a different function. Our doctrinal affirmations assist us in the discernment of Christian truth in ever-changing contexts. Our theological task includes the testing, renewal, elaboration, and application of our doctrinal perspective in carrying out our calling ‘to spread scriptural holiness over these lands.’”

As United Methodists, we are anchored in our doctrinal heritage and offered room to think creatively about that heritage. Sometimes such creative thinking extends to the limits of what we will finally find acceptable. Some theologians will make statements that we think go too far. What I see happening at times, is that the most far-out statements are used to characterize what “the new theology” of United Methodism will be. I don’t think that’s helpful, fair, or accurate.

Perhaps our theological task is like jazz. You begin with a tune, and that tune anchors everything that the ensemble will be playing. Yet if you’ve ever listened to what John Coltrane does with the song “My Favorite Things,” there are times when the tune seems to get lost, only to reemerge later. Some theology will strike the wrong notes. It does not mean we’ve changed the tune. It only means we’ve discovered some limits beyond which the tune really cannot be called that same tune. To affirm that Scripture is inspired leaves lots of room for various theological descriptions of the process of inspiration. To say that God is triune leaves plenty of room for people to work with what it means to say that one God is three “persons.” It leaves room for exploration of how the human Jesus is also God incarnate.

Other bishops are also responding to questions of theology, and I invite you to listen to their responses: Bishop Julius Trimble of the Indiana Conference; Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey of the Louisiana Conference; and Bishop Thomas Bickerton, who spoke during the opening session of the most recent Council of Bishops meeting.

Finally, allow me to say a brief word about the recent Judicial Council decision regarding paragraph 2548.2 of The Book of Discipline. Many of you have written asking for the Michigan Conference to consider this as an alternative to paragraph 2553 for church disaffiliation. In decision 1449, the Judicial Council ruled that “the process in ¶2548.2 may not be used as a pathway for local churches to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church.” I know this is a disappointment to some of you. I had worked with a small group of bishops to explore the possibilities of using the paragraph prior to the request for a judicial council decision. This path is not an option, meaning the road ahead will remain bumpy.

I finally got to Oberammergau and also visited a few other cities in Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic. We toured some absolutely beautiful churches, including the church where J. S. Bach was the organist. Along the way, we were reminded of some of the wars fought in Europe, many rooted in religious differences. I learned a new word, “defenestration,” which means to throw someone out a window. It was something that happened as part of the religious wars in Europe. An act of defenestration, rooted in part in religious differences, was at the root of the Thirty Years’ War, one of the deadliest and most destructive wars in European history.

This is a difficult time in the life of The United Methodist Church. Even traveling to Europe did not provide a break from our denominational tensions. In the midst of it all, I will offer my best effort to be clear, direct, fair, and gracious, knowing that graciousness is often in the eye of the beholder. I will also take some comfort in the fact that at least we are not throwing people out of windows.

Last Updated on September 20, 2022

The Michigan Conference