New group aims to find way to ‘live in a divided church’

By Heather Hahn*

A new United Methodist group in the United States is forming with the aim to advance “the Kingdom of Christ,” despite the denomination’s growing divisions over same-sex unions and gay ordination.

The Rev. Maxie Dunnam speaks at Wesleyan Covenant Network meeting Jan. 13-14 in Atlanta. Photo by Steve Beard.

The Rev. Maxie Dunnam speaks at Wesleyan Covenant Network meeting Jan. 13-14 in Atlanta. Photos by Steve Beard.

In practice, founders of the new Wesleyan Covenant Network say, they are committed to mutual accountability, evangelism and upholding the United Methodist doctrine, especially the primacy of Scripture in faith and practice.

The group first met Jan. 13-14 in Atlanta and drew 125 United Methodists, mostly clergy, from 15 states. Participants came from three United Methodist jurisdictions in the U.S., including south east, south central and north central areas.

The Rev. Maxie Dunnam, a longtime United Methodist leader, is one of the group’s founders.

“We’re really working on how to live in a divided church and be productive and kingdom-minded,” he told United Methodist News Service. “We’re just exploring ways to encourage and equip and support people in doing that.”

Dunnam is a retired president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. and retired senior pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis. He also was one of the founders of the Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church, an evangelical renewal group. Among other things, the Confessing Movement advocates for maintaining the denomination’s definition of marriage as between a man and woman and its ban on “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.

Dunnam said some of the clergy at the Atlanta gathering discussed whether they were being faithful to the gospel if they remained in a church where pastors and a retired bishop have been officiating in same-sex unions. The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s book of doctrine and law, prohibits clergy from officiating and church sanctuaries from hosting such unions.

“I am not sure leaders of the church know how serious what’s going on is,” Dunnam said. “This is what I’m committed to trying to prevent. I don’t want that kind of hemorrhage.”

‘Not political action or lobby group’

However, the Wesleyan Covenant Network will not be a political action or lobbying group, Dunnam and other group organizers emphasized.

The Rev. Bryan Collier, lead pastor of The Orchard, a United Methodist congregation in Tupelo, Miss., speaks at the Wesleyan Covenant Network meeting.

The Rev. Bryan Collier, lead pastor of The Orchard, a United Methodist congregation in Tupelo, Miss., speaks at the Wesleyan Covenant Network meeting.

“I have about 25 years left until mandatory retirement age,” said the Rev. Bryan Collier, the lead pastor of The Orchard, a multi-campus United Methodist congregation in northern Mississippi, and another group founder. “For 23 years I have been engaged in conversations about renewal and change without much to show for it.  I want to spend the next 25 years doing something of eternal significance — focusing on The Kingdom of Christ and letting the effect of that focus ‘trickle down’ to the denomination if it will.”

Group members said they plan in some ways to act in parallel to traditional church structures, such as starting new churches where the denomination is not.

“We are excited about sharing resources among member churches and are dreaming of new ways to be in partnership in the planting of new churches and in the raising up of new leaders with a distinctly Wesleyan approach to life and ministry,” said the Rev. Carolyn Moore, founder and pastor of Mosaic United Methodist Church in Evans, Ga. She is also one of the group’s organizers.

The Rev. Ted Campbell, associate professor of church history at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, said he does not know the group’s founders but thinks “it’s a good idea to forge ahead with an emphasis on mission rather than being stymied by contemporary controversies.”

Different point of view

The Rev. Thomas E. Frank, a historian of Methodism and professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., has a different take. He sees the new group as part of the growing proliferation of interest groups in the denomination promoting differing theological perspectives.

That’s in contrast to much of the 20th century, he said, when there was a long-term trend toward church unity that saw the formation of the Methodist Church in 1939 and The United Methodist Church in 1968.

[pullquote align=”right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”50%”]The Wesleyan Covenant Network’s charter describes homosexuality as “the presenting divisive issue,” but adds that the group sees the division as deeper. “Fundamentally, the issue is the authority of Scripture and the exclusive claims of the Gospel in tensions with the ideological commitments of multiple groups within the life of the church,” the charter said.[/pullquote]

“Now The United Methodist Church looks like a story of fragmentation with interests groups, and the groups are all using the name Wesley to leverage their theological point of view,” said Frank, who is also the author of the frequently used textbook Polity, Practice, and the Mission of The United Methodist Church. “My question as a historian is what happened to the mainstream that sought unity and institution building.”

Frank has urged United Methodist bishops, for the sake of church unity, to end church trials related to the denomination’s stance on homosexuality.

“All United Methodists don’t have to agree on sexuality issues,” he told United Methodist News Service. “I don’t understand why it should be a church-dividing issue.”

The Wesleyan Covenant Network’s charter describes homosexuality as “the presenting divisive issue,” but adds that the group sees the division as deeper. “Fundamentally, the issue is the authority of Scripture and the exclusive claims of the Gospel in tensions with the ideological commitments of multiple groups within the life of the church,” the charter said.

Figuring out how to proceed

Ultimately, Dunnam said, it’s up to bishops and the General Conference to deal with the denomination’s divisions. For now, group members are discussing how they will work together.

The Rev. Chappell Temple, a church historian and senior pastor in Lakewood United Methodist Church in Houston, said in Atlanta that early Christian orders could serve as model for the new group. He said the rise of monastic and mendicant orders allowed some breathing room for differences of opinion over various questions within the church without formal separation.

