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WCA responds to Discipleship Council Vision

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The Baltimore-Washington Chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association issued a response to the April 29 Vision Statement by the Conference Discipleship Council in Response to Legislation Enacted during the 2019 General Conference.


May 22, 2019

Our United Methodist Book of Discipline, guiding the mission of our church, states, “The Church seeks to fulfill its global mission through the Spirit-given servant ministries of all Christians, both lay and clergy. Faithfulness and effectiveness demand that all ministries in the Church be shaped by the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ” (Para. 123). Locally, we tend to entrust vision for that ministry to our Annual Conference Discipleship Council. Nevertheless, the April 29 “Vision Statement” of the Discipleship Council of the Baltimore-Washington Conference marks a lost opportunity for setting a healthy course forward in ministry, following the 2019 special called General Conference and subsequent Judicial Council sessions. While appreciating the “deep sorrow and pain” expressed in “failing to love one another as Christ has loved us,” and the hopefulness of “being rooted and grounded in God’s love and vision for all of God’s creation,” we nevertheless find it an inadequate statement in several ways. The statement is not a true representation of the views in our Conference, ignores the clear requirements of the Book of Discipline, vilifies dissenters and is dishonest in many particulars. The inadequacy is magnified because the Discipleship Council, as an important leadership arm, guides the ministry of the Conference, and as such, puts the ministries of this Conference at odds with the stated positions of The United Methodist Church.

Therefore, after identifying what we take to be the problems with the present “Vision Statement,” we set out what we believe to be a more hopeful way forward. In this, we do not claim to speak for everyone, or to be the only faithful voice in the church. We do, however – in love, despite our disagreement and disappointment – claim a position to be heard, representing not only ourselves, but many other like-minded persons in our pews and pulpits. We claim to be a voice which seeks to live in fidelity with the Scripture and with the shared doctrine and discipline of the United Methodist Church.

The “Vision Statement” is not representative of our Conference. We are aware that many believe our Discipline statements about human sexuality are not representative of American Jurisdictions and some Central Conferences. We respectfully disagree. But, having now an opportunity to create a model inclusive and mindful of this disagreement, the Discipleship Council ignores it. Despite stating that “our conference and our churches hold a myriad of views on the issue of human sexuality and many other issues,” and “healthy congregations have figured out how to flourish together in spite of that,” the Council’s document states and recommends only one view as though it is the only view that matters, despite being at odds with the deep convictions of many United Methodists in this Conference (and not just members of the Annual Conference), and the General Church’s reiterated position.

The Statement is also not representative because it is not accountable to the Conference. The website’s preamble framing the Statement makes it clear that it is not open to debate, and others are already appealing to it as though it were a statement of policy. In this, leadership continues down the sad path, begun with the “circles of grace,” to give the appearance of open democratic and participatory processes, while denying them in reality, so as to control and manipulate the

conversation and minimize or silence the voices of those who differ. When a leadership council sets out principles in a way that cannot be meaningfully debated or amended, while directly affecting the life of the whole, it manipulates the body. This is enforced groupthink and the psychology of the collective, not the open discourse of free people seeking the good of the Church, and the mind of Christ. It deepens the division of the body, rather than promoting true unity.

The “Vision Statement” vilifies those who disagree with it. The invocation of the history of racial and gender discrimination serves one purpose only: to tie it to those who disagree with the position of the Discipleship Council and uphold the teaching of the Discipline, tarring them as oppressive and discriminatory, thereby delegitimizing their voices and their views. This is hardly “grounded in love.” Or, perhaps the framers of the Statement do not believe that those who disagree are intelligent enough or sufficiently aware of this tactless virtue-signaling to understand what is being said of them? Or, perhaps because of the authoritative tone of the statement, they expect that that those who dissent will be cowed into submissive silence. Those who disagree with the position taken by the Annual Conference’s leadership, which blatantly conflicts with that of the General Church to which it should submit, cannot and will not be silent.

