Unity and Schism

I am posting this as part of a synchro-blog on the topic of schism in the UMC. This synchro-blog was organized in honor of the first anniversary of Dream UMC.

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?”
I pointed out that she was on track to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA, a church that split from the American Presbyterian Church over the question of ordaining women. Was there a difference?

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.

And so I have reluctantly left a church whose social justice stance and theology I admire because, according to church law, only straight people can fully participate in the life of that denomination. Am I being unfair? I don’t think so – the church is behaving in a tremendously unloving way towards a group of people who are already disadvantaged in our culture. This behavior towards sexual minorities is telling. “By your fruits you shall know them.”

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.

Facing our Fears

“Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free;

from our sins and fears release us, let us find our rest in thee.

Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art;

dear desire of every nation, joy of every trembling heart.”

– Charles Wesley

Like other United Methodists, I have been thinking a lot about guaranteed appointments in the past 48 hours. Perhaps I seem a bit late to the table on this one, as attention has turned to the latest votes and statements. But I wanted to give this one the thought it is due, especially as among the many interested clergy persons continuing to make online statements for or against the new policy, I count personal friends on “both sides.” It has struck me that, in the midst of drawing our lines, too few have noticed that everyone is a little bit right:

  • It is surprising that such a significant piece of legislation was handled on a consent calendar, with many delegates not really knowing what was going on… and just because it was handled this way does not mean that there was any particular agenda or conspiracy behind it.
  • It is true that many UM clergy have been empowered to be prophetic by knowing that, even if they are moved from a particular congregation, they will still be able to feed and house their families… just as it is true that many UM clergy (sometimes the same UM clergy) have passed on opportunities to be prophetic even with such guarantees.
  • It is true that there are many pastors in other denominations without guaranteed appointments who have been prophetic without this guarantee… and that there are many others who have chosen a path of security for their families after seeing colleagues lose appointments over their prophetic stands.
  • It is true that the laity generally do not have jobs with such guarantees… but it is also true that their job descriptions do not usually include telling those who pay and evaluate them things that they might be uncomfortable hearing.
  • It is true that there are ineffective pastors… and it is true that there were already mechanisms in place for removing them.
  • Some of us are concerned that this policy might be abused… others of us point out that the appointment system itself was abused… and others among us point out that there are at least monitoring safeguards in this new system…

… and others say, “Isn’t it too bad that we don’t trust each other?” Yes it is. It is too bad that we don’t trust each other. But I hope that saying so is not being used as an attempt to shame others into not sharing their mistrust.

Some have gone further, suggesting that airing this mistrust so openly is a poor witness, but I am not so sure. I do not think that anyone outside of the church is likely to be surprised that there are untrustworthy people in the church. That may be part of why they are not interested in joining themselves (or why they have left.) It isn’t really proclaiming the good news to lie and say, “No no – we are all trustworthy here, and we all trust one another!” Every church – every group of people contains untrustworthy people. No, let’s state it more strongly – no one of us is trustworthy at all times. To draw people in with the dishonest assertion that at least they can trust us, the good folk in the United Methodist Church – well, there is no more sure formula for ultimately breaking their trust.

There are many of us who have been hurt by people we thought we could trust in the church – and many others of us who were asked to trust people we knew would be poor stewards of that trust. And there are others who have not been hurt – but that does not make them more righteous or better witnesses (nor does it make them less experienced, more naïve, or better connected) – it just means that they have a different story and a different relationship with sometimes different (and sometimes the same) people within the same institution. I refuse to concede that anyone who trusts in their cabinet has their [by implication, unloving, dysfunctional, or privileged] head in the sand. But neither will I allow that those who have been hurt sharing their pain are thereby offering a poor witness. Instead, they are witnessing to the reality that we will (I hope) all recognize – that we in the Church (yes, even our own beloved United Methodist church) are not ourselves the full expression of the love of God, and as such, do not merit the same level of trust that we can rightly place in Godself only.

Not that I have not seen some poor witnessing! I have seen a good bit of it around this issue (and others, but lets not digress any further.) I would propose that fear is a poor witness. Or, at least, acting as if our fear is justified is a poor witness. Perfect love casts out fear, John reminds us – or (if you prefer Gandhi) where there is fear, there is no religion. Having been hurt before – knowing that others will be hurt again – we cannot create a policy that will avoid that. We can create policies that will mitigate injury, or policies that will exacerbate them (which results this policy change will have remains to be seen) – but we cannot guarantee that we can protect anyone from being injured by another – even by another within the church – even by a bishop or a cabinet or a SPRC committee. But here’s what we can do: Fear not! Jesus is with us!

Do we believe this? Do we believe that God will make it right in the end? Do we believe that any suffering or indignity is nothing compared to the glory of the age to come? Do we love those who injure us enough that our greater concern is for their souls – for their right relationship with God – than for our ability to keep our family in a single family home?

Perhaps some of us do not believe this. Perhaps, for some, faith has become a fragile and a fearful thing. If so, let us not point the finger of blame at the one who has lost a fearless faith because she has been hurt one too many times by individuals who invoked God even as they failed to act in Christian love – let us not blame the one who has lost faith in this God that was invoked as he was bent over someone’s knee with the switch upraised in their dominant hand.

Instead, let us face our fears – beginning with collectively taking loving ownership of the fears of those who feel most fearful. Perhaps what some individuals need most is time off to recover – not cut off from the safety net of their community, but supported (financially and spiritually) through a sabbatical time of healing, when they can rediscover that Perfect Love that casts out all fear. Perhaps others will find that place of recovery in a supportive and nurturing parish, or in covenant with sisters and brothers in Christ who honor their pain and see in it the grain around which luminous layers might slowly form, until it becomes a precious pearl, a kingdom sign. Others may find their recovery in a sincere apology, simply given through that miracle of being suddenly seen in a new light by the one who once failed to see – that miracle when one who injured unknowingly (and with great self-righteousness, perhaps) experiences an epiphany – an expansion of their empathic imagination. Yet others might find their recovery in the assurance that they can still offer their service to God – still answer God’s call on their life, and yet need never again subject themselves to a system that has broken them one too many times.

Offering these threshold spaces of healing for those who have given of themselves, in order that they might find their way back to the love and the light of the only One who can deliver us from slavery to fear – that might be one of the best witnesses we could give.

God of Glory, Lord of Love, grant that we may seek not so much to be consoled as to console – but free us from the ever-present temptation to offer false consolation. Amen.