I am a delegate to the United Methodist Church’s General Conference from the Northern Europe Central Conference. During the last decades the United Methodist Church has been in a process of finding its way through the modern issue of human sexuality. Many discussions to change the wording in the Book of Discipline have taken place in conferences on different levels of the church and many petitions is made. I do not think it is possible to solve this problem by changing some wordings in our book of legislation as if the issue is judicial or legalistic.
The 2019 extra session of the General Conference was meant to close the discussion and come up with a plan to help the church to continue the evangelic mission in spite of polarization of different opinions on the issue of human sexuality. Instead the work on this issue has turned the focus away from human sexuality to the issue of church splitting, separation of the church in several branches. Instead of keeping the focus strictly on the issue of human sexuality, the main issue has been changed to solve the problem by splitting the church. It seems to me that this change of focus shows a lack of theological ability to deal with the real issue, human sexuality. Has the United Methodist Church given up and instead chosen a more convenient and easy way to solve the problem by changing the focus to find a new structure for the church?
The 2020 General Conference will be introduced to several scenarios where splitting and separation in one form or another is on the agenda. The headlines in these presentations are words like “graceful separation” and “plan for separation is good” and “reconciliation and grace through separation.” I still find it difficult to understand what the point is of presenting any kind of splitting and separation as something good and graceful. To whom is splitting graceful? I still find it difficult to see why it is an acceptable way to pay some groups a lot of money to leave the church and be silent. When preparing for General Conference I cannot forget Wesley’s strong words to the Methodists when he stated: “If the Methodists leave the church God will leave them!”1
Some of the voices in the church who speak for splitting and separation call themselves Wesleyan, orthodox and traditional. In his theology Wesley strongly opposed splitting and separation. I do not understand how any plan for solving theological issues by splitting the church or making peaceful separations can be Wesleyan, orthodox or traditional. It definitely is not.
Wesley indeed faced the issue of separation and splitting during his whole lifetime, but he lived and died a member of the one and same church and recommended his followers to do the same. The issues that could have forced Wesley to separate from the church were many:
During Wesley’s whole life he fought against the deistic theologians of the church. The deism was dominant at the university of Oxford, and most of Wesley’s clergy colleagues were in favor of deistic theology. During Wesley’s whole lifetime deistic theologians dominated preaching and church governance in the church and at the universities. Wesley’s fight against deism was about very central issues such as Christian teaching on the doctrine of God, and the doctrine of Trinity. The deistic theologians believed in god as a principle and as the first creator of universe, but a god distant from the world, a god outside his creation and not interfering with his creation, a god not reachable by any human actions. Deism did not accept any biblical description of Christ’s divine nature or actions, and they saw no mystic actions of God in the sacraments. In the Bible, only Christ’s natural human actions were accepted, not his divine. And the doctrine of trinity lost its meaning after the time of Christian Antiquity. In the majority of the church, Wesley could find a lot of theological positions in serious conflict with the Status Confessionis of the church, or manifest expressions of heresy against the orthodox standards of doctrines, enough to separate from the church or split into a new Methodist Church. But he did not.
Wesley fought the deistic majority of the church with very strong arguments. He even made a hierarchic classification of orthodox Christian faith saying that the first and highest level of faith is a living personal faith in Christ our redeemer and savior. The second and next highest level of faith is the faith of heathens and Muslims who indeed have a faith in the living God and a religious praxis in worshipping God. The third and lower level of faith is the deists. And the lowest level is the no-faith level of the materialist.2 Wesley classifies the faith of his deistic church fellows below the faith of heathens and Muslims. Wesley could have talked about deism as a heresy, a modern version of Gnosticism, or in conflict with Status Confessionis. But Wesley never used his strong criticism of his deistic thinking church as a level to make a legal reason for leaving the church or advocated for any separation or a new Methodist Church of true believers.
The most concentrated theological fight in Wesley’s lifetime was the fight about human determinism. Wesley’s understanding of Christian teaching made him hold the position that human beings have a will to say “yes” or “no” to God’s graceful initiative. The free will of man in his or her relation to God and to Evilness is one of the essential qualities of human nature, according to Wesley’s theological position, and if human beings are predestinated in all actions and relations to God, then the whole concept of Christian conversion and sanctification collapses. If human beings are predestinated to how they live and act, there is no sin and no human responsibility. The old conflict between Augustin and Pelagius shows that this area really is about heresy and Status Confessionis. With help from the Armenian theologians and the Eastern Church Fathers Wesley develops the concept of prevenient grace as God’s helpful power to assist human beings in all their strife and re-establishing of independency of the person and individual free will. John Fletcher did his main theological writings in defense of Wesley’s in-deterministic position and argumentation for the prevenient grace. Here we find some of the really important contributions that Methodism has offered to the ecumenical and global Christianity. The reformed theologians, and even the reformed Methodists hold the deterministic position, which was absolutely unacceptable for Wesley. But Wesley never used his strong criticism of the major deterministic theology of his church as a level to create a legal reason for leaving the church or go for separation. Wesley could have claimed the argument of heresy and Status Confessionis to lift his own position, but he did not.
