On Thursday, March 2, 2017, United Methodist clergy around the connection received an email from John Rogers on behalf of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) with a message from the Rev. Madeline Carrasco Henners and an invitation to a conference called “We Believe in the Church.”As United Methodist young clergywomen, many of us have come together to say, yes, we do believe in the Church. And yes, we believe that God is good, and that the Bible is true, and that promises should be kept— all assertions made by the WCA in this email. That does not mean we can support the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The WCA claims to advocate on behalf of those who believe that God is good, the Bible is true, and that promises should be kept. They do not speak for us.
We believe in the Church, both the Church universal and The United Methodist Church. We have found much beauty in the denomination that nurtured us in our faith, supported us in the process to become elders and deacons, and licensed, commissioned, and/or ordained us. The Church is the Body of Christ. Unfortunately, Christ’s body is still broken in this world, and the Church, insofar as it is a human institution, is fallible and in need of redemption. Next year, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the creation of The United Methodist Church, which ended the structural segregation that legally separated Black churches, pastors, and bishops from white churches, pastors, and bishops. That segregation is a sin in our history. The church continues to sin whenever it divides people from one another or prioritizes death-dealing human authority over the life-giving authority of the Holy Spirit.
We believe that God is good. God created us in God’s image— all of us in the diversity of our abilities, in the diversity of our races, and in the diversity of our genders and sexualities. In The United Methodist Church we do not rebaptize because we know God does not make mistakes. We also believe wholeheartedly in grace — prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace. This grace is what we respond to as a community on behalf of a baby at baptism, knowing that whoever this baby grows to be they are loved and valued by God who created them and called them “good.” This grace is what holds us accountable in our Christian walk going forward. This grace is what keeps us from thinking we can limit God’s continuing work in the church and the world.
We believe that the Bible is true. Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Gospels are a witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and scripture tells the story of our ancestors of faith in their struggles and triumphs. But we do not believe that God still prohibits eating shellfish (Leviticus 11:9-12) or insisted on the deaths of the Canaanites (see for instance Deuteronomy 20:16-18). When we read in the Epistles that women should stay silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34) or that slaves should obey their earthly masters (Ephesians 6:5, 1 Peter 2:18), we also know that God calls women to preach in our churches and for Christians everywhere to work to stop slavery and human trafficking. We bring our whole selves when we read scripture, including our tradition, reason, and experience. So when we disagree with a passage from Romans by asserting that homosexuality is not shameful or unnatural, it isn’t because we don’t believe the Bible is true. Instead, we do so in a way that is faithful to the whole of scripture from Genesis to Revelation and to God’s continued revelation through the Spirit working in us today.
We believe in keeping our promises. The most important promises that we have ever made are those in our baptismal vows: to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sin; to accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves; and to confess Jesus Christ as our Savior, put our whole trust in Christ’s grace, and serve Christ as Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races. We cannot keep these baptismal vows without naming the injustice and oppression experienced by LGBTQIA+ Christians in this Church which Christ has opened.
All of our other promises flow out of these baptismal vows. This means that we strive to ever more closely align church practice, doctrine, and polity with our identity as baptized members of the Body of Christ. We promise to modify the The United Methodist Book of Discipline when we believe that it is in conflict with God’s will and with the promises we make, first to God, and then to one another and the Church.
The WCA insists that rejecting the Book of Discipline’s position on marriage and ordination of people who are “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” is a deliberate break of our promise.
Not all of the clergy who sign this statement are willing to officiate weddings for same-sex partners, nor are they in Annual Conferences that ordain LGBTQIA+ persons. However, we all believe that the Book of Discipline needs to be changed, and we see that as faithfully keeping our ordination promises to study, preach, maintain, and support our church doctrines, government, and polity. As we continue to answer Wesley’s historic questions, we expect that as individuals and as a denomination, God is still working on perfecting us in love. We are earnestly striving after it in this life. If there was never an attempt to change the Book of Discipline by a minority of people, then we would never have sent laity to General Conference, de-segregated the denomination, elected divorced clergy as bishops in the United States, nor ordained women. Many women were ordained years before the church codified it— even John Wesley himself relied on women preachers in the Methodist movement. Elizabeth Strawbridge converted the first people to Methodism at her kitchen table. To make a promise to uphold the Book of Discipline doesn’t mean we can’t strive to make it closer to the way we understand God wants us to live. After all, as Wesleyans, we believe we are going on to perfection.
Therefore, we urge the Wesleyan Covenant Association to be mindful in the ways it claims Christian and Wesleyan language as its own to use in convicting those who disagree with the WCA’s purpose and beliefs. To claim, for instance, that your organization was created to maintain the “church’s good order” seems to exclude the possibility that any interpretations of The United Methodist Book of Discipline which contradict your own could be acknowledged as having worth. In particular, we believe the term “covenant” is a complex concept and cannot be reduced to one organization’s standards. A covenant is an agreement not simply between two human parties, but also between humans and God. Above and beyond our baptismal vows, those who are ordained promise to God to pattern our lives according to the teachings of Christ; to exercise authority in leading the people; to participate in the life and work of the community; to seek peace, justice and freedom for all people; and to defend the church against doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, among others. In order to keep these parts of the covenant, disobedience to other parts have become necessary. We implore the WCA to discern with those with whom it disagrees a true covenant which can hold the tensions of God’s many people together instead of using the Church’s language to hold hostage our Wesleyan heritage.
We, the undersigned, are elders and deacons commissioned or ordained in The United Methodist Church, and we are licensed local pastors. We are young women under the age of 40. We may be a minority. But in a society that is so polarized between left and right, rural and urban, people of color and white people, gay, bisexual, and straight, trans and cisgender, we insist that the church model true dialogue. The Wesleyan Covenant Association’s rhetoric is an unfair and dishonest representation of the faithful United Methodists who disagree with them. We challenge them to talk with us, listen to us, and pray with us rather than making assumptions about our faith and how we live it in our ministries.