“Studied Ambiguity”

(Retired Pastor Mike Shockley is writing to his friends, fellow clergy and members of the congregations he served in the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church for over 30 years as an Elder in Full Connection.)

Earlier this year I attended two meetings, one at Waukeenah UMC, called by Jay Therrell, President (at the time) of the Florida chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. (He is now the National WCA President). It concerned options for Florida UM churches desiring separation from the Conference.

The other was at First UMC Chiefland, called by Ken Carter, Bishop of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. That meeting was presided over by Rev. Wayne Wiatt who serves the Bishop as the Superintendent of the Northwest District of the Conference. It concerned the position of the Conference in response to the efforts of the WCA.

The WCA meeting I attended was rather straightforward. It was to provide information to UM congregations seeking to exit the United Methodist Church. Various options were presented, all except one fell within the guidelines of the Discipline of the Church. Jay Therrell stated that the one option that fell outside the Discipline (civil litigation) was not advisable. A question and answer session followed. Meeting adjourned.

The Conference meeting also was fairly straightforward. Information was provided to explain why UM churches wanting to leave the Conference were being required to pay large sums of money in apportionments and unfunded pension liabilities. It was also explained that one “exit” option being suggested by the WCA (the UM Discipline church closure option) was not a viable one. A question and answer session followed. Meeting adjourned.

Both meetings took about an hour each. In both meetings the presenters took care to be respectful of those on the “other side”.

There was, it must be said, a bit of a flap over the “closed” nature of the WCA meeting (as if the WCA meeting was somehow sinister and ironically as if there was no such thing as a closed meeting in the UMC). The flap was, in my opinion a very avoidable blunder by the WCA (because if you hold a meeting for UM people inside a UM church within the boundaries of a UM District, you really should take pains to invite the UM District Superintendent). On the other hand, Bishop Carter, seizing the chance to exploit the issue, painted the WCA meeting as suspicious and touted the “open to all” nature of his own meetings.

All this said, the most remarkable difference I experienced in comparing the two meetings lay not in the political fuss, but in the atmosphere of each.

The WCA meeting felt like an “urgency to head off an emergency” event. The issues at stake were seen as radically theological. The call was compelling; a call to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.” (Jude‬ ‭1:3‬ ‭NIV‬‬)

The UMC meeting felt reactionary; a “let me explain” type of meeting. It was asserted that the theological issues were peripheral. All United Methodists were “Bible believers”. The classic doctrines of the church were not at stake. The only real issue was over human sexuality. However, since UM churches want to leave, (unfortunate and unnecessary as it may be) those churches wanting to depart must not do harm to the ones staying, thus the need for them to pay up.

I must say I was impressed by the proficiency in studied ambiguity practiced by the Bishop and his staff. “Studied ambiguity” finds success when it is able to make a claim that on the surface invites the endorsement of all, but really is elastic enough to allow ample room for understanding that claim in very different, even contradictory ways. This is extremely important to the UMC’s aim to preserve a “Big Tent” church on (as Bishop Carter has stated) “it’s journey to be a church that serves all people.”

For example, take the claim that both UM “Traditionals” and UM “Progressives” are “Bible believing” Methodists.

Are all Methodists, both progressives and traditionalists “Bible believers”? Well, I haven’t polled all of the over six million in the country, but I think it’s fair to say that all Methodists consider the Bible to be at the very least a valuable source for Christian faith and practice. In that sense both the Bishop and Rev. Therrell are Bible believing Christian leaders.

However if one were to ask them what they meant by that claim, they would be required to spell out what biblical faith is… and what biblical faith is not. And their respective, definitive assertions and denials would soon reveal that they mean vastly different things by the phrase “Bible believing”.

But that is what the art of studied ambiguity does; it seeks to broaden the thesis of a claim to the point that the antithesis of that claim is obscured.

A lot has happened since those two meetings earlier this year. The Global Methodist Church is now officially established. Hundreds of UM churches have either left the UMC or are in the process. Over 100 UM churches in Florida are litigating (contrary to Jay Therrell’s previous advice) against the Conference.

The necessary support for the “Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” is gone. Now the gloves have come off and high level nastiness is in play. The waters that have moved under the bridge since early this year are now bloody with accusations.

And the practice of ambiguity, well intended as it may have been employed to preserve unity, has proven the UMC’s undoing. It has been used as a vehicle for a completely different gospel to be introduced under the guise of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Many decades ago, the late R.C. Sproul, renowned scholar and Protestant Reformed church leader said, “Precision and clarity, not ambiguity, serve the church best in remaining faithful to its biblical, historic, and confessional roots.”

Looking at the damage done to the United Methodist Church, I’d say he was right.

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