During the first hour of its launch event in Chicago on October 7, leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) were scrambling to find more chairs to accommodate the standing-room-only gathering, as well as swaying and clapping to the enthusiastic and impromptu participation of African United Methodists during the opening worship time – a visible reminder of the global nature of the denomination.
“I am convinced God is doing a new thing among those of us who claim the historic, orthodox, evangelical, Wesleyan expression of our faith,” said the Rev. Dr. Jeff Greenway, lead pastor of Reynoldsburg (Ohio) United Methodist Church, in his presentation on the group’s purpose. “I believe we are planting seeds today that — when full grown — will bear the fruit of a vital Wesleyan witness and a dynamic Spirit-filled Methodism across the globe.”
Speaking on behalf of the participants from Africa, the Rev. Dr. Edwin Julius Momoh of the Sierra Leone Annual Conference, affirmed the kinship between the goals of the WCA and African United Methodism. “We understand that the WCA is vision-driven movement committed to moving forward God’s agenda for the evangelization of the nations, the revitalization of The United Methodist Church, and the transformation of society; as we do in Africa.”
The inaugural gathering was a high-energy mixture of affirmative messages on the Lordship of Jesus, the centrality of the Scriptures in the life of the Church, and the Wesleyan drive to transform the world through Christian discipleship and social holiness.
“We Methodists believe in holding in tension both works of piety and works of mercy,” said the Rev. Jorge Acevedo, senior minister of Grace Church, a multi-site congregation committed to recovery ministry in Southwest Florida, in his presentation. “Faith expressed without a robust expression of both in the life of an individual follower of Jesus or a local church is incomplete and unbiblical in our understanding of what it means to live in Christ. For us faith is lived best when as a follower of Jesus I work on my prayer life and work to end human trafficking. My local church is being faithful to the way of Jesus when our hands are lifted high in transcending worship and our hands are reaching low to work with the poor.”
The Chicago event was also a show of solidarity to orthodox clergy and laity in sections of the church that no longer adhere to the global United Methodist views on marriage and sexuality. The day-long event culminated with a communion service overseen by two United Methodist bishops.
“We don’t live on the world’s wisdom, we do not exist on the world’s power,” said Bishop Mike Lowry of the Fort Worth Area of the Central Texas Conference, during his communion homily. “You know and I know it is Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God. What is at stake for us in this struggle we are in is not ultimately the issue of human sexuality. What is at stake for us is who is Lord, who rules, who saves us. We preach Christ and him crucified.”
Living core of our faith. Interspersed between messages calling for a revitalized Wesleyanism, WCA leaders crowd-sourced affirmation of its theological underpinnings, purpose, and moral principles. “We are reciting the Nicene Creed today without crossing our fingers behind our backs,” said the Rev. Dr. Bill Arnold, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, before leading the group in the ancient affirmation of faith. “These standards and this creed are more than mere historical relics of our past. These are the living core of our faith, rooted firmly, we believe, in the revelation contained in the Old and New Testaments.”
It also christened a new leadership team through audience affirmation by applause and “amens.” As the council members began their work together they elected Dr. Jeff Greenway as the group’s chairperson; the Rev. Carolyn Moore, pastor of Mosaic United Methodist Church outside of Augusta, Georgia, as vice chairperson; the Rev. Madeline Carrasco Henners, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Luling Texas, as secretary; and Ferrell Coppedge, lay leader of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia, as treasurer.
With more than 1,800 participants, the Donald E. Stevens Convention Center near O’Hare Airport in Chicago was flooded with enthusiastic United Methodists from every conference across the denomination in the United States and from ten conferences in Africa.
The Rev. Dr. Kim Reisman, the World Director of World Methodist Evangelism, called upon the gathering to find strength in the global church’s witness. “I believe the Wesleyan Covenant Association is a place where we can be encouraged to follow the lead of those beyond the United States and begin rooting ourselves in the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit, so that we can move beyond self-reliance, and boldly claim, or reclaim, the Trinitarian shape of Wesleyan life and witness.”
Chicago Statement. Through a “Chicago Statement” that was affirmed by a standing ovation and cheers, the group asked the Council of Bishops to “swiftly name the members” of the Commission on the Way Forward and “approve the call for a special General Conference in early 2018 to enable resolution of the conflict that divides us before further harm is done to United Methodist members, congregations, conferences, and ministries.”
