Warning: United Methodist inside baseball ahead.
One of the strongest selling points for the One Church Plan, (and one that I’ve made), is that it takes off the table the contentious, divisive debate over LGBTQ inclusion and allows us to focus on making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world—the stated mission of the United Methodist Church. The thing that is often unstated is that doing this is not only a change of language; it’s also a change of culture. And do we trust God for what we need to do the work that comes after our global body, the General Conference, meets in February 2019?
As a reserve delegate to that General Conference, I am watching my daily mail haul begin to grow with literature supporting one or another of the plans to be considered. Recently it brought a book by two Dallas pastors, Stanley R. Copeland and Scott Gilliland. Copeland is senior pastor and Gilliland the associate pastor at Lover’s Lane UMC, a large North Dallas congregation that has managed to combine fidelity to the UMC’s current structure with openness to a wide diversity of people.
Their self-published book, Together:United Methodists of the Temple, Tabernacle and Table, is both a celebration of Lover’s Lane and an appeal for the One Church Plan.
Last summer Lover’s Lane hosted a conference of centrists within the denomination who have taken the unfortunate name of Uniting Methodists. (It just doesn’t stand out in a paragraphs that also talk about United Methodists, which is most of the paragraphs you find it in.) That plan would change the governing Book of Discipline by allowing annual conferences and congregations much more autonomy to remove restrictions on LGBTQ ordination and same-sex weddings, effectively paving the way for full inclusion in some quarters of the UMC, while not requiring churches and clergy to act against conscience if they want to maintain the current standards.
The subtitle of the book comes from the vision statement of the Uniting Methodists that uses the Old Testament images of the Temple and Tabernacle to talk about a vision of God and the Church that is both “fixed and free.” As the Temple remained “the fixed place where God resides, to which faithful people could return,” so United Methodists need a touchstone of Wesleyan theology and tradition that is constant. But like the Tabernacle that accompanied the Israelites on the journey out of slavery, they also need “to follow God who is still moving and leading us into new knowledge and understanding about the world.” So is God fixed or free? These centrists answer, “Yes.”
Because of this capacity to come to a fork in the road in and to choose the fork, centrists can be frustrating for others to deal with. But Together reminds us that they are more than just desperate peace-keepers trying to stay united at all costs, like traumatized children working to keep their fighting parents together. Centrists have a sincere conviction that the mission of making disciples is possible even for people who are divided about sexuality. They don’t believe those who hold more traditional views are bigots and they believe congregations of every stripe can be open and welcoming to LGBTQ persons as beloved children of God. They also believe, as the Rev. Copeland says, that the UMC could answer a cry in the larger culture:
“The hunger for unity has today gone from a growl to a roar in our country. Whether the church still has a voice that will be heard is unfortunately in question.” (xviii)
Guitars, Ukuleles, and the Open Table
The book proceeds through a series of chapters that were surely sermons originally. Gilliland uses a guitar analogy to talk about how being “fixed and free,” like guitar strings strung, is stressful and “when learning to play guitar, tension is panful, but it’s also where the music happens.” (3) Copeland extends the metaphor by comparing a potential UM division to becoming “like ‘four ukuleles’” (19), hardly a sturdy enough instrument for the mission. There are classic preacher stories like a French church expanding its cemetery wall to include a fallen American story, Copeland’s admiration for his mentor (and prominent UM evangelical), Bill Hinson, and a heartwarming story about a 97-year-old member who commissioned the church’s cross.
I have tremendous respect for pastors who take on a writing ministry and I want to say thanks to these two for offering this useful and provocative book. But the stories don’t come across as powerfully on the page. If we haven’t heard the specifics, most of us know the shape of the preacher’s bag of tricks, and we suspect that perhaps we’re getting some Lover’s Lane boosterism as well. But when Copeland shares a detailed story about the first full-time pastor of the church, the Rev. Tom Shipp, it becomes the book’s most powerful image.
Shipp was effectively orphaned during the Great Depression and grew up getting shelter and board where he could in rural Missouri. At one home he was consigned to sleeping in the barn and made to eat alone on the back porch. When he moved to another home that welcomed him as part of the family, he continued to see the former family at their local Methodist church. One Sunday, he was escorted by his new family to the rail for communion and found himself kneeling beside the patriarch of the first family.
As Shipp told the story in a 1970 sermon at Lover’s Lane:
The communion elements were served. And the man at my right, for whom I had worked, took my hand and held it just as I reached for the bread. I can still feel the tension. The man to my left was Mr. Kuhn, and his face turned bright red. I can still hear the words that he said as he leaned forward, the preacher still holding the elements, not moving. He said to the man, “It’s not your table!”…Finally, before matters came to blows, the man released his grip, and I was allowed to take Holy Communion for the first time. (68-9)
Clearly these two pastor-authors are fired by a vision of the open table and want to be freed to tell similar stories of how others, previously excluded, can be welcomed. They support the position with reference to Paul’s openness as an evangelistic tool in Romans 14 and to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, which challenged the Jewish Christians to make accommodation for spreading the gospel among Gentiles.
Don Underwood and a Pragmatic Vision for the UMC
Late in the book, Copeland shares an interview with Don Underwood, pastor of nearby Christ UMC in Plano, Texas. Underwood turns out to be a pragmatic and direct advocate of the One Church Plan. Freed from the sermon format of most of the book and its over-reliance on easily digestible stories, Underwood makes the case that more local control would free churches like his to do even greater ministry:
I’m not anxious about any of this because General Conference has become more and more irrelevant. It will be so until we shift the focus to mission that we largely agree upon and subordinate the discussion of largely United States—concerns and politically charged social agenda to that primary mission of the church. (124)
Ironically, large church centrists like Underwood are making an argument for a more congregational structure for the UMC—a hallmark of the more conservative Southern Baptist associations. Traditionalists within the UMC are among those upholding more centralized uniformity. “I’ve wanted contextualization for years,” Underwood says. “All of us who have grown large churches have done so more in spite of the [Book of] Discipline, not with the help of the Discipline.” (123)
Together perhaps does more than it knows. While it is a plea for a respectful unity, it also points the way to a larger question that haunts the whole of the denomination. Copeland states the problem in his introduction but then seldom returns to it: “Until we have a stated vision [for the UMC], I fear [our] dreams will remain unclear and unachievable. Vision truly is the key.” (xviii)
This is about far more than words that are or aren’t on a page. It’s about a Methodist movement that can be inclusive and dynamic. Our current structure is perfectly designed for producing what we have—churches that proclaim open doors, hearts, minds, and tables but argue fiercely (though often quietly) about what that means. If the mission really is the mission, how do we claim it in a compelling way? And what structure is going to get us there? That’s the kind of creativity Wesley and Asbury, different though they were, would have encouraged. Together.