ReCentering Methodism: Open Letter to the Wesley “Covenant” Association

First — this apology to my non-United Methodist friends and readers.  We United Methodists are amid some “denominational challenges” just now.  I have written this letter as a way to encourage some of our more traditional and conservative leaders to answer five questions about their purposes and basic intentions.  You see, I fear this “new effort” known as the Wesleyan Covenant Association in North America is merely a building of a highway for schism among folks in our denomination divided by our views around homosexuality.  My prayer is that raising these questions may help identify some of the distortions often made by these, my friends, who claim to be more “Biblical, evangelical, and Wesleyan” than others of us.  Forgive this interlude in my blog entries — please check out the recent post on my  embarrassing moments as a pastor.  It is much more fun… and probably more enlightening.


Dear Friends of the Wesley Covenant Association,
As I read the names of the founding sponsors of the Wesley Covenant Association, I know many of you — have known you for years.  You have been colleagues in our work as United Methodists.  You are committed pastors, known theological educators and activist organizers in the Confessing Movement and the Good News Movement in United Methodism.  Now you offer a new organization, a new association.  Hopefully your claim that the Wesley Covenant Association is a re-booting, a move toward re-discovery, a signal of readiness to traverse beyond the tread-worn battles of the past is true. 
I pray  you join me in the realization that the younger, rising generation of United Methodist seems rather disinterested in a rehearsal of the same old arguments, using the same labels and categories.  Our battles still may appear to be unresolved, but there is little doubt they are increasingly insignificant in the lives and faith of our grandchildren.  I would be helped if you could answer five questions.  They are ones asked before, at various times and places.  Not yet having received an answer I repeat them now – this time with a renewed sense of urgency as I fear the WCA may be simply a laying of the predicate for a schism in our denomination.
These questions of you are not rhetorical.  I sincerely would like to hear from you:
  • If “evangelical,” what is the “good news” you share? 
  • If “evangelical,” why so little attention to Christian experience, to personal conversion?  Why so little mention of the transforming love of Jesus Christ for persons and society?
  • If Wesleyan, why the silence about ministry with the poor?
  • If uniquely “Biblical Christian,” what is the basis of scriptural interpretation?  What is the hermeneutic employed?
  • If Wesleyan, what of John Wesley’s concern about schism and his clear guidance to learn from others who differ as expressed in “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”?


Answers to these questions would help me know if I might be included in the “covenant” you seek to draw.  You see, I fear your appropriation of the word “covenant” is more of a way to exclude and narrow than it is a way to a hope-filled future.  It is a misdirection away from the more profound meaning of covenant that comes from scripture.  The covenant, I believe we share is much broader and more profoundly enduring than that which can be restricted by a few paragraphs in the ever-shifting-language of The United Methodist Book of Discipline.  Using the word “covenant” in this narrow way may be beneficial to an ecclesial political agenda.  It may serve to set folks like me outside of “the elect.”  I reject this use of covenant language in this way.  I will not be thus separated by your linguistic legerdemain.
It was after all, conservative theologian, Richard John Neuhaus, of blessed memory, who taught the essential difference between “contract” and “covenant.”  Our faith covenant binds us together by something deeper and more profound than contractual language can ever contain.
A contract is limited to the temporal, “quid pro quo” reality.  It is an effort to control and claim exclusive authority over things that are passing, temporal.  It seeks to hold us together, by our past rules, limited language and small understandings.  It is a way to count up grievances and deny our commonweal.  It suggests the interpretation of scripture is the exclusive possession of one party and only this view will be acceptable for all United Methodists.  A “contract” seeks to limit vision, thwart new expression, block new insights walling them in to past categories and perspectives.
Covenant is not contract.  Covenant is God’s gift for us ALL — something that draws us into the future, TOGETHER; it is the power of God’s Spirit at work in the world and it is beyond our ability to limit this.  Covenant continually ReCenters us in Christ.  Bonhoeffer wrote clearly of the church being centered in Christ where boundaries drawn by those who seek to limit the expansiveness of God’s activity in the world will not hold. 
Believing we all belong to Christ and this is our true covenant hope, I remain, your brother,
Philip Amerson

4 thoughts on “ReCentering Methodism: Open Letter to the Wesley “Covenant” Association

