ON HOPE FOR METHODISM:
A TESTIMONY (PART 4) - The Doctrinal Statement
By Dr. Riley B. Case
(At the center of the present crisis in United Methodism are irreconcilable differences between those who hold to the historic faith in the Wesleyan tradition and those who believe that the fundamentals of the gospel must change to fit a changing culture. This series of articles is one person’s testimony on living through the events that have brought the church to the point of division.)
The sorry state of doctrinal integrity in the Methodist (and United Methodist) Church at the time of the Methodist-EUB merger can be illustrated by how the report of the Study Commission on Doctrine and Doctrinal Standards for the United Methodist Church was approved by the 1972 General Conference. After four years of studying, discussing, and writing under the leadership of Dr. Albert Outler of Perkins, chair of the commission, the report, which would take up 43 pages of the 1972 Discipline, was presented and approved by a 925-17 vote in less than half an hour. Someone remarked, “Not even a motion to adjourn for dinner ever received that lop-sided a vote in that short of time.” No one cared to debate or discuss the report, or even ask questions. There were questions as to how many of the delegates had even read the report, much less studied it. The conference was obviously much more interested in other matters.
Other matters included the report on the Social Creed and the Social Principles. Few people caught the irony of the presiding bishop’s remark: only a few moments after a comment in the doctrinal report that Methodism was not a creedal church, the bishop declared that the conference would now take up the matter of “the Social Creed.” The Social Creed and Principles were debated and amended for the next six hours. Obviously Christian beliefs would not be the focus of the new church’s attention and efforts for the future but involvement in the social, cultural, and political trends of the day would. To underscore that, a brand-new super-board, the General Board of Church and Society, would be established to devote full-time to social justice matters. Matters of doctrine, or Faith and Order, would not be assigned anywhere in the structure for the new church.
As has been reported before, the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church were both thriving going into the 1960s. For all of the liberalism of the seminaries and the church boards, conferences, districts, and local churches were doing quite well. I personally was aware of many churches and districts where the gospel was preached, youth groups were flourishing, and membership was increasing. This was the faith we hoped would carry over to the new church. Unfortunately, it was not to be.
One of the first ventures of the new denomination was the publishing of the confirmation materials, Confirming My Faith, issued in 1972. The materials started with a definition of “gospel” as “the good news that we are all children of God by birth.” Here was an official statement of the church defining the essence of Christianity without even a mention of sin, or the cross, or atonement, or salvation by faith. The definition did not even include reference to Jesus Christ. This should have been a tip-off for the future.
Evangelicals, sorry to say, were caught flatfooted by the 1972 doctrinal statement. The fledgling Good News movement had asked to be included on the study commission, but the requests were not even acknowledged. Before the report was accepted, some Good News leaders commented that Methodism had had good Wesleyan theology on the books since the beginning, but leaders had disregarded it for 75 years; how could the new statement make it any worse? There was one member of the Good News board, Robert Colemen of Asbury Seminary, who was so alarmed by the doctrinal statement that he remarked that if it passed, the statement would signal the church’s darkest hour. Coleman made a motion to the Good News board that if the report passed, evangelical churches be urged to withhold apportionments (the motion did not pass).
What was in the report? Albert Outler, who dominated the commission, sought to interpret. Keep the present Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith as a link to the church’s past, but add a statement encouraging the updating and restating of Methodist doctrine to make it relevant for the present time. To make sure the church would not be inhibited by truths passed down through ages, Outler (and the report) stated that none of our doctrine was to be understood in any legal or juridical sense. To parse the plain English, whatever the standards, they would not be enforced. Or, to put it another way, standards were not really standards. It was like saying that while the state has speeding laws, the laws were not to be interpreted legally and no one would ever be stopped or have to pay a fine for speeding. In this context the word “pluralism,” injected into the statement, meant “anything goes.” While pluralism was supposed to operate within an accepted core of “essential” doctrine, neither Outler nor the report made any attempt to emphasize or even identify that core or essential doctrine despite the fact the church had operated from the beginning with Articles of Religion. Wesley himself even identified clearly the “essentials” (original sin, the deity of Christ, the atonement, justification by faith alone, the work of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity; cf. Colin Williams, John Wesley’s Theology Today, Abingdon, 1960, p. 16). The “core” is simply basic Christianity. But Methodist doctrine was in such a sad state of disarray that, as Outler himself admitted, to take seriously the “core” idea was to invite division in the church.
