In desiring to respond to an open letter to centrists, I am not sure I qualify as a centrist. In some contexts I would appear conservative, in others progressive. Yet, I feel a need to respond to the Reverend Stephen Rankin’s “An Open Letter to Adam Hamilton and Other Centrists: Where Lie the Boundaries?” I really disliked his commentary “It is time to separate.” The more I read it, the less it made sense to me. I could not understand why the United Methodist church would publish it. This new blog post makes even less sense and I would like to respond.
Where does the Reverend Adam Hamilton argue against the Doctrinal Standards of the United Methodist Church? Which centrist is arguing we abandon having doctrinal standards? Until you can prove a centrist is arguing against the Doctrinal Standards of the United Methodist Church, then it is pretty safe to assume that they would be the starting place for any conversation about boundaries.
No one, as far as I can tell, is contending for a church where there are no boundaries and consequences for violating the crossing of boundaries. Let us pretend for a moment this is not really about power and that everyone is disagreeing in good faith. The biggest area of contention is the Social Principles of the UMC and, in particular, the human sexuality section. It is not wrong for United Methodists to disagree with a social principle. Every General Conference we change the Social Principles.
Christians may disagree with each other. If you read the New Testament, we see Christians disagreeing with each other. Paul did not write his famous love chapter because some Corinthians were getting married. While Paul had clear opinions about who was right in the debate about what is acceptable to eat in Romans 14, or which day to hold as sacred, Paul encourages them to honor each other and live out their convictions as an expression of their life lived in Jesus.
Paul would not say anything goes (read Galatians). He also believes that strife/anger/quarrels/dissensions/factions are the works of the flesh, not from God (read Galatians). So we have to hold in tension that there are non-negotiable on the one hand, but also that we may disagree with each other too.
As United Methodists, we have our doctrinal standards. While theoretically changeable, they do not change easily or often. Until the Reverend Adam Hamilton or some other prominent centrist starts arguing otherwise, I think it is safe to assume that they are our boundaries.
The bigger issue might be that the Reverend Stephen Rankin is not a fan of our doctrinal standards. They might not be as “clear and enforceable” as he would like them to be. Perhaps he disagrees with the Book of Disciplines enforcement mechanisms for persons teaching against the Doctrinal Standards of the UMC. The good news is that we may disagree with the Book of Discipline and work to change it. It is disingenuous to argue centrists do not have core doctrines, boundaries, or uncrossable lines.
STEPHEN W. RANKIN says
I have no doubt that I could have written more clearly.. I wrote the blog as a follow-up to a UM News Service piece. I probably should have summarized, in a paragraph, that essay before getting into the meat of the blog.
I didn’t suggest that centrists are blase about doctrinal boundaries. I affirmed the opposite. We operate in a denomination, however, that has stated doctrines looked upon by many as largely meaningless. My reference to 1988 points to our denominational history, from the 1972 Book of Discipline affirming pluralism to the 1988 statement that only cleared matters up on paper, not in reality. My examples (e.g. tarot cards) are not hypothetical. In the UMNS piece, I referenced a book by two sociologists that show Mainline Protestant young people, among whom are United Methodists, who clearly do not accept the core, traditional doctrines of the Christian faith. They believe, rather, that they should be able to be full members of a church and create their own set of beliefs. If The United Methodist Church could find a way to stay together, we must face these facts and clarify our true doctrinal core.
Andrew Burd-Harris says
I feel like we may be talking past each other. Clearly we see what is going on in the church differently. I appreciate you taking time to respond.
We have the doctrinal standards, do you think if they were clearer we could end talk of schism? The preliminary doctrinal standards of the proposed Global Methodist Church are not clearer or simpler than the current United Methodist Doctrinal Standards. They have added two creeds and a definition to them (which I don’t inherently take issue with). I would contend then they are more complicated. I personally would be in favor of clearer ones, but if this was a driving issue for the folks who want to leave, their actions speak otherwise.
I really do not understand the correlation between some alleged United Methodists rejecting the basic tenets of the Christian faith (or the United Methodist Doctrinal Standards) and the tension between centrists and traditionalists. Most of the centrists I interact with would like see unity in the United Methodist Church. Schism breaks our hearts. We would like to be able to be a church in the midst disagreements over human sexuality. Be a witness to our shared faith in Jesus by loving each other as Jesus loves us. The surface issue is that there are traditionalists who do not want to be in a church with people who disagree with them over human sexuality. Below the surface is a struggle for power.
While some traditionalists will bring up arguments about doctrinal standards or that the United Methodist Church does not enforce what it believes, there are better answers to to these particular issues than schism. We could find ways to stay together, if we took very seriously the part of our Doctrinal Standards about doing no harm, by doing good, and by attending the ordinances of God. The most talked about issue relates to a social principle, not a doctrinal standard.