The “Vision Statement” indulges in dishonesty in many places. The document is based on a skewed remembering of “our shared history,” both highlighting and minimizing aspects of the past in a way that is convenient to the views of the Council:

It cherry-picks statements by John Wesley in support of a brand of what he called “latitudinarianism,” which he would never have endorsed or tolerated in Methodism, while ignoring Wesley’s clear statements about the sin of same-sex practice (See Wesley’s Explanatory Notes, e.g. 1 Cor. 6:9, Eph. 5:1-11 et al.). In addition, it uses language related specifically to ecumenical relations (Wesley’s “catholic spirit”) and attempts to apply them within Methodism itself. Footnoting quotes from Wesley matters little when the quotations are taken out of context and used to proffer views Wesley would have firmly disavowed. The same may be said for quotation from the Articles of Religion, which never anticipated nor support the use to which they have been twisted in the Statement.

In addition, it is not the case that, “differences in the interpretation of Scripture have resulted in brokenness in our denomination. . .” Hermeneutical differences exist and are indeed prolific and often problematic within Methodism. However, what causes brokenness is not interpretive or doctrinal differences per se, but the continual breach of covenant and lack of accountability at many levels. This violation and disobedience of our shared covenant has put an intolerable strain on our connectedness.

The “Vision Statement” misrepresents our polity, stating the truism that “The United Methodist Church and its General Conferences are not one and the same ...” and “[t]he General Conference’s power extends solely to legislative matters” while failing to acknowledge that, as the Book of Discipline clearly states, only the General Conference may speak for the whole church (¶ 509). Furthermore, the “Vision Statement” states categorically (and therefore wrongly and misleadingly) that the General Conference’s authority does not

extend to matters of doctrine. For years, proponents of changing the church’s teaching on matters of sexuality have argued that such a new direction would not be a change of doctrinal standards (for which there is a long and laborious process outlined in the Discipline); now, the Council has discovered that maintaining the longstanding teaching of the church somehow amounts to setting new doctrine! We also point out that the Discipleship Council is itself a creation of the General Conference, whose authority it now seeks to delegitimize.

The Statement pretends that certain chargeable offenses by clergy “turn solely on whether any given General Conference has unilaterally ‘declared’ that a particular ‘practice’ is ‘incompatible with Christian teaching’ as though this was invented this year; when in fact the 2019 General Conference upheld the same position which has been that of every General Conference since the matter first came to a vote in 1984 and thus has been the consistent position of the church. Moreover, it overlooks the fact that the calls for increased accountability and enhanced penalties for disobedience stem directly from acts of defiance by clergy in various places and attempts at nullification by annual and central conferences and one jurisdiction.

The Statement misrepresents the qualifications for clergy, as though the general church has not always set minimum requirements of various types for admission to conference membership, intimating that membership is at the sole and absolute discretion of each annual conference, which has never been true. The General Conference through the Discipline sets the minimum standards for clergy membership in the annual conferences.

The Statement also misrepresents the relationship between members of the clergy and the solemnizing of the marriage covenant, which is not the exclusive and godlike domain of ministers of the Gospel in their sole discretion, but a covenant which has public and private aspects, with the exercise of the duties and prerogatives of pastors in conformity with both the teaching of the church and civil law.

Finally, the Statement strongly intimates that those who do not agree with its views on sexuality, marriage, and ordination are unloving and rejecting of LGBTQ+ people. This is presented as though self-evidently true, while the authors of the document are quite aware that it is false, and that there are moreover many persons who self-identify as LGBTQ+ who themselves uphold classic Christian teaching on sexuality.

Yet none of these flaws, egregious as they are, reflect the true tragedy of the “Vision Statement.” Its greatest loss lies not in what it does say, but what it fails to say.

Focused tightly on rights and especially the prerogatives of the clergy, it does not lift up the kind of sacrificial commitment to holiness of life by both clergy and laypersons, and the very highest possible standards of individual and corporate Christian discipleship. It also does not commend the servant-leadership that goes with this, which alone will fulfill the true Wesleyan vision of “spreading Scriptural holiness across the land,” and the Asburian extension of winning the continent for Christ.

