This week I’m at the Ecumenical Leadership Summit in Dallas. With renewal leaders from Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism and United Methodism, we are hashing out a common witness for orthodox Protestantism in today’s America. Many of these leaders have left their old denominations and created new theologically traditional structures. Fortunately, we United Methodists have not faced that struggle.
(photo by Robert Lundy, American Anglican Council)
There’s been a wonderful spirit of common purpose and hopefulness about the future. One of our leading speakers has been Irish Methodist theologian William Abraham of United Methodist Perkins School of Theology at nearby Southern Methodist University. He urged a vision of “renewal rooted in optimism” that is “driven by a positive vision of Christian faith.” He noted that United Methodism is no longer “mainline,” which too often has politically meant anti-American and anti-capitalist along with other political labels rather than Gospel focus. “We are now a global church,” he rejoiced. “Let’s rename who we are.”
Abraham warned that modern evangelicalism is “extremely unstable.” He also lamented the “celebration of raw sensuality” in modern Western culture. “We need to be clear on the core vision of marriage as given by our Lord and Savior,” he said. Abraham also cited the “development of aggressive secularism” that knows that the “best way to shut people down is to control how they speak.”
(William Abraham with Mark Tooley)
Bemusedly calling the New Atheists “aggressive ignoramuses,” Abraham warned they are “infiltrating deeply into universities.” And he urged, “We must absolutely engage the deep assault on Christian faith.” Citing Protestant demographic decline, Abraham noted that theologian Stanley Hauerwas claims God is “killing” Protestantism. Disagreeing with the Duke University professor, Abraham smilingly asserted that Hauerwas is not a prophet but just a “noisy Texan.”
Abraham also spoke of the “challenge of Islam” and asked if “mainstream Islam can distinguish between politics and religion.” He hailed America as a “theological experiment” whose “vibrant civil religion” is a “brilliant solution” for integrating faith with public life. He suggested American civil religion will lead to a “reform of Islam.”
Recalling that United Methodism, like much of Mainline Protestantism, was “hijacked by remnant reconstructionist Protestants,” Abraham described official church structures operating as “functional atheists.” He also recalled that Methodism “gave away” its universities in the 19th century and its seminaries in the 20th century. Historically Methodism has been at its best evangelistically when it was at its best theologically, as in the mid 19th century. Official Methodism’s rejection of revivalism was a “big mistake,” he regretted. He remembered once being warned not to be “too Christological” in a sermon at his school’s chapel. “We need a recovery of nerve that we lost in late 19th century,” Abraham urged.
The church must recover the practice of catechesis and transmitting the faith to the next generation, Abraham insisted. He also urged recovering a “rich, robust account of evil and the demonic.” Hopeful about the church’s future, he celebrated that today is a time of “fertile” possibility for the church and an “occasion to find our voice and have fun.”