I’ve never been a member of the United Methodist Church. I was confirmed in the Presbyterian Church USA and find myself in the Disciples of Christ serving a United Church of Christ congregation. That is, I’m not a Wesleyan, I’m a Calvinist of a kind. A liberal one at that. So I write this piece as an outsider to Methodism. But I also write as someone who has been impacted by Methodism much of my life.
I was part of the Miles City Methodist high school group, where so many of my friends participated. My memories involve lots of food! Hobo Stew fundraising dinner, pancake breakfasts for Easter, selling pies at the Eastern Montana Fair, giving away ice cream at the local Bucking Horse Sale. It involved high school trips from retreats to skiing. And it involved times of worship and my first serious engagement with religious ideas.
I had never seriously engaged evangelicalism before. But in college I joined Intervarsity. Then I came to realize that that expression of Christian faith was foreign to me. My religious ideas, including a commitment to religious pluralism, as well as my own coming out process, meant I had to move on. I had a number of friends involved with the Wesley Foundation as well as the ELCA and Episcopal campus ministries. They did much of their work and programming together and that became my home throughout college.
It was there that the Wesley Foundation did a book study on Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. It gave me a language to think what it means to be a Christian. Because as I was rethinking all my beliefs in college it seemed as if my faith was breaking apart. The Wesley Foundation and the other ecumenical ministries gave me ways to put it back together again. Yes, liberal theology is why I am in the church today. And the Methodist campus minister was the go to guy for LGBT programming on our campus. So it was a context for me to work out being a progressive Christian, often over shared dinners.
Some memories include the live telecast on our campus of Jesus at 2000 which included conversations with Harvey Cox, Marcus Borg, and others. Going on a mission trip to Rocky Boy Indian reservation as I read a book recommended by a campus minister, from Rosemary Radford Reuther. The Celebrate conference which brought together thousands of mainline college students. I remember the Bible study led during one of the plenaries by Rita Nakashima Brock, which highlighted political implications of the Christmas story, including that Mary and Joseph were refugees.
The Celebrate conference had come on the heels of the Re-Imagining Conference and the Institute on Religion and Democracy was scouring the hallways to find heresies being spoken to us students. I got to see IRD director Mark Tooley, who is currently at the United Methodist General Conference as I write. He had so misrepresented the speakers at Celebrate that I was stunned. But it became my first occasion to run into the groups seeking to drive progressives and LGBT folks out of the church.
Several years after college, I went on to do graduate study in philosophy at Southern Illinois University. At that time I had the chance to be be a director of an ecumenical student ministry. But I had little to no interaction with Methodism.
Until I started reading about Boston Personalism, especially the writings of Borden Parker Bowne and Edgar Sheffield Brightman. Personalism is a thoroughly Wesleyan form of process philosophy. Bowne, faced a heresy trial in the Methodist church because of his immanentist views of God. Brightman was controversial because in the 30s and 40s, he promoted the idea of a finite God. But they not only solved the problem of evil, as far as I can tell, Brightman in particular would go on to build the building blocks of Martin Luther King’s thought which he studied at Boston University.
As a gay pastor of a UCC congregation I’m often asked to give presentations on LGBT issues in the church. When I started doing research on the history, especially as it relates to the mainline, I discovered that northern Methodists were at the forefront for LGBT rights. The first gay community center started in this country was at Glide Methodist church in San Francisco. That history continues in the Methodist church today. I am pleased to have reconciling congregations in our community, St. Stephens which does important work for LGBT youth in Norman OK.
I go through this history, to say how much progressive Methodism has and continues to shape me. And to suggest that a LGBT inclusive and progressive Methodism is not some strange and foreign interloper that somehow invaded a properly conservative denomination. It’s been there all along, from the Methodist social principles and social gospel work at the turn of the last century to the religious principles that undergirded the civil rights movement and the development of the LGBT movement.
It’s always been a part of the Methodist story.
To see it expunged or forced out, so as to avoid the heresy trials and the increasing conservative control of the denomination is a shame. Something vital in Methodism is being removed. And that something is why I’m in the church today. And it’s why, whatever manifestation that the spirit of progressive Methodism takes going into the future, I wish well as it continues to do the work of building a faith of open hearts and open minds. That it continues to reach to folks who would never think Christianity could be good news. That it continues to allow folks to reclaim their faith.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma