I attended the Uniting Methodist Movement’s event in Atlanta, GA last week. I attended because I wanted to hear directly from the leaders of this movement and their vision for unity. I had an immediate attraction to this movement because, having grown up in one denomination that split and served previously in another denomination that nearly split some years ago, my experