KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (Sept. 28, 2017) -- The Rev. Wil Cantrell has enough to do. He’s a pastor, the father of three small children, a five-time marathon runner and a member of several committees and teams.
Why would he want to write a book about the future of The United Methodist Church?
Cantrell, who represented Holston Conference as a delegate to General Conference 2016, admits that trying to write objectively about the denomination’s struggle with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) issues was a risky venture.
“I risked some of my relationships with people who are so far on the progressive side and so far on the conservative side,” he says, “and even some family members, who would not be happy with me that I was writing in a manner that respected some other viewpoint.”
Despite the challenges, Cantrell published a book in April 2017 that has already led to studies and discussion groups in four annual conferences and two United Methodist colleges. “Unafraid and Unashamed: Facing the Future of United Methodism” was conceived after Cantrell won attention for a daily blog during General Conference 2016. A publisher noticed and sent him an email invitation on the last day of the May 10-20 meeting in Portland, Oregon.
The 38-year-old pastor, currently serving as associate at Concord United Methodist Church, said he realized in school that he had a gift for “synthesizing” complex information and re-communicating “in a way that helps people make sense of it.”
He didn’t think about writing a book until he realized he could help United Methodists understand each other better and perhaps talk about a topic that threatens to formally separate them into different churches.
“I realized this book needed to be written when I realized you can be on the right side of history and on the wrong side of love,” he said. “And you can be on the right side of Biblical authority and on the wrong side of love … If we put our spiritual identity and our sanctification into whichever traditional-centrist-progressive camp we find ourselves in, we’re in a bad place.”
FINDING A VOICE
Cantrell was elected to attend General Conference 2012 and again in 2016. When he returned from Portland in May 2016, he had a publisher’s offer to consider.
The request was for Cantrell to propose a legislative solution for the Commission on a Way Forward, a group charged by General Conference to examine the church’s stance on human sexuality and explore options for unity.
“I told them I wasn’t sure, but I would do my research,” he said.
Cantrell talked to psychologists and psychiatrists about human sexuality. For three months, he interviewed teachers of theology and history as well as leaders of Reconciling Ministries Network, Good News, and other groups.
Cantrell decided not to write the book that was originally proposed because he said he has faith in the Commission on the Way Forward and its process. “I voted for the commission, I believe there are diverse voices on it, and I don’t want to be an outside voice, picking at them and telling them what to do.”
Instead, he decided to write a “pastoral letter.” He started writing about differing views regarding LGBTQ issues and the history of the debate. He gave Biblical commentary on the conflict and examined the challenges facing the denomination, even if the LGBTQ debate is resolved.
“I don’t prognosticate on whether we should stay together or not as a denomination, and I don’t say exactly how I feel about LGBTQ issues,” the author said. “I simply tried to outline what is at stake and how we can love another within our differences.”
Cantrell got halfway through the book when the publisher declined his revised version. Although he was disappointed, he realized he wanted to finish and publish the book.
“I’m passionate about this … I feel called to put this out there,” he said. “I’m thankful, because if the original plan had come through, I would have had to write the book they wanted, and instead, I got to write the book I believe in.”
He called it “Unafraid and Unashamed.” The last paragraph of the book explains the title and his mission: “May we face the future with a faith that makes us unafraid to treat those of differing opinions with charitable grace and unashamed of the Gospel which calls us to share Christ with a world in great need of his healing power.”
NURTURING THE FAITH
Cantrell resolved the publishing problem by reaching out to a Knoxville friend with a new publishing company.
“We knew the book had a two-year shelf life and needed to be published immediately to reach its intended audience,” Cantrell said. The book may be outdated beginning February 2019, when a special General Conference will meet to act on the Commission on a Way Forward's findings.
“Unafraid and Unashamed” was released in April and was first on Amazon’s "Methodist Christianity" best-sellers list for several weeks. (Cokesbury also sells the book.)
The book began to receive attention, especially as a tool to help people talk about a sensitive subject. Cantrell learned that clergy in the North Alabama Conference, Great Plains Conference, and Holston Conference are having discussion groups around the book. Student groups at Emory & Henry College and Birmingham-Southern College are also studying it. A free study guide was released Sept. 21.
Cantrell was also invited to speak to the North Carolina Preaching Festival in Raleigh. Holston Conference suggested the book as a resource during a week dedicated to praying for the future of the United Methodist Church.
When Bishop Karen Oliveto read the book, she asked Cantrell to do a live video conference with the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area. Oliveto is a married lesbian who was elected and consecrated bishop by the Western Jurisdiction in 2016, violating United Methodist law.
“I was very impressed with the warmth and respect she showed to me,” said Cantrell. “I said some things that were probably hard for her to hear, and I was impressed with how she received those.”
If there’s a criticism of the book, Cantrell says it’s because he didn’t take a side with the traditional, progressive, or centrist views. “That was very intentional,” he explains. In order for the book to help readers examine their own perspectives and feel their faith nurtured, they have to trust the author isn’t pushing his own agenda, he said.
“I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it wasn’t for very, very conservative Christians and for very progressive Christians, both of whom I saw Christ in and who mentored me in the faith,” he said.
“My dream is that regardless of the political solution or lack thereof, that the people currently called United Methodist come out stronger in their faith and more passionate about Jesus Christ, whether we stay together or not.”
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.