The United Methodist Call To Action has created a variety of responses and questions across the United Methodist Church. The debate has created some very healthy conversations in the local church and has opened the door for broader conversations at the regional level.
At the Memphis Conference Spiritual Growth Retreat, Bishop Ben Chamness offered some leadership on the matter, drawing clergy into a conversation that some of them were not even aware existed.
One of my colleagues in ministry, Larry Chitwood, shared a link on Twitter about a well written set of statements from our brothers and sisters in Wisconsin. I hope to write about their statements in a future article. I wasn’t completely surprised to find that their issues with the CTA were different than my own, or similar to others I had seen in online conversations. This article may serve to point out some of the key differences between views on CTA.
Without meaning to, I stumbled upon some patterns for myself, and wanted to share these as a way of inviting conversation. There are some divisional lines that are starting to make themselves clearer. These distinctions are not universal, but they are worth examination.
The Responses to CTA
My initial impressions about the statements found in the Wisconsin Delegation’s published post caused me to feel that I had read something into the Call to Action that was not there. Like many other responses to CTA, Wisconsin felt that there were some fundamental ideas missing.
For example, some of the leading minds in United Methodism feel that there is either a myopic view of the shift in the balance of power within our denomination — perhaps even an informed effort. The Methodist Federation for Social Action, or MFSA, feels that the plan will damage the denomination’s ministry around social issues. The Missional Manifesto recently published by Jay Voorhees on behalf of a group of concerrned United Methodists points to a lack of theological and spiritual fundamentals witthin the CTA. Just this week, an unnamed group published a new website touting a “Plan B” for the Call to Action proposal, citing many issues including spiritual issues, balance of power, and loss of effectiveness in Agency ministries.
Clearly, no piece of legislation has ever been all things to all people, particularly when there are so many things at stake. United Methodist groups have been vying for control of the denomination for decades now, each with a competing agenda and each convinced that their agenda is God’s agenda.
We sound, for all the world, like a fourth-century council with Alexandria and Antioch leading pitched battles over the iota’s worth of difference that is all the difference in the world.
And it may well be.
The 800 Pound Gorilla
At the heart of the restructuring plan is a clear purpose for those willing to look. By reducing the number of agencies and boards operating in the denomination’s name, the General Conference will have fewer groups and leaders to keep in check.
That sounds horrible. And in many ways, it is.
General Secretaries have been making statements that have been received by many as the voice of the Denomination. At the General Board of Church and Society, Mr. James Winkler has been making opinion statements without disclaimer. Calling our President “half-mad” from a soapbox that is sponsored by the United Methodist Church is problematic. He is not the first General Secretary to speak beyond his purview in an official capacity. Neither is his the first General Agency to do so.
The United Methodist Church has one “ruling body.” That is the General Conference. The work of General Conference is left to agencies created by the Conference. Bishops sometimes serve in these agencies when their particular skills and talents apply. The particular distinction is that Bishops do not control the finances of the Church. The expenditure of budget rests within the various boards and agencies through the mandates of the General Conference.
And now, with CTA on the table, some agencies are facing the distinct possibility that they will no longer be reporting to a boss who only shows up once every four years.
Some will see this as a disruption of the balance of power. Others will see it as a corrective measure taken to correct a denominational lean that has become more pronounced in recent years.
Some of the United Methodist Boards and Agencies already see this as a loss of their ability to do ministry. Liberal-minded United Methodists are upset about this, because the more liberal efforts of the United Methodist Church are begun and maintained in some of the agencies in question. Conservatives are obviously pleased by this proposed reduction of the reach of the more outspoken liberal arms of the denomination. Many United Methodists have been concerned by the ready support our Boards and Agencies have at times offered to groups that not only disagree with our theology but actively subvert it.
Groups like MFSA are against CTA for a variety of reasons, but at the heart of it, they surely recognize CTA as an effort by the denomination to begin reining in those who speak contrary to the will of General Conference. And they realize that they will no longer have denominational support via sympathetic General Boards for some of their initiatives.
No Easy Answers
When you examine the situation through this particular lens, the differences in the responses begin to fall along these party lines. Those who find the CTA without clear spiritual or theological backing are more likely to be questioning the reduction in Board and Agency reach.
Could it be that the theology behind CTA simply doesn’t match up with the theology of its detractors? No. To say that this is the sole, driving reason behind disagreement with CTA is oversimplification. But to ignore it is a denial of reality.