What if the problem with the name of the Commission on A Way Forward was that it had one too many words? Pick the one you’d like to delete, but my vote is for ‘Forward.’
‘Forward’ carries a lot of weight in this title. It implies several things. First, that we are stuck in an intolerable situation, like a vehicle sunk to the axle in mud. That captures how so many United Methodists feel. If we could just get this car (truck, bus, covered wagon) out of the mire, we could move…forward.
But the word also implies that there is a place for us to move ‘to’ that is blessedly mire-less. Surely in the world of the One Church Plan or the Traditional Plan there is a peaceable kingdom where order prevails and mission can thrive unhindered. But beyond the dream of cutting the Gordian knot of our debates over sexuality, there has been no concentrated effort on outlining the form and structure of that new Wesleyan Eden. And with our penchant for utopianism, we’ve always been prone to realized escha-fallacy.
Which brings us to another subtext of ‘forward’-thinking: It’s the cult of American progress come calling once again.
The Prophets of Progress
There is, indeed, an arc to the Christian story. It moves from creation to consummation and its essence is contained in the mystery of faith we recite in the eucharistic liturgy: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. In that formulation we affirm the saving work of God in human history, the appearance of God’s future in the present, and the expectation that all of God’s creatures will find their end in Christ’s return and reign.
The American story has always been a pale reflection of that story. To see America as grafted onto the Christian framework requires the observer to squint mightily. There is so much you have to ignore. The litany of injustices is long and enduring. You don’t just ‘move along’ from traumas like conquest and slavery. Their effects metastasize and become embedded in our economies, our social structures, our theologies, and even our bodies.
If, as the prophets of progress used to say, every day and in every way we are getting better and better, it is a glossy, superficial, and materialistic kind of betterment. There are real achievements and heroic movements to bring more people more rights and better living conditions, but every gain is provisional and, as we’ve seen in recent years, dare not be taken for granted.
For all our vaunted progress, we still retain the capacity for moral failing on a massive scale. And there is still so much for us to come to terms with. The deep knowledge of human sinfulness and the language of the Christian faith could help us reckon with who and where we are.
A Sucker for Forward
I have confessed before that I’m a sucker for the myth of ‘forward.’ I have seen my ministry as part of a long march toward ever-opening horizons in which the oppressed are freed, those on the margins are brought to the center, and solidarity is expressed in the larger society as something like Martin Luther King’s beloved community.
The full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ members in the UMC was part of where I expected and hoped we were headed. I suspect it was how a lot of progressives in the denomination heard the word ‘forward’ in the Commission’s title. ‘Forward’ wasn’t just a way out of an ecclesial morass; it was a move on this journey laid out by a particular kind of theology of progress—one that owed as much to American progressivism as it did to Jesus in the synagogue reading Isaiah’s vision.
In the wake of the St. Louis General Conference and the dissolution of the Commission, the lamentations are many and varied. For traditionalists, despite the outcome that largely affirmed their desire for more accountability to current standards, there is the lingering sense that they are being pilloried for maintaining a position that was a given for their Methodist parents and grandparents. They see the acts of witness and protest on the floor of the General Conference as evidence that traditionalists will always be seen as purveyors of hate.
For those of us who trusted a narrative in which ‘forward’ meant progress, the feeling is akin to disillusionment. This vehicle of the UMC doesn’t seem capable of delivering us to the destination we anticipated. And if it isn’t, then what’s our purpose now?
And for many of us, of every stripe, there is a lament for the connection we used to have. We look across the divide at parents, children, friends, and spouses. How could we live apart?
Let’s Try Sideways
I don’t know what this next chapter holds. There are plenty of folks talking about separation plans and new models of Methodism. It may be that we find a new consensus in how to come apart.
But I know that wherever we go next, if it is to be of God, is not going to be forward. It feels more like repenting from tying our cart to a narrative of progress that has a whole lot more to do with the nation than the church.
I don’t believe it has to be backwards either. A more just and open world is God’s desire, but we seek it because we want to reflect the coming Kingdom, not because it’s a tenet of some flawed national story.
What I long for is a Commission on A Way Sideways. I want to be a part of a Wesleyan movement that really does care about spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land, not because it is looking back to an imagined golden past, but because it recognizes that the broken world we live in needs new eyes to see. I want to foster a community of poets, prophets, and exegetical artists, of every background and orientation, who can discover again the dangerous, creative work of the Spirit and express it in a language not captive to empire, institution, or nostalgia.
I want to refuse to play the game we’ve been playing for the entire life of this 50-year-old church. Because, to quote the wisdom of Joshua, the computer in the 1983 movie War Games that looked at the madness of mutually assured nuclear destruction, the only winning move in this game is not to play.