“If we are one church, we need to stop acting like two churches,” said the Rev. Dr. Chris Ritter, pastor of a multi-site United Methodist congregation around Geneseo, Illinois, in presenting the statement. “If we are two churches, we need to stop pretending we are one. I say these things as someone who has worked passionately for the cause of church unity over the past few years.”
In the midst of dissension and uncertainty within United Methodism, leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association say the group was formed in order to bring a unifying voice of hope and encouragement to evangelicals and traditionalists as they face the future.
“What unites us is that we long to be part of a mighty movement that God uses to change the world,” said the Rev. Rob Renfroe, pastor of adult discipleship at The Woodlands (Texas) United Methodist Church, during his message to the group. “We did not join the United Methodist Church to debate what the Bible has made clear. We did not enter the ministry to save the church. We are Methodists because we want to be part of a church that God would use to save the world.”
“We don’t know what the future will bring,” said Renfroe, who is also president and publisher of Good News. “We are not here to promote schism. But we are not here to be naïve either. Change is coming to the United Methodist Church. We all know that. The bishops know that and many have said so publicly.”
The Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah, dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology (United Methodist) in Liberia, reminded the group about the importance of choosing the right way when two divergent paths are presented at a crossroad. “The only sustainable path to global unity of the people called United Methodist is total submission and loyalty to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and an exclusive obedience to the Word of God as primary authority for faith and Christian living,” said Kulah. “While we live within diverse cultures and religious worldviews, it is important that we love and embrace everyone, but we must continually live within God’s parameter of grace defined by Scripture.”
Light of the world. The temptation to accommodate to the values of the prevailing culture has been a struggle for the Church since the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, observed the Rev. Dr. Andrew Thompson in his presentation. “The Church was not meant to adhere to the values of the world. The Church was not meant to be the handmaiden of the culture,” said Thompson, Wesleyan scholar and pastor of First United Methodist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. “The Church was rather called to be the ‘light of the world,’ the ‘city built on the hill,’ and the ‘lamp upon the lampstand’ giving light to the darkness beyond (Matthew 5:14-15)!
“Wesley’s great fear was that the Methodist movement would – in a process that had happened again and again over the centuries – be tamed by the culture until it was nothing more than a docile lapdog,” Thompson continued. “He was afraid that Methodism’s engagement with the culture would dilute it until it was a shell of its former self.”
In his opening sermon, the Rev. Kenneth Levingston, senior minister of Jones Memorial United Methodist Church in Houston, said that the “core of our struggle” is when men, women, and the Church attempt to put other things in God’s rightful place. Levingston said that modern false gods include: salvation without sacrifice, sanctification without submission, mercy and grace without truth and transformation, social holiness without Scripture, and forgiveness without faithfulness.
Reunion of the rescued. The Rev. Jessica LaGrone, Dean of the Chapel of Asbury Theological Seminary, told the story of the special reunions conducted by the 155 survivors of flight 1549 that was forced to land on the icy waters of the Hudson River in January of 2009. On that day, all the ferryboats in the area were deputized into rescue boats in order to save the passengers who were perched precariously along the sinking plane’s massive wings. The event is known as the “Miracle on Hudson” and the reunions are dubbed “Celebrations of Life.”
LaGrone called the WCA Chicago gathering a “reunion of the rescued.” She reminded the participants that their unified purpose can be found because “together we were saved, together we find hope in our shared faith, and so together we stand. We were, all of us, sinking deep in sin, and Jesus rescued us.”
“We meet not just to find a way forward, but to remember how we found The Way, the Truth, and the Life in the first place,” said LaGrone. “And to remember that to fully know life is not just to be rescued from something, but to be rescued for something. To become the rescued and transformed means to be those intent on the rescue and transformation of others.”
Appealing to the future. Wesleyan Covenant Association leaders announced during the afternoon session that they had run out of membership forms and encouraged participants to sign-up online (wesleyancovenant.org). Two young clergypersons appealed to the future of the church in asking participants to join the association.
“It’s not often that you get to be part of history,” said the Rev. Ryan Barnett, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Kerrville, Texas. “No matter how you think things are going to turn out in the United Methodist Church, there is no question that they will be different for my son than they were for my parents.”
“Today, I’m joining the WCA because I’m desperate for renewal within the church and revival within the world,” said the Rev. Madeline Carrasco Henners. “I want to support my brothers and sisters in conferences that ostracize them or violate our global covenant. I’m joining the WCA because I believe it will be a vibrant, Spirit-filled Wesleyan voice within the world. Finally, I’m joining the WCA because I desire to be in covenant with brothers and sisters who seek to know, love, and honor God in all they do.”