While it speaks of “dreams,” this “Vision Statement” offers no true expansive and hopeful vision of actual ministry and disciple-making which will be truly transformative for personal life, the corporate life of the church or the wider society. Claiming to be looking ahead, it remains mired in the past. Unaccepting of the church’s repeatedly-restated teaching, it chooses to balk rather than to look for meaningful ways of blessing the lives of LGBTQ+ people within the clear discipline and mandate of The United Methodist Church (which is itself expressive of the larger and ancient commitments of the Church Universal). Like the older calls for Methodists to affirm slavery despite Methodism’s counter-cultural position, this statement calls for the conference to conform to the prevailing winds of secular culture, rather than taking the more difficult road of being agents of Holy Spirit-empowered transformation.

We are disappointed, disheartened and disillusioned with our Conference leadership’s call for disobedience to the covenant contained in our common “doctrine, spirit and discipline with which [we] first set out.”

Accordingly, we seek a more faithful vision of ministry in the Baltimore-Washington Conference and we trust God, pray, and work for:

A commitment to faithfulness to the teaching, shared covenant, and discipline of The United Methodist Church;

A re-dedication to open, participatory, and truly democratic processes at every level of the connection, in line with the Constitution and Discipline;

A church which is welcoming of all, while also maintaining for all the high standards of accountable discipleship in every aspect of life that was characteristic of early Methodism;

A renewed commitment to the high standards of faithful discipleship. With this, a review of every aspect of our ethics, sexual and otherwise, including the ways in which heterosexual or “straight” behaviors and practices around sexuality, marriage, and family have been winked at while an undue and hypocritical onus has been inflicted on our LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers;

A zeal refreshed for ministry with and for the poor; with prisoners and the addicted; in support of healthy lives, families, neighborhoods, and communities; in confronting racism, sexism, and all other dehumanizing and life-destroying expressions of transpersonal evil;

Prayer for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon every congregation and each believer; and with this a recalling to self-examination and true repentance, to renewed emphasis on prayer and spiritual disciplines, and fresh manna in sacramental life, praise and liturgy, and effective evangelism and church body-life;

An understanding of “love” which goes beyond subjective feelings and external, sensory experiences, and focuses instead on the great objective work of Jesus Christ on the cross, His atoning work for our salvation, and the reclaiming and renewal of the created order;

A vision for reaching our entire conference region for Jesus Christ and his saving Gospel,

and for partnering with United Methodists and other Christians nationally and globally, invoking Wesley’s own vision that “The world is our parish.”

One of the great creative minds of our time has suggested, “Stop worrying about missed opportunities and start looking for new ones.” Or, as an apostle put it: “[F]orgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

May that be our vision, our dream, and our daily pursuit, to the glory of God and the blessing of God’s children.

- The Executive Board of the Baltimore-Washington Chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association: Rev. Kevin Baker, President;  Johnny Hines, Vice President; Matthew Sichel, Secretary; and Members at Large: Rev. Charles Harrell, Rev. Rudy Bropleh, Rev. David Deans, Pastor Brian Berger, Debbie Deans and Michelle Baker. 

Travis Knoll May 24, 2019 1:36pm

Thank you. This lays out many of my own thoughts and concerns relating to the vision statement published earlier in a thoughtful and faithful way. I also appreciate that the conference's willingness to share this counterpoint to the Discipleship Council's statement.

William Rowley May 24, 2019 3:48pm

Wise words from WCA leadership to "do no harm", as enough has been done in that regard.

Kerm Towler May 30, 2019 10:57pm

If we use 18th century interpretations of ordination standards-generally understood, implied or written-then Debbie Deans and Michelle Baker would not be ordain-able. In seminary we are taught to use modern interpretations of scripture because of the discovery of scripture fragments preceding the source material for the KJV. Truly, don’t trust anything written before 1960, to use a phrase.

Hal Atkins May 31, 2019 11:12pm

I want to thank you for your faithful response to the Discipleship Council's statement. I appreciate how well it was thought out and shared in a loving way. I too am grateful that the Conference Leadership for their willingness to share the response. I continue to be in prayer for our Conference as well as the United Methodist Church as a whole.