A Broad Tent United Methodist Church?

I am a second generation Methodist/United Methodist clergy. My father, a United Methodist Elder, served in the Methodist/United Methodist Church for thirty three years. I was born into the Methodist/United Methodist church, was baptized in 1959 and confirmed and became a full member in 1972. My journey toward ordained ministry was similar to my father’s. I spent a good deal of time running the other way from my calling, finally entering the process toward ordination at the age of thirty-two. At this date I have been in pastoral ministry in the United Methodist Church for twenty-four years. All this simply to say, I am a lifelong Methodist/United Methodist of fifty-seven years.

I share this writing as I watch our United Methodist Denomination continue to struggle to stay united and one. I wrote a blog sometime back about the United Methodist Church’s official position on same gender relationships, and while this date’s writing may take a gentler tone, I remain firm in my views on that position.

I write this day wondering about the future of the Broad Tent United Methodist Church under which I grew up. There are many, not unlike myself, who have used that language to speak to inquiring persons as they ask questions about our denomination, as well as long time members who are on the journey to better understand who and how we are in the church. Language that speaks to the truth that we are not a creedal church, language of a Broad Tent denomination where there is room for a breadth of conservative evangelical members as well as liberal progressive members. I have heard those words from conservative evangelical and liberal progressive lay persons, clergy, and bishops. We are a Theologically Broad Tent denomination.

That being said, this writing is about two primary and current topics in our denomination. One is the bishop’s commission being created to study our current disciplinary language regarding human sexuality and in particular our church’s position on same gender relationships. If we are indeed a church that is of open door, open heart, open mind…if we are indeed a church with a theologically Broad Tent of belief and practice, I am troubled by the apparent makeup of the commission. The makeup of the commission as of this date appears to be twenty-one clergy, eight of whom are bishops, and eight lay persons. Theologically speaking I do not know the makeup of the commission. However, to have an imbalance of clergy to laity seems to me to strike at the heart of who we are as a denomination. Our Annual Conferences and our General Conference work hard at equity and equal representation. Not to mention we are creating a commission to determine a recommendation about how the church will move forward in relation to our LGBTQ members, and though I do not know the orientation of any of the suggested commission members, our LGBTQ members are not mentioned and I would assume then, not included. An unfortunate exclusion and rejection once again with LGBTQ persons on the outside looking in having to wait for someone else to decide whether they are welcome or not. Such exclusion from the commission is unjust and not in keeping with a so-called Broad Tent denomination. It grieves me and I can only imagine the pain and anger my LGBTQ friends and colleagues feel.

My other concern with our long championed notion of a Broad Tent theological denomination is in regards to a recently formed group, The Wesleyan Covenant Association. I think it is wonderful for like-minded Christians to gather together to share ideas, theologies, purpose, mission, and worship. I do that on a regular basis. I am a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network, and my affiliation with this group feeds my heart and soul whenever we gather in prayer, worship, conversation, and brainstorming ideas. My concern rests with the portion of their covenant that would appear to nullify the Broad Tent denomination we have long claimed to be.

In referencing the bishop’s commission a portion of their statement includes the following: A plan that requires traditionalists to compromise their principles and understanding of Scripture, including any form of the “local option” around ordination and marriage, will not be acceptable to the members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, stands little chance of passing General Conference, would not definitively resolve our conflict, and would, in fact, lead to the fracturing of the church.

While I would agree with the beginning words that a plan should not compromise their principles and understanding of scripture, I would hope the same courtesy would be offered to those who embrace other understandings of Scripture which shape principles and practice. The portion of the statement that would allow for a Broad Tent, i.e. “local option” around ordination and marriage, as not acceptable, would indicate that no longer would we consider a Broad Tent understanding to be tenable. I pray this would not be the case. To lose this sense of a willingness to live in community, with Christians, United Methodists of all stripes; conservative evangelical, liberal progressive, straight and gay, to lose this community with a broad understanding of theology and practice grieves my heart and at least in my life and faith would diminish our denomination’s appeal and work in the world around us. I have served eight congregations in my twenty-four years of ministry and have cherished each and every one of those congregations, none of whose members all agreed with me, nor I with them one hundred percent. Still I am committed to the belief that diversity and a willingness to acknowledge difference and still work together participating with the Spirit in bringing the Kindom here within and among us is a gift and a grace of God.

