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.
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.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org.