CROSSING THE DIVIDE
And Here We Are
“There will be a Wesleyan movement of serving Christ that is a progressive United Methodist Church.” The words rang out, loud and and clear and true. They continued, “This will be a church that is doing same gender marriages and ordaining some gay and lesbian persons. At the same time the Wesleyan movement needs a traditional Methodist church that holds on to the idea that marriage is between only one man and one woman and keeps our current standards about ordination. When we take that big picture view and say, ‘Well, some of our churches are going to end up staying in a more progressive United Methodist Church.’ That’s okay. ‘Well, some of our churches are going to need to affiliate with the Global Methodist Church.’ That’s okay too.”
These were some of he opening remarks as we met with as a District to learn more about what it meant to stay in the UMC and what it would look like to leave the the UMC throug the disaffiliation process. The words and thoughts running through my mind were simply, “What’s next? What do we do? What do I do?”
How Did We Get Here
It began long before today, before the Protocol Proposal, the decision to adopt the Traditional Plan. It was also a journey that was begun long before the many General Conference protests(2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016) over the issue of the ordination of practicing homosexuals. It may though have been most visible in the communion table demonstration or protest. In that protest or demonstration, there was a very real reminder that the United Methodist Church was no longer United.
The Methodist Church, well the United Methodist Church, has always been a church and denomination that was built around, among other things, a covenantal relationship. The covenant is different than a promise. A covenant is an agreement, a relationship, or a partnership in which two parties make a binding promise to each other, to work together, to agree to do something, or to not do something. A promise is what one party makes to another, to do something or not to do something. The Church was no longer working together, it was going in separate directions.
Covenants and relationships go hand in hand. And like most relationships, relationships grow together, or they grow apart. Over the course of almost 50 years there has been a struggle within the church over theology (how we talk about God). Perhaps we failed to see it because we wanted to keep our promises to each other and to The Church, but as each party was sure and certain of the manner in which they perceived God’s presence, activities, and promises, each was just as certain and sure the other was wrong. And after taking breaks and break-ups, it became clear that the end was not near, but here.
It wasn’t too long ago that the church had a choice to make about what direction the denomination would go. Given a series of choices, it came time to vote. It’s important to note that votes create winners and losers. And unless it’s unanimous, most votes merely clarify separation. Clearly we were able to see polarity and this polarity seemed to speed up a more permanent separation for the “United Methodist Church”. What we saw was divided we were, or rather the only thing that unites us might have been our division. It was time to recalculate direction, route, ETA, and more.
We’re Going Our Separate Ways
After deciding as a denomination that some split or schism was imminent, the “Protocol” for a graceful separation was put in place, and both sides began to look at what it would mean to leave. In the end, there were actual proposals by both, churches and entire Annual Conferences, to withdraw or Disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church. The Texas Annual Conference was going to face and address this very possibility at the 2022 Annual Conference in 2 weeks. Clergy and Lay Delegates would vote on the next step or steps to addressing a broken covenant over how we, as United Methodists, talk about God and how we live out our ministry moving forward.
As a member of The Texas Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, if the conference moved forward with disaffiliation, Emory would be faced with the decision of whether to remain as a member of the Annual Conference or choose to remain as a church in The United Methodist Church. Clergy and lay delegates alike would return home and say, as we have said before, “this is how the voting came out and now we just move forward.” We could use words like covenant, fault, grace, providence, justice, and any other word that fit appropriately. But again, something happened.
We aren’t leaving as an AC, instead each church was going to have to own their choice. Each church will get to own the choice it makes. If a church stays, it’s because it chooses to stay. If a church leaves, it chooses to leave. There is nothing passive about what happens next, it is active. Depending on who you talked to, the vote to leave as an Annual Conference would have happened with a greater than 2/3 majority vote to even a 3/4 majority vote. For that majority, disaffiliation would be simple, or simpler. Most of the work would be done by the Annual Conference. The churches would not experience much change at all. The disaffiliation would essentially slide the annual conference into the Global Methodist Church, which is doctrinally as conservative as the UMC is supposed to be as it adheres to the current United Methodist Book of Discipline. Disaffiliation would not be an act of exclusion or affirmation of social injustice, but rather a recognition of who we are theologically. Or would it?
“It sure would have been easier if we could have left as an Annual Conference.”
“It would have been easier for sure, but not necessarily better. Now each church and pastor must decide for themselves where they fit and what they believe.”
“It might be good for all the churches to go through a discernment process.”
The New Destination
Over the last two years our conference has seen six churches go through the disaffiliation process. Each of those churches had to go through a discernment process that included looking at who they were, why they were considering disaffiliation, what the church as a whole decided, what it would mean to the church and for the church to disaffiliate, had to present this process to the annual conference, and then it had to be approved. Everything they did was with intent and purpose. By the time each church went through this process, they knew who they were, they knew what they were going to do, and they knew how they would do it.
The United Methodist Church is in the midst of a very significant shift. The shape, the size, the scope, the mission, the vision, and the direction of the United Methodist Church as it moves forward will likely be significantly different in the very near future. The denomination has been in the middle of a pivot or shift in other conferences and in entire jurisdictions for the last six years. In their defense, the activities and practices that have been outside of and incongruent with the current Book of Discipline have been done based upon their theology. The decisions that they have made have been decisions that they believed to be faithful to living out the gospel. I do not believe their intent has been to be heretical or unbiblical. This is where our differences seem to be visible. This is also the difference between a traditional United Methodist Church and a progressive United Methodist Church.
There will be a progressive and has been a progressive United Methodist Church that is doing same gender marriages and ordaining some gay and lesbian persons. This hasn’t been happening in the Texas Annual Conference, as it’s Annual Conference leadership has made a commitment to stay within its covenant relationship and adhere to the Book of Discipline. Make no mistake, the Wesleyan movement needs a traditional Methodist Church. There needs to be a church, a Methodist Church, that holds on to scripture as the primary rule and authority for faith, morals, and service, against which all other authorities must be measured, instead of viewing scripture as something that can be modified or interpreted by other sources.
This shift and the resulting split means a choice must be made because, in the end, The Church will be different.
And Here We Are
We. You and me. Us. We get To find out who we are and what we are going to do next. As you pastor, I would suggest we begin to ask the necessary questions about who we are, what we are, why we are, and does this mean. This will help us also understand who we are not.
If you know me or have known me long, you know this crushes me on so many levels. I have long valued being in dialogue with brothers and sisters across the theological and social spectrum. I prefer open doors and minds over closed minds and doors. Finding ways to build bridges has long been an image and metaphor of the Gospel throughout church history and it has been part of my identity in ministry. I wanted(and still do) to see “something” bridge the two theological worlds of the progressive church and the traditional church. What I have seen and keep seeing is a collision.
Maybe it’s a time to go to the shop, rebuild, and chart a new course so we can resume the journey to where it is we all need to go. Because we can’t continue to run into each other, eventually, no one will walk away. We will be carried away…by pallbearers.