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Local Wesley Covenant Association responds to bishop

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The following letter was submitted by the Baltimore-Washington Conference Chapter of the Wesley Covenant Association in response to a column written by Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, titled “We Can Remain Together: Why I Support the One Church Plan.”  

To our beloved members of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of The United Methodist Church:

Grace and peace be unto you. Our Annual Conference is blessed to have Bishop Easterling as our leader. She is a person of fierce integrity and a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. We pray constantly for our bishop, her family, and for her leadership among us.

At this critical time in the life of our UMC, we continue to be confused by the mixed messages coming from our Conference and denominational leadership. However, we write today to address some of the critical issues affecting our Church, and present to you our perspective of a grace-filled, hopeful future.  

Marriage is a covenant with vows before God and the church. In that sense, it is just like the vows each one of us takes at our Baptism, and some of us take at our Ordination. We vow our support of The United Methodist Church, its doctrine and Discipline. The Discipline is our covenant with one another. On it, with the Scriptures upon which it is established, we base our common life. Therefore, when vows are broken, covenant is shattered, and irreconcilable differences exist, it is like a divorce. Covenant holds us together, but we see a covenant currently in tatters.

At a recent district gathering we were told by our leadership that the situation our denomination is facing is not that bad. Yet we’re urged to have critical conversations with our congregations, and do it now. Then comes suggestion that the current situation in our UMC is analogous to a divorce. These mixed messages breed confusion. As leaders in this conference — regardless of our level of leadership — we are charged with navigating how to care for the individual churches and people, while the General Conference process plays itself out. At this critical juncture in the life of our church, it is important that we lead with care, compassion, clarity and courage. 

Indeed, only God knows what our UMC will look like after February 2019. But if there is a real possibility of a “divorce,” then it would seem prudent to help all of us to be prepared. In these times of uncertainty, we should prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Interestingly enough, we are not even sure anymore what the “worst” is. What we hear from some denominational leaders is that the “worst” is a schism. But is that really the worst? Given the duration, expense and pain of this struggle we are in, we are hearing and even wondering if peaceful separation isn’t preferable to more battles, more trials, more time, energy and resources spent away from our primary mission of making disciples.   

Brothers and Sisters, we don’t believe our disagreement is really about homosexuality. The focus on homosexuality is a symptom, not the problem. When going to the doctor with persistent painful symptoms, usually a skilled physician looks beyond symptom relief to see if healing the cause is possible. If our leaders don’t or won’t address the deeper causes that are producing these symptoms, then where is our hope?

Our core problem is that over the years we have lost any sort of unifying hermeneutic and view of Scripture that allows for these kinds of disagreements to be solved by thorough and thoughtful exegetical work. We have no agreement on what Scriptural authority means in practice. While we do have the so-called “Wesleyan” Quadrilateral, that framework has actually not provided unity due to disagreements on how to use it, and even its own creator, the Rev. Albert Outler, regretted its creation. What do we do with Scripture?  What is it, and how do we construct theology from it?  These are important questions that divide us, and differences on sexuality come directly out of this division.

The Word of God is our primary source of authority and Christian practice. This is so not only because of the wisdom and direction that flow from those sacred texts; but also because the Word of God is Jesus (John 1:14), and He is the Cornerstone of our church. The Bible is not silent on the issue of homosexuality. In fact, for more than two thousand years the majority of the Christian church still contend that the Bible, from cover to cover, promotes a heterosexual viewpoint. This isn’t really about the issue of homosexuality, but a general approach to biblical authority and interpretation. Worse, such interpretations even begin to erode our shared belief in the Lordship and authority of Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate.

Our relationship with Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, must be rightly grounded in the written Word of God. When we, as individuals and as the Church, begin to diminish or ignore biblical authority over our lives, we also undermine the supremacy and absolute authority of Christ over our lives. Staying true to Jesus means staying true to his Word and allowing it to shape and conform us into his image, rather than the other way around. Following Jesus means he is King, and that our identity and purpose is found in him who makes all things new.

This issue is also not like interpretations of Scripture about women in ministry or slavery. We are proud that our UMC recognizes women as equal partners in ministry and leadership. There are many places in Scripture where women’s leadership of Israel and the Church are held up as positive and a blessing. Examples of Deborah, Esther, Priscilla and Aquila all come to mind. In actuality, our Church lost its historic focus of the elevation of women to leadership, and it was later recovered. The same can be said for chattel slavery. In fact, our Methodist ancestors were originally champions of the abolitionist cause, until pressure from worldly culture infiltrated the Church and changed it from the outside. It is this which we contend has happened with our divisions on human sexuality.

It seems highly possible that the UMC will be getting a divorce in 2019. These are not simple disagreements on nonessential differences in interpretation. These are irreconcilable differences as to how to approach our most sacred document. Is it the written word of God, or does it contain a word from God? This is a fundamental difference. Nobody wants this, but maybe it is time. Let’s talk openly and plan prayerfully for how we will have to lead and love through what could be a season of uncertainty. Christ is still our Cornerstone, and He will anchor our church.

In our attempts to “save” our Church, there is the constant appeal for us to be an inclusive Church. The Baltimore-Washington Conference Chapter of the Wesley Covenant Association also embraces inclusivity, as long it doesn’t exclude God and his teachings in Holy Scripture. History shows that other mainline Protestant churches that have taken similar paths of “inclusiveness” have not fared well. Over the course of 46 years, involving many debates, Circles of Grace, and much prayer for guidance, we are further apart than when we started. It’s time to recognize that we espouse not two different opinions on nonessential issues, but two different understandings of the Christian faith. 

Maybe in our planning for the divorce and seeing the reality of what it will mean, we will have a change of heart and sit down together with a new spirit of trust in the power of God for transformation and redemption. Or, maybe these conversations will bring to light just how far from each other we really are about some of the core issues such as mission, vision and understanding of biblical authority and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Either way, we can show the world how to trust God through painful and very difficult circumstances. Let’s trust God and each other enough to speak openly and honestly with one another so that while we may hurt, we will do no more harm.

In Christ’s love,

The Baltimore-Washington Conference Chapter
of the Wesleyan Covenant Association

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