United Methodist Bishop, J. Michael Lowry of the Central Texas Conference, recently addressed a gathering of the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy Conference at Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has put his address, “In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church”© on his website as a four part posting.
Bishop Lowry seems to argue that the Methodist Church should (or at least, likely will) split over the issue of the inclusion of LGBT people. As you might guess, given that he’s speaking to people who claim to be “orthodox,” that he is, as southerners might say, “agin it.” And of course, that would mean that, while I don’t disagree a split may happen, I don’t agree with his position on the topic at hand. Given that, I’m going to respond to his article/speech taking on each of his parts in corresponding articles here.
In Part 1, Bishop Lowry uses the Isaiah 20:43 verse, ““Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.” to introduce his belief that he is seeing, “the re-emergence of a vibrant orthodoxy in the North American mission field.” Lowry believes the United Methodist Church (UMC) is slowly collapsing, but believes, “The decaying Christendom bureaucracy (which I too, to a very real degree, represent) masks the beginnings of a remarkable rebirth of a healthy Wesleyan Christian Orthodoxy.”
He supports this belief with the usual reasons, primarily the idea that growth in the church is only around those institutions and churches which are more orthodox. He claims that Seminaries focused on orthodoxy are showing growth, and that orthodox pastors have churches which are growing the most.
I won’t disagree with him, and his position is supported by some statistics. The problem is, and I’ve written about this before based on Pew Research information. The demographics are not in his favor long-term. This is not about the number of orthodox people growing, but is simply about consolidation.
We know religious “nones” are increasing as a percent of the population, and even those “nones” who say religion is very important are declining. The religiously unaffiliated now account for 23% of the adult population, as compared to 16% in 2007.
Even among active churchgoers, 80% say the church is too anti-gay, 52% say it is judgemental, and 47% view it as hypocritical. Remember, this is the position of people who still attend, but for people like Bishop Lowry, “orthodoxy” is a dog whistle for “anti-gay.” Make no mistake about that.
Here’s what is happening across the American Christian church writ large. Mainline denominations have been very slow to overcome their anti-gay stances. As such, younger people have left the church, in droves. It is not yet clear if the denominations are moderating their views in time to prevent this exodus, or if these young people will return as the doctrines change. It is clear they are not charging back to church. So who is left? Certainly a group of people who cherish their church and religion enough to stay and fight to help it see what is the right stance…that all should be welcome. But the main group tend to be those who are more orthodox and frankly, trend towards older.
The denominations such as the Anglican, Presbyterian and Lutheran faiths have made some changes, and this has angered the orthodox old guard In response they have retreated to the more orthodox denominations and congregations. So it is true that the more orthodox branches of the U.S. Church are currently growing in members. However, it is unlikely these older folks will be replaced by an equal or larger number of younger people who are much less religious than their parents and grandparents. Even if these younger people return to church, it will not be to more “orthodox” churches. The surveys clearly show they do not share the same beliefs and doctrine of the older orthodox believers.
Lowry goes on to build a very high wall around his beloved orthodoxy. He says, “… the theology we have been largely pursuing for the past half century or more is largely bankrupt. Our hyper reaction against evangelical fundamentalism (a mistake of the first order – evangelicalism and fundamentalism are not the same!) and an uncritical embrace of enlightenment intellectual biases has led us into the cul-de-sac of a vague therapeutic moral deism.” And herein one finds the real problem the orthodox version of the church will come to face, their opposition to enlightenment. Orthodoxy leaves no room for growth or a better understanding of God or the Scriptures. Left up to the evangelical/orthodox movement, the Methodist Church would be still supporting slavery, shutting women out of the ministry, banishing divorce’s, and closing the doors to the LGBT community (oh, wait).
Lowry claims the “old mainline” church is “fading,” and he claims that is because they have emphasized “missional outreach.” I submit the old mainline churches are fading because they have not kept up with the views of younger people that being LGB or T doesn’t exclude one from the Church nor the grace of God. But besides that, isn’t missional outreach supposed to be the primary function of the church? Ah, Lowry knows this, but there’s a big difference in his form of missional outreach. He claims that doctrine and practice cannot be separated, and talks about how their outreach is “evangelistically” focused. This again is a dog whistle for, “we love you, and we want you to join us, but we’re going to place conditions on that love first.” I’ve seen this among a Facebook group of orthodox Methodists. You can read how they qualify their belief in just plain old kindness here, and see some about their attitudes towards anyone who doesn’t believe as they do here .
So what we come to, at the end of Part 1 of the Bishop’s series is a sense that it is the orthodox view or nothing. He also exposes the underlying theology of orthodoxy as a set of beliefs that extend love and grace only if certain conditions are met, and he sticks to the traditional idea that we are to never change anything, especially the things he likes (but maybe, some of the things he doesn’t like can be changed). This is the typical view of the religious orthodoxy.