I hold our United Methodist Denomination in The Light of prayer and the Spirit every day, all of us, because I still believe in the hope and grace of the theologically Broad Tent denomination in which I was raised and in which I serve. We are all in this together, at least that is my hope and prayer. Perhaps in 2018 we will see how it all turns out. I pray there is still a place for all of us, for my more conservative evangelical friends and colleagues, a place for me, a place for my LGBTQ friends and colleagues, a place for inclusion and grace. I pray.

May it be so. May it be soon.

Rev. Kent H. Little

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5 Responses to “A Broad Tent United Methodist Church?”

  1. critter1969 Says:

    Thank you for your prayerful and thoughtful words, Kent. I am a member of the WCA Council and have also worked very hard on the issue of United Methodist unity. While the WCA has made a clear statement against “the local option”, it has not rejected the possibility of a compromise. I have authored four plans for UM unity (three “jurisdictional solutions” and one other). While none of these may be the one that is recommended, I am praying with you that the Commission will find a way for us to live together.

  2. Keith A. Jenkins Says:

    Kent, though I came to Christ and to the UMC at the age of 17 (rather than being raised in it as you were), it has been 46 years now, 38 of which were spent in ordained ministry (I recently retired). For years now, I have watched the “tent” get smaller and smaller in my own annual conference, with evangelical candidates being aggressively recruited and promoted while moderate and liberal/progressive members were increasingly pushed toward the margins. At first, it just seemed like the kind of normal sea change that occurs in every institution with the passage of time, but after a while, it seemed to be more intentional, even programmatic.

    The election of delegates to GC2016 provided a disturbing indicator of how far the takeover had progressed. Every GC delegate and most of the JC delegates elected, clergy and lay, were straight from the slate recommended by the Confessing Movement. While disturbing, this outcome was not surprising, since the electioneering was engineered by a conference clergy member who runs Good News and is on the leadership council of WCA. These results are disturbing because, while it may be a majority, this kind of theological homogeneity does not represent the overall makeup of our annual conference. So, anyone in my conference who is liberal/progressive was not represented at GC2016. And I can’t imagine mine in the only conference in which this happened.

    I would never have joined the UMC if the Broad Tent hadn’t existed in 1970, and I have prayed for the survival of the Broad Tent for years. But, to be honest, I am losing hope. It seems to me that the WCA is clearly laying the groundwork for the creation of a new denomination, which will claim to be the only true heir to Wesleyan Methodism, labeling the rest of us as apostates.

  3. Brad Kirk Says:

    Kent- I see your main appeal is to the “broad tent” description that has been used to describe our church for many years. I would be interested to know, and I am sure it would take some study to find out, when the term was first used and in what context. History helps inform us. Was this something that described us before the merger with the EUB or is it more modern? These are simply some thoughts that came to my mind as I read your blog. I appreciate your willingness to discuss your thoughts and look forward to continued conversation in our annual conference and denomination!

    • littlerev Says:

      Brad,
      Thanks for the note. That will take some research, not sure if there would be anything definitive other than personal experience. I know I heard the expression, “Theological Broad Tent” to refer to United Methodism from my dad, probably as early as high school, which would have been after the merger. I also have heard it used from other colleagues of his generation. Most recently I would say, colleagues of my generation and younger as well. In my conversations with bishops both Bishop Mutti and Bishop Jones used the Broad Tent language. I’ll do a little searching and see if I can find anything more detailed. Hope all is well out west. Peace – K

  4. Don Hegeman Says:

    Have heard this ‘broad tent’ reference at seminary (Iliff) from Harvey Pothoff, Alton Templin, Larry Graham, Dennis MacDonald, George Tinker, and Missionaries like Dan & Betty Allen and pastors like Jerry Haas and Chaplains like Garrett Starmer, Larry Huston, etc.

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