For example, he said, when the excesses of wealth threatened to dilute the Catholic Church’s witness, Franciscans emerged who embraced “Brother Poverty” and dedicated themselves to ministry alongside the poor. But they did so within the Catholic Church.

He sees the same potential the Wesleyan Covenant Network to focus on discipleship and evangelism, while remaining part of the United Methodist fold.

“I don’t know what the future will hold for the network, but I do believe there is real benefit in gathering folks from across the connection (and there were folks from all over among the hundred or so who gathered in Atlanta) for conversations about where we are going as a denomination and how we can be more fruitful,” he told United Methodist News Service. “That at least is my hope for the group, but these things sometimes have a life of their own once they have begun, so I think we’ll have to wait and see how it all develops.”

*Hahn is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615)742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.



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  1. Jeanine L.

    I will acknowledge that there are people who fall victim to predatory and dysfunctional sexual relationships but i feel this happens among both heterosexuals and homosexuals. The difference is you are attaching these negative experiences to homosexuality itself rather than calling it what it is which is abuse, exploitation etc. It seems you are holding homosexuals to a different standard. For example you would never say heterosexuality or sexuality in general is bad because rape, incest and abuse occurs. I have known many gay people who were well adjusted, pleasant, and in committed relationships. It seems you’ve known quite a few folks who have had some troubles. You mentioned confusion and i think that is to be expected when a person finds himself or herself gay in a hostile and rejecting society. I just don’t think it’s reasonable to expect people to deny their attractions when, as i believe, it is fundamental to who they are. I have carefully considered everything you have had to say. I think you present very intelligent arguments and i appreciate your candor. I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one.

    1. Dan

      I fully understand your feelings. It is very difficult to look at someone who is a “good” person and criticize a part of their life that they hold very dear. I wish God had not specified marriage as being between a man and a woman, it would be much easier. Unfortunately, the way I understand the Bible and Christian teaching for the last 2000 years, it is clear that marriage which does not follow this structure is not a true marriage.

      I find it somewhat liberating to think of all of us as sinners deserving of God’s judgment and eternal punishment. This puts us all in the same boat where we cannot live without God’s grace and the death and resurrection of Jesus, and we cannot do anything to save ourselves. It is totally up to our sovereign God.

      I have gone through the thought experiment of what I would do if one of my children “came out” to me. I would not love them one bit less, not pray for them one bit less, but I also would not affirm their lifestyle. It is a very tough issue; sin always is because it seems so easy to just go along to get along since society says you are not really harming anyone else. But it all starts the way it originally started when Satan said to Eve “Did God really say …”

    2. Rev

      Jeanine, could not have said it better myself. You go girl.

  2. Jeanine L.

    This is for Kris, …speak for your self. My mind, my feelings, and my conscience are not naturally wicked and evil.

  3. Donna Rogers

    As a cradle role member of the FUMC, for 55 years, I am deeply saddened at the progressive. Movement in our church, who like the children of Israel have become so hedonistic, that we are attempting to create our on god, in our own “image “, and shun His Holy Word, as an antiquated book of suggestions. Though, it does not matter what you nor, I believe, for only He is righteous.

    1. Chad Jacobs

      Great message. People are trying to make God into their image rather than allowing God to make us into his image.

  4. Kris

    Ok, Jeanine. That’s why your point is so flawed. I guess we can just disagree.

  5. Sam Bouchard

    If you church is divided about same sex relationships, then look at the root of the division. Satan caused people to believe homosexuals were born that way but it is a complete lie. Satan is the father of lies. You have a choice. Believe God or believe Satan.

  6. Chad Jacobs

    My thought is that homosexuality is not a difference of opinion. It is a blatant hate toward God’s commandments and His Law. Those who hate the laws of Moses (Basic 10 includes sexual adultery of all kinds) will die without mercy with 2 or 3 witnesses. (Hebrews 10:26-30) Do not try to disobey God and then say it is just a difference of opinion.

  7. John JP Patterson

    It seems to me, we have seen this before, in 1963. The “Born of Conviction” movement was an effort to resurrect the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Obviously, Maxie Dunnam, the lone surviving instigator, has not given up the cause.

    Perhaps, he and his followers would be more comfortable in The Southern Methodist Church. The SMC was formed in 1940 by conservative members of the former Methodist Episcopal Church, South, which in 1939 had reunited with the Methodist Episcopal Church.

    Additional Information:

  8. Mark

    Why should Maxie Dunnam leave? It seems it is Maxie Dunnam–a 60’s civil rights activist, by the way–who is urging the UMC to adhere to what it ostensibly believes (see Scripture, Book of Discipline, etc.). Why would those who have “evolved” away from the Christian tenets espoused by the UMC want to stay in the UMC? Logically it should be they who would want to leave…unless, of course, there is an underlying political or financial motive for staying.

    Here are some options for those who no longer believe in Scripture as authoritative or accept the Book of Discipline:


  9. Mike

    isn’t it possible that Paul was a homosexual, and that is the reason God put a thorn in his side. And yes he lived and preached the gospel to all. For Jesus was asked what is the most important commandment. Jesus said” to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” the second most important commandment is this; ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” these are the two most important commanments. This means everyone, because we are all made in god’s image.

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