What do you do when your Church is heading for divorce?
I don’t mean my local church, which is still, for now, on the outer circle of the rings of fire that have been encroaching upon the greater Church for years now, but the denomination itself, that sits at the center of it all. It’s a sad reality for me, for all of us really, yet from that sadness already springs hope that good can come from this, once we cross through the trials still ahead.
I was raised in the United Methodist Church, which in its current denominational form is almost as old as I am. Four generations of my family, from my grandfather who pastored it in the 1960’s, to my son, an active youth member, have attended the same local church for over half a century. We even have occupied the same pew most of that time, because we Methodists can be funny about familiarity and are often uncomfortable with change…so yes, many of us have a thing about sitting in the same place for generations. That might also be indicative of my thinking at times too.
I came up through the Sunday School and Methodist Youth programs we offered, have sung in the choir on and off, have served for over two decades as the Liturgist and have preached around 60 times as a lay speaker. I’ve also been the Lay Delegate to Annual Conference, several times in my 30’s and at least twice in my 50’s. It goes without saying that my relationship with the local United Methodist Church and, by extension, the greater Church is one of the longest and most enduring ones I’ve had.
A few days ago, in response to what I consider a disastrous, divisive Special General Conference in 2019, a significant group of Methodist leaders representing many of the major factions and their differences in theology, belief and practice, released a plan they hope to present at the quadrennial General Conference later this year, that represents what they feel would ultimately be in the best interests of the Church.
They met for several days of moderated discussion, and they laid all of their cards on the table. They argued, prayed and compromised…everyone gave something and everyone got something, but in the end, they agreed that “the way forward” (an unfortunate descriptor given to last year’s final, all-or-nothing attempt to broker a truce and a way through the impasse) was for the family that was the Church to break apart and go its separate ways.
“The Protocol of Grace and Reconciliation through Separation” or “The Protocol” for short, is nothing less than a roadmap for how to amicably separate our Church into two or possibly more denominations so that hopefully, finally, the Church can begin to heal and move beyond the past twelve years of increasing divisiveness and the past fifty years of debate on the issue of human sexuality.
I am, in style and worship, a traditionalist, but I also consider myself a moderate in the arguments about what is biblically acceptable and even a progressive in matters where inequalities exist and must be rectified. That means that I frequently challenge and question my own beliefs, which can change over time. I think that is something all of us must do from time to time and make sure that our perspective evolves and grows.
If God created human beings, and my religious beliefs tell me that He did, then He created us all the way we are…flawed, imperfect and sinful, yet no less loved by Him and no less sacred in worth than the person on either side of us in the eyes of Jesus Christ. If we must subscribe to the belief that persons who are homosexual are of less worth in the eyes of God, or ineligible to receive all of the blessings of the Church or the benefits of marriage, simply because there is scriptural reference to it, then we must also take that to mean that divorced people are of equally diminished value and that slavery is perfectly acceptable, because the Bible refers to it that way. Many years of slavery existed in this country, before and after its founding, that was perpetuated, at least by some, on the basis that the Bible made it ok. I cannot subscribe to that literal interpretation of the Bible, written over a millennia ago, and sometimes misused for one’s own justifications, without challenging the moral rightness of some of its perceptions.
The issue of human sexuality has been a driving wedge in our Church for a long time now, creating two very distinct sides and several middle grounds, depending on where you fall on the scale. The traditionalists will never convince the progressives that their arguments alone are the right ones, any more than the progressives will convince the traditionalists of the reverse. Impasse has been reached, meaning neither side can move forward, and the entire Church suffers and stagnates.
Brothers and sisters in Christ have been reduced to pointless, hurtful name calling, backbiting and attacks, as each side claims the moral high ground to the detriment of all else. At some point, it must stop, and finally it seems that most of the dissenting parties have begun to recognize that unity cannot and should not be achieved at the expense of everything else, including our values, our beliefs and our basic decency to each other. Our mission work and our mandate, which at its core is to spread the Gospel and to make disciples of Jesus Christ, cannot go forward if the Church is sliding backward into a quagmire of trying to achieve a state of unity at all costs. It can’t be about absolutism, where someone has to be right and someone has to be wrong. Sometimes the Church just has to take a different path, maybe a more painful path, to recognize that the only way to do no further harm is to resign oneself to withdraw from the battle and seek a different path.
Divorce is painful. While our Bishop pointed out that it is our goal to work at relationships and to push for unity, she illustrated well that sometimes we fail at loving one another and in this case, there just may not be a future in staying together when the divide is so great that it consumes everything. I agree with that assessment and that of others who have spoken about this. If given a choice between staying together and fighting until we’ve destroyed our Church, or separating and possibly creating new Churches that can allow all of them to focus on mission, ministry and service…then I choose the latter.
I don’t see this as an expedient answer to a longtime problem. I don’t see this as an easy solution to a complex issue. I see this as the only solution that is really left after years of argument, divide and strife. I see this as a way to stop hurting others, to hopefully begin to heal the pain that many carry, to lessen the harm that has been done, to provide a Church that everyone feels welcome in and to ensure that everyone can find a Church home whose beliefs are at least not diametrically opposed to their own beliefs and values. It’s not a happy solution but it is, at the end of the day, a solution.
Separation won’t be easy for United Methodists, even divided as so many are. At Annual Conference this past June, I observed many factions present, advocating for their positions by choosing delegates that represented their beliefs…but I also observed that, while differences existed on the floor of the conference, that these delegates still loved each other and enjoyed the shared experience of worshipping together…and that gives me a lot of hope because it echoes the love I feel for the Church and about the people I worship with, in all their diversity, views, faith and beliefs. Jesus said to love one another and I really think that for the most part, we do, despite our differences.
I have worshipped with Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians and Jews…people whose beliefs were both similar to mine in some ways and very different in others…yet we came together, in worship and prayer, despite our theological differences. I think we Methodists, in whatever forms our denomination takes, will ultimately find that while we may eventually become cousins more than siblings in the future, that we will still find ourselves as a family, drawn together on those matters, spiritual and temporal, that still unite us, and that we will still find our way to reconciliation, acceptance of our diversity and unity with Christ.
The way will not be easy and it won’t be without mistakes along the way…but I pray as we United Methodists make this one last journey together, that we will trust in God to lead us, that we can still find Christ in each other, that our shared history will continue to be the tie that binds us, even as we move in new directions, and that we will grow in the Holy Spirit with each step we take…and in time, we may even find our way back to each other again.
Yours in Christ