For my friends who are not United Methodist, I apologize. I am keeping the tone of this piece “inside baseball,” because I didn’t allow enough time today to revise this for a wider audience.
I remember about five years ago, talking with a friend about how frustrated I was with the failure of the UMC to make any forward progress on inclusivity at General Conference. She pointed out the problems that the Episcopal church was having within the Anglican communion because of choosing to ordain gay priests, and said to me, “Doesn’t it pose an ecumenical problem? Because there is so much disagreement about this issue across denominations?”
She and I were both on track to be ordained, each in different denominations. I replied, “Ordaining women is an ecumenical problem, by those standards. Do you think that we shouldn’t be ordained?”
The dilemma in debates about what makes schism worthwhile and what does not is that it so often neglects the reality that the church is already in schism. Many times over the past centuries, Christians have decided that they could not in good conscience continue under what they saw as a corrupt, or unfaithful, or simply ineffectual system. It happened over indulgences, over communion, over pastoral authority… In the U.S., nearly every Protestant denomination split over slavery, including the Methodists – who splintered into not two, but at least five different denominations over the slavery issue.
The Church is already a fractured family. There are those who say that we should always try and stick it out, but given our history, this seems arbitrary. Why is this iteration of our church more sacrosanct than others? For others who vaguely assert that of course there is a line that they are not willing to cross, I would like to know: where is that line, exactly? And how did the failure of General Conference to even name that we disagree not cross it?
I have to admit, I have been hoping for a split. I see the seeds of a split in the actions of the Northeastern and Western jurisdictional conferences – if the jurisdiction can vote to ignore actions of the General Conference, then it is only a short step to having a whole jurisdiction brought up on charges for failing to uphold the Discipline. Which might be the best kind of split, because then churches don’t have to decide where they stand, initially. Instead, the church would split along geographic lines initially, but individual congregations could hash out different positions over time.
I like the idea of a split because I think that we could all benefit from having scaled down operations – from not being such a major player in everything from lobbying to relief to publishing. Yes, we do great stuff with the money and members we have. But we have turned our denomination into an idol, so conferences and bishops and publications all put too much energy into increasing everyone’s anxiety about how many people we have as compared to fifty years ago, and how relevant we are, and what is our brand, etc. Which leads to some truly awful ad campaigns (Remember the one with the dandelion? “If you can wish, you can pray.” Um, no. Way to trivialize church, guys!), and worse – to pastors whose ministries are driven more by fear than by love.
I like the idea of a split because it lets so many pastors off the hook. By and large, pastors in the U.S. are opposed to the restrictions on ministry by and to gays and lesbians, but leaving the church (or even putting themselves in a position to be kicked out) means losing a job with health benefits in a bad economy – usually a job that is the only one the pastor has any interest in having. And let’s not forget how many pastors marry young – which means that they have families to support. Splitting would allow pastors who oppose the restrictions to stay pastors and live into their convictions about gay marriage.
And I like the idea of a split because it would show gay and lesbian United Methodists that they have not been forgotten or abandoned – that they are as important to the church as the bullies are.
But admittedly, I have a much more selfish reason to like the idea of a split: I have already split. No longer clergy, I don’t have a voice at annual conference or the ability to get kicked out for defying the rules that bind clergy only. And after more than 20 years of following these issues, I am tired of waiting for things to change at General Conference. Or, more accurately, I have stopped believing that things ever will change at General Conference. So I find myself in an Episcopalian congregation, but every time I come close to joining, I come up against a reservation that is strong enough to keep me on the margins. I am realizing that I still want to be a Methodist – I am a Methodist without a Methodist congregation, until my gay friends can be Methodist pastors, until they can be married in a Methodist church. Until there is a Methodist option for them, there is no Methodist option for me, either.
Maybe you feel that by leaving, I have forfeited my place at the table. I get that – you are sticking it out, and that is not easy. But the voices of the Methodist diaspora need to be heard. There are many pastors and would-be pastors who were driven out of the church because of who they love. There are many laypeople who cannot be a part of a church that half-heartedly welcomes them. In this sense, the question of whether or not the United Methodist Church should split is moot – the church is already split. There are many Methodists who are sitting in UCC, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches – or even not in church at all – who would happily return to a Methodist church that truly welcomes them.
Or, you know, keep trying to win over the people with the loud and angry voices, if you think it might make a difference. Give the whole Central Conference strategy a try, if you think they won’t see through it. I’ve shaken the dust of that town off of my feet, and walked on.