  1. Dr. Amerson,
    we have never met. I can only think of you as Dr. Amerson because you came to Garrett not that long after my graduation there, and so I see you still in light of our personal roles and experience there. So I hope it would be ok to refer to you are Dr. Amerson.
    We have never met because while I am an ordained elder in the UMC (Central Texas Conference), I am a relative no body. I am just a rank and file clergy member who has tried to faithfully serve the church. I have never belonged to any of the renewal groups that are mentioned in your blog post, or that some of the leaders of the WCA have or do belong to. Currently, I am appointed to attend school, a PhD program in Educational Studies, so I don’t even pastor a church. I also have not joined the WCA personally. I am still praying over that reality and am unsure if I will or won’t. As I now live in the Chicagoland area, I did attend the meeting yesterday. I hope that much of what happened there will be made more well known and will receive a fair hearing. As a no body, who was there, I would like to answer your questions knowing that the answers are only mine personally.

    If “evangelical,” what is the “good news” you share?
    The good news is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To sum that up it is the story of God’s love for us revealed in Scripture. It reaches a great crescendo with Christ, who is eternally fully God and was made human, was crucified on the cross and shed His blood for the forgiveness of sins. Equally as important as the crucifixion is Jesus’ bodily resurrection. If Christ has not been bodily raised from the dead, then I agree with Paul that Christians are to be pitied above all people, because Jesus is dead and we are without hope of reconciliation with God.
    I believe this is the good news, and yesterday these realities were attested to time and time again. Christ was held at the center of all that happened. In our worship and singing, in preaching, in lectures or talks, and in statements and declarations that were made. This historic Jesus Christ revealed in Scripture, God’s gift to the Church was exalted. This Christ, and no other.

    If “evangelical,” why so little attention to Christian experience, to personal conversion?
    I don’t believe that you were there yesterday, but if you had been I don’t think this question would need to be answered. There were videos, lectures, sermons. All were talking about personal conversion and experiences. The experiences of clergy leading people who were being led out of poverty, both physically and spiritually. People being led out of drug addictions and offered grace even when they had run afoul of the earthly laws of this nation. There were testimonies to the way God has been experienced through the centuries and the relationship between the powers of the world and the Church. There were stories of person experiences with the Holy Spirit and with salvation. Of moving from not knowing God to knowing God. Experiences that weren’t all from the North American context of the church either.

    Why so little mention of the transforming love of Jesus Christ for persons and society?
    If Wesleyan, why the silence about ministry with the poor?
    I think I answered this question above. I can add that there was an exhortation even from one speaker about praying for coming revival and the future work the church needs to be about. So it wasn’t all about nostalgia or patting ourselves on the back for something our ancestors had done, but about the real work of the church today.

    If uniquely “Biblical Christian,” what is the basis of scriptural interpretation? What is the hermeneutic employed?
    This is the hardest question you ask. (At least for me to answer). I don’t know that there were any presentations that delved deeply into hermeneutics yesterday. My guess is that the 1700 or so folks who gathered yesterday don’t all agree about scriptural interpretations at all points or the best I can do is answer for myself. I do my best to interpret through the lens of the historic faith of the Church. I know the historical faith of the Church is obviously long and not ever of one voice. But perhaps, I can give the analogy of the choir. There may be various voicings and parts that are sung, but the over arching movements carry me along. As a Wesleyan of course Scripture and tradition and reason and experience all play a part. But so do Articles of Confession and the sermons of Wesley.

    If Wesleyan, what of John Wesley’s concern about schism and his clear guidance to learn from others who differ as expressed in “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”?
    This might be my most poorly worded answer, so I ask for grace. I have no great answer. I have not joined the WCA due mainly because of even the hint of perception of schism. I daily pray against it. I pray for unity in the faith, but I also pray for fidelity to the faith. I am hoping and waiting for the work of the A Way Forward commission. I continue to try to offer and extend grace and to be in dialog with various members of the UMC with whom I agree and with whom I disagree.

    I offer these answers in a humble spirit. I pray that it can serve as a dialog and not a diatribe.

    -ryan kiblinger


    1. Dear Ryan Kiblinger,
      Thanks for taking the time to respond to the questions I raise regarding the intent and direction of the WCA. It is appreciated. Let me begin by saying you can drop the “Dr. Amerson” stuff — “Phil” is fine. Also, even though we have not met, I believe you are a “somebody;” you are clearly someone who seeks to be faithful. That is most important. Let me share a few quick thoughts about your comments. I write not to refute your words; more, I write to clarify my questions.

