By DAVID CRUMM
“Third way”—the phrase is buzzing through religious groups where members are searching desperately for some graceful and faithful way to welcome gay and lesbian members after a long history of condemning them. The Rev. Ken Wilson is widely regarded as the man who turned the “third way” idea into a national movement, largely through his popular and influential book A Letter to My Congregation and his ongoing website Third Way Newsletter. This spring, he is publishing an expanded second edition of his book to tell more of his story and to clarify what it means to chart a “third way” for congregations.
The latest major denomination to introduce the “third way” phrase is the United Methodist Church, which concluded its worldwide General Conference in Portland, Oregon, last week. The phrase “third way” was used by some church leaders debating strategies to get around the long-standing United Methodist condemnation of gay people—a condemnation so serious that the church’s pastors can be fired for so much as blessing a same-sex couple. The global conference ended with no immediate change on LGBT inclusion, which effectively maintains the church’s harsh condemnation for now. But, leaders did agree to a special gathering in 2018 where these issues will be reviewed in a comprehensive way.
What’s clear is that a “third way” option will be vigorously discussed for the next two years in one of America’s largest mainline denominations.
Wilson watched events unfold at the United Methodist conference from a distance, reading press reports. Overall, he said the denomination’s movement seems hopeful, especially by exploring a “third way” option. But he is not a member of that church.
As readers of the first edition of his book know, he was one of the nation’s leading pastors in the Vineyard denomination when he launched the third way within his large Ann Arbor, Michigan, congregation. Some Vineyard leaders followed his example; others staunchly opposed the move. In early 2014, A Letter to My Congregation carried his story coast to coast and drew many new, strong supporters of his compassionate approach to inclusive ministry. Since that time, Wilson has moved on from Vineyard to help establish a new denomination called Blue Ocean Faith that holds “third way” as a core principle.
The second edition of his book, first, shores up and clarifies some of the key points he makes about “third way.” Then it also tells the story of the remarkable spiritual journey he has taken over the past two years.
Does he have any regrets about the sometimes turbulent changes in moving from his former denomination into this entirely new Christian movement called Blue Ocean Faith?
“No regrets at all,” Wilson said in an interview about the release of the book’s second edition. “What I have added to this new second edition clarifies points I made in the original book that raised some questions with readers. And then I tell what’s happened since I first published the book.
“It is true that we all experienced a painful transition—but all of us at Blue Ocean are in a better place now. Sure, I look back and I ask strategically: How could I have managed the change process better? But that’s true of any change process.
“The reward of making church a safe place for sexual minorities makes the church safer for everybody. The reward for achieving that is so great that there’s no question of regret. And part of what I realize now is that I hadn’t even appreciated how many constraints I had been laboring under. I don’t spend a single moment saying I regret making this move.
“The freedom that people experience when they are fully included—that is to die for. That’s such a tangible reward that I want people to know: We can survive all the tomfoolery and pain that the Christian church can sometimes cause its members over these issues.
“What we need to remember is that there are people still coming to faith—and the very LGBT people who have been most targeted by the worst aspects of the church in the 21st century are still hungering for God and they are coming to the church.”
‘YOU CAN’T BE A PILLBUG’
What religious leaders are discovering—most recently at the global United Methodist gathering in Portland, Oregon—is that avoiding issues of gender and sexuality is impossible. America has moved dramatically toward acceptance both in terms of public opinion and legal protection—and that is ushering in an era when sexual minorities feel free to publicly express themselves. The question of inclusion vs. exclusion is a core issue of our time.
“That’s why I expanded my book, because this continues to be so important to families everywhere you go,” Wilson said. “You can’t be a pillbug anymore as a member of a faith community. You can’t curl up and live within your small world.
“We are all part of the wider world in irreversible ways. That’s been happening for a long time. With the internet and social media, parts of our lives that we used to whisper about in secret—we now shout from the rooftops. And that truth affects what it’s like to be a person of faith today. This affects the level of certainty we think we have on traditional ideas. We all are working out what the pathway looks like ahead of us. The third way allows us all to come together even as we are still working out what it means to be a church.”
In this difficult time of transition, some critics are chiding church leaders who refuse to move away from traditional teachings of condemnation and exclusion. Wilson said he is well aware of the criticism, including some highly critical voices that say the church is fatally flawed at this point.
“And to that, I say: It’s still a bold confession of faith to say that I’m a follower of Jesus Christ,” Wilson said. “And in saying that I’m reminding us all that Christianity is about following Jesus, a Jesus who is active and moving. We believe that he’s out there in the world today—making moves in our world. Our job is to be there with Jesus when he’s making his moves. In Matthew, Jesus summons people and this call is so compelling that they drop their fishing nets and follow him.
“That remains the essential movement of Christianity. Everything else is window dressing compared to that call to follow. We keep moving. And I continue to make my bold confession of faith: I follow Jesus Christ.”