WCA – Two: Witnessing the split personality of the Wesleyan Covenant Association

May 01, 2017
Editor's note: This is the second editorial offered by the Rev. Paul Kottke on the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The group gathered April 28 and 29 in Memphis, Tennessee. He had previously submitted an editorial in October after the group's first gathering in Chicago.

Submitted by the Rev. Paul Kottke
Superintendent, Metropolitan District

On April 28 & 29, Marv Vose, Bob Kaylor, and I attended the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) gathering in Memphis, Tennessee. This gathering was co-sponsored by Christ United Methodist Church of Memphis and Asbury Seminary. Christ UMC is a satellite campus of Asbury. The theme was “We Believe in the Church.”

While Rev. Kaylor and I have two very different perspectives of the WCA, I want to extend my appreciation for his graciousness as a host for Marv and me. There are strong items upon which Bob and I respectfully disagree. But as well, there are many ways in which we do agree about the ministry of the United Methodist Church and our local congregations.

The WCA gathering was identified as an exploration of conservative (Evangelical) theology, initially conceived by Christ UMC and Asbury. However, it seemed clear that the timing of this gathering, fully expecting the ruling of the Judicial Council, was no coincidence.

I identify this as "WCA – Two" because it was the second of the WCA gatherings, as well my second to attend. But more importantly, I witnessed two very distinct presentations. The one I felt to be heart-warming and a common ground for calling on the Holy Spirit without blame or scapegoating. The other I felt to be a loaded agenda of blaming the Western Jurisdiction and the liberal/progressive theology for the malaise of The United Methodist Church. At one point on Saturday morning, the speaker (Dr. William Abraham, professor of Wesleyan Studies at Southern Methodist University) was so emboldened as to request the Western Jurisdiction leave the denomination, along with our liberal theology, because we are keeping The United Methodist Church from being unified and from doing the ministry of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

But let me speak primarily to the heart-warming experience for me of this gathering. Bishop James Swanson (Mississippi Conference) opened with a sermon titled, "Preaching the Power of the Spirit." What I was acutely aware of is that our own Bishop Oliveto could have preached this sermon on the "Power of the Spirit." Indeed, she does with each of her sermons. In addition, she could have addressed any of the themes throughout this gathering with as much or more integrity than the presenters. In so many ways, she is the embodiment of the Evangelical zeal for which the WCA is calling. A poignant moment was when Bishop Swanson shared that one of the reasons why he values The United Methodist Church is that early in his adult life he experienced divorce, and he found healing and grace in the UMC, whereas his original childhood denomination (Church of God in Christ) "threw me on the dung heap."

Two other speakers offered equally powerful moments of grace. Dr. Jason Vickers is the director/professor of the Asbury satellite campus at Christ UMC. He had finished speaking of “The Presence of God in our Midst”. During Q&A, a woman asked him – as she identified herself as a practicing lesbian – if his understanding of God’s presence in and through God’s people excluded her. His answer was that he understood that God fully worked through her as much as God works through him. “The Wesleyan understanding of salvation is that God’s salvation is for all God’s children, heterosexual and homosexual.” He also stated regarding our lives: “We need to live as the living presence of God.”

Another speaker, Dr. Chris Ritter (senior pastor, First UMC, Genesseo, Illinois) spoke to a call to unity. In his presentation, he said that we have to find a way of talking with each other. He stated that we cannot kick people out, we cannot walk away, but rather we have to find our common ground as Methodists. He issued a call for self-accountability, not projecting “evil/sin unto others.” When a man during Q&A asked why there is such a focus on homosexuality and not on “our own sins such as the sin of worshipping wealth,” Dr. Ritter concurred, acknowledging that members of his own congregation who have direct experience with homosexuality and his desire to be pastoral with everyone.

Saturday morning was a call for holiness. What I witnessed was how hard it is to talk about the importance of holiness without it devolving into self-righteousness. This is exactly what the morning speaker did (Dr. Andrew Thompson, senior pastor of First UMC, Springdale, Arkansas). He began by talking about how “holy rollers” would come into his small community and pass judgement on his group of friends for going to the movie theater. And yet, by the end of his presentation, holiness was defined as if it were his possession and that of those who are part of the WCA – it was from this context that the bashing of liberals, of gay bishops, and the Western Jurisdiction became unleashed.

In closing, I was reminded that when we get on our caustic “holy, soap-box” (liberals and conservatives alike), we simply are reflecting the malaise of our society. When we can approach one another with a genuine open-heart, seeking to embrace each other with our differences, then a sense of holy community begins to form.

If we continue our “holy wars” of battling over correct belief than I am convinced that there will be no winners and that the Gospel will not reach individuals who are hungry, who are desiring sacred abundance in their lives. Instead of the hymn “They will know us by our love”, the sad truth is that the society/world knows us by our in-fighting and by our self-righteous. Instead of drawing lines of absolutes, let us affirm that God’s love is deeper than any of us can even glimpse.

I came back from Memphis deeply saddened believing that the easy path will be for us to continue to fight each other. And yet I also came back with a profound hope – perhaps through the infilling of the Holy Spirit grounded in the sacred witness of scriptures that there will be those across the spectrum of differences who desire a heart-felt Wesleyan revival of the Holy Spirit as reflected in God’s Beloved Community.

So for me, it was indeed a WCA – Two. One of sadness. One of hope.