      1) Let me share a word about my view of Christian Experience and conversion. As a lifelong Methodist (70 years now) it appears to me that we have moved away from being a people of “the warmed heart” to increasingly focus on “right thinking.” When I speak of conversion, I am not suggesting it is an experience where we try to convince others to change so that they agree with us. Rather I believe conversion is the call for all of us — those who are “them” and those who are “us” to seek after the heart of God. I am perhaps more interested in how I am to be converted and how we are to be converted. How will there be a radical shift in our behaviors and attitudes so that they are more in line with God’s purposes. My Methodist heritage and instincts have been greatly helped by reading the closing chapters of Charles Taylor’s tome “A Secular Age” where he points to the idea of radical conversion, that frees persons and society to more align themselves with divine leadings. My window on United Methodism causes me to believe that there are many “leaders” of WCA who are uncomfortable with the “warmed heart” or who view conversion as something good for others but not a metanoia, a seeking of the heart of God each of us should seek continually. My ministry has seen conversion in multiple frames — yes, there is conversion that is witnessed among my more conservative brothers and sisters and there is also conversion witnessed in more progressive places. Why limit what God is doing?

      2) Your comments about multiple hermaneutics being at play is helpful. I have no doubt it is the case that there are multiple interpretative approaches. How is it, I wonder, that nevertheless each of these hermaneutics comes to the same place regarding homosexuality? Might a prevailing culture be weighted into the calculation as well? You have, no doubt, heard questions before asking about the way slavery, women in leadership, polygamy, even the eating of certain foods has been interpreted before and now we have different understandings. What interpretative tool is used to have a differing view on these matters from what were once interpreted as scriptural mandates? Where is the center? The core elements for interpretation? My hermaneutic is informed by several elements, but primarily I look to the words of Jesus, especially the sermon on the mount and the Lord’s prayer as keys to unlocking what is essential, what is Gospel and necessary for the interpretation of other scripture. As a Methodist, there is also the role of reason, experience, tradition and history at play, of course. I confess that when I read the WCA statement about the inclusion of women, it was more than an little off-putting. So many, over the centuries, have used scripture to exclude women. For Methodists it was the case into the 1950s. Great folks like Bishop Gerald Kennedy and many others of his generation would use scripture to exclude women from leadership? How might a hermaneutic that includes women today not also be one to include others — our gay brothers and sisters?

      3) As I said, I am a cradle Methodist and steeped in the holiness tradition that informs many in the WCA. As a graduate of both Asbury College and Asbury Seminary, I have been much gifted and informed by my holiness rootage. Now in my 70th year, I think of all of the men and women I have known who attended these schools, or were in this tradition, who were closeted gay folks. Some “came out” and continued in ministry. My years have seen the tragedy that has been wrought by the exclusive and demeaning ways our prejudices and discrimination has played out in the lives of good folks — on all sides. I have also seen remarkable folks who have remained “closeted,” who gave immeasurable, dedicated, Christian leadership to our denomination and beyond. The list of these dear folks is long and in my thoughts today. I believe enough damage has been done. Time to stop and give space for their witness. It is time to step beyond our bigotry and find new ways to allow persons, on each side, to openly share their gifts in ministry within the United Methodist Church. And, I think on the lives and witness of great Methodists of the past — some gay, some not. What might we learn from them? I will not list name of these folks as I am tempted to do — let me simply say we would be much poorer had they not been faithful despite the bigotry they faced.

      4) There is much to say about ministry with the poor. This has been a focus of so much of my ministry. Like the whole matter of conversion, our ministries need not to be on “what we can do to ‘them’ or ‘for’ them” but rather what God is already doing — and is calling us all to do together. Yes, I am troubled by our paternalism on all fronts — and I am often the chief sinner in this regard.

      5) Finally, I come again to the distinction between covenant and contract I wrote about earlier. I believe that what the WCA is asking is that we turn our shared covenant into an exclusive contract — using the Book of Discipline as a weapon. It will not hold. Really, should this be used to divide God’s gloriously diverse body? Scripture, cultural biases and political privilege was used to exclude in early years of our history. I believe it is time to focus on Christ as center.

      This is the good news for me.

      Blessing, brother Ryan


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