Wesley fought against all kinds of sin. He identified many actions as sin. The worst sin under the Sun is slavery, according to Wesley.3 The clear condemnation of the sin of slavery was stated by the founding General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1785 by saying that “We do hold in the deepest abhorrence, the practice of slavery; and shall not cease to seek its destruction by all wise and prudent means.”4 From a 2020 perspective it is clear that slavery is incompatible with Christian teaching and as such a heresy, a question of Status Confessionis. You cannot in 2020 be a Christian and in the same time hold slaves. In Wesley’s church other theologians held another position than Wesley. George Whitefield not only was a deterministic theologian; he also owned a number of slaves (70) when he passed away. Even though Wesley had to see Whitefield as a sinner of the worst kind due to his ownership of slaves and see Whitefield as a theologian with a heretic position and in conflict with a Status Confessions issue, Wesley preached a memorial sermon On the Death of George Whitefield. In that sermon Wesley gave the full credit to Whitefield as a fellow clergy and a united fellow of the Methodist movement in the one and same church. Wesley had the opportunity to separate from Whitefield and his heretic positions, but Wesley did not. The understanding of ecclesiology and to be in communion was stronger than the issues they disagreed upon.5
John Wesley received copies of the Minutes of the General Conferences, and he saw that rev. Francis Asbury and rev. Thomas Cook was titled Bishops. He also saw that the church had decided to create a College with the name Cokesbury.6 Wesley became very angry and he wrote one of his most harsh letters to the Methodist Episcopal Church: “For Christ’s sake put a full end to this!” The following years Wesley was bitter because the role and the status the Methodist Church in America had given those presbyters who were taken aside to exercise the ministry of supervision, ordination and leading the conference. Wesley himself exercised the same ministry within the ecclesial structure of British Methodist, and during his whole life he saw himself as a reverend who exercised the ministry of supervision, ordination and leading the conference, not the role and status of an Anglican Bishop, and his acts of ordinations was presbyter ordinations after the praxis in old Alexandria.7 The Methodist Church did not follow Wesley but continued to develop not only the role of Bishops but also the ecclesial structure of the counsel of bishops. Where is the theology behind such structure and role? The first schism within the Methodist Church came the year after the dead of John Wesley when the Republican Methodist Church was formed with a theology on the understanding of the episcopacy, the power of the conference, the role of women in the ministry of preaching and the strict condemnation of slavery as sin was more Wesleyan than the position of the Methodist Church.8 John Wesley had reasons enough to claim conflict with essential Methodist theology and praxis to separate and split from the Methodist Church in America, but he did not. Wesley’s place within the Methodist Church in America was as a superintendent for the rest of his life.9 Wesley did not break the connection. His understanding of ecclesiology and to be in communion was stronger than the issues of church structure they disagreed upon.
Wesley used the instrument of separation only one time. It was in 1740 where he left the Fetter Lane society and never came back again. It was in the period where Wesley withdraw from the Moravian influence, he had been inspired of the last two years. Wesley’s concern was the deterministic position and the momentaneous understanding of salvation of the Moravians. It developed to an openly and public conflict between Zinzendorf and his pastors in London on the one side and Wesley on the other side.10 Wesley returned to his previous Armenian and Anglican theology. However, the separation from the Moravian society of Fetter Lane was not a separation from the church. It was a return to the church and reconnection to the theology of the church.11
It is definitely not Wesleyan to solve theological challenges by drawing the easy solution of splitting, separation or organizing graceful branches of Methodism. I know that it has been a typical way to solve problems within the history of American Methodism. Maybe it is a cultural and provincial way of solving problems in American Methodism and American denominations?12 But it is neither Wesleyan, nor orthodox, nor traditional.
The African Methodist Bishops’ conference stated that even though they hold a traditional position on the issue of human sexuality, they will not support a splitting of the church because of this issue. They want to keep the church together and let the different areas of the church find their own way in this issue, and Methodism in Africa knows what way they will go. This position of the African Bishops is Wesleyan, not the proposed solutions found in American lobby groups by separating and splitting.
Facing the 2020 General Conference, I hear voices preparing for separation and splitting. I hear that the discussions about the conditions for splitting occupies the agenda and takes the focus away the main issue about human sexuality. To those groups I will say, you chose your ways yourself, and you can have your reasons for that. But claiming that you are Wesleyan in your plans for separation and splitting, you are definitely not. Maybe you are American and in harmony with the culture and praxis in the Methodist movement on the continent of North America. But you are not Wesleyan, orthodox or traditional anyway.
I fear for the future that some truth will be in Wesley’s: “If a group of Methodists leave the church God will leave them!”13
2020 General Conference is before us. A number of Methodist Brexit Plans will be on the agenda. The Brexit Plans itself are not the problem. It is a way to say to one another that we shall be nice and kind and gentle. Paul names in Galatian 5:22 kindness and gentleness in his list of the fruit of the Spirit. It is better to organize a soft and peaceful Brexit plan to avoid the hard and harmful Brexit. To create the exit plans is one thing, another thing is to follow it. The splitting will first be a reality when some groups, congregations and conferences use the plans and effectuate the separation. Plans are not splitting and separation, however the implementation of the plans after 2020 General Conference is splitting and separation. I will not use any exit plan and not recommend anyone to use it. I go nowhere. I will in General Conference and in Central Conference vote “no” to all actions of separation, splitting and paying some groups to leave peacefully. I am prepared to go back to the one church plan and do the important theological work on the main issue about human sexuality and prepare solutions so that conservatives, centralists and progressives faithfully and powerfully can serve our Lord Jesus Christ in our global United Methodist Church and in the world.
1970 John Wesley and the Church of England
1985 Set Apart to Serve
Minutes of the Methodist Conferences 1773 to 1794
1794 Lovely Lane Museum
1974 The story of American Methodism
2002 Reasonable Enthusiast
1986 Works. Vol 2, Vol 3