Still, there was something to be said for “pluralism.” Outler tried to convince evangelicals the word “pluralism” would give legitimacy to the evangelical perspective which, he admitted, was seen in some circles of the church as “partisan, intransigent, and bigoted,” and therefore to be resisted (more on this later).
But it got even worse. If there was no basic Christianity, what would we preach? The new statement spoke of “free inquiry” and that led to another conclusion: the clarity needed for the new merged church was not the reaffirmation of what we had always believed, but a process by which persons or groups could develop their own beliefs. So, within months of the new statement, Discipleship Resources published a pamphlet, Essential Beliefs for United Methodists (James Hares, 1976). The pamphlet spelled out the church’s new understanding of beliefs (at least as interpreted by the Board of Discipleship): “essential beliefs” for the new United Methodist Church were Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, otherwise known as the “quadrilateral.” There was nothing about such things as “God so loved the world that he gave us his only son…”
In the meantime, Good News committed itself to preparing an affirmation that would be a contemporary restating of Methodism’s essential beliefs. Chaired by Paul Mickey of Duke, the committee consisted of a number of persons including James Heidinger, Frank Stanger of Asbury Seminary, and Dennis Kinlaw of Asbury College (I was also a part of the group). The preliminary draft was shared with Albert Outler who was thrilled that some group in the church had taken the challenge of the doctrinal statement seriously to do theologizing and issue a contemporary statement of belief. As far as is known no other group ever bothered to do anything similar. In the letter praising Good News, Outler then launched into an eight-page critique of the statement. The Junaluska Affirmation was approved by the Good News Convocation of 1975. The United Methodist Reporter, an independent news source at the time, printed the statement and editorialized positively. Official UM sources only mentioned the statement in passing. The responses from persons in the pew were overwhelmingly positive. Grass-roots United Methodism still believed the gospel.
But theology in the seminaries and among other political caucuses was going in a different direction. In 1980 the Christian Century continued its every ten-year project of publishing essays on “How My Mind Has Changed” by “leading” theologians. It is most telling that the four persons picked with UM ties were Shubert Ogden of Perkins, John Hick of Claremont, John Cobb of Claremont, and Rosemary Reuther of Garrett. Inasmuch as any of these were known outside their own limited academic circles, these persons reflected progressive deconstructing of faith at its extreme. It was process theology (believed perhaps by less than 1% of UMs), radical feminist and liberation theology (I heard Reuther mention once that the only political and social system that came close to the “kingdom” was Cuba), and universalism.
Meanwhile, Ed Robb, Jr., chair of the Good News board, had presented a major address at a Good News convocation decrying the deplorable state of UM theology at its academic level. He made the mistake of not excepting Albert Outler in his diatribe. Outler was unhappy. Robb apologized. The two developed a friendship that resulted in the establishment of A Fund for Theological Education (AFTE), an attempt to bring renewal to United Methodism by funding evangelical or at least moderate students working toward advanced degrees that might result in more balanced teaching in the colleges and seminaries. More on AFTE and the doctrine saga in later articles.
Even with this much of the recap of doctrine in the merged United Methodist Church, it should be evident that the lack of a shared common commitment to the essence of the faith is, at least for evangelicals and traditionalists, the major reason the UM connection is broken. According to para. 132 of the Discipline, connectionalism, or that which binds us together as a church, consists of 1) sharing a common tradition of faith, including the Doctrinal Standards and General Rules; 2) sharing a constitutional polity; 3) sharing a common mission; and 4) sharing a common ethos. Fifty years of merger has not brought the church to a meeting of minds in any of these four areas. Progressives, who have basically controlled the institutional level of the church, may disagree that the church is broken or that the major reason for the brokenness is doctrine. But under their leadership and control the church is a pale image of its former self.
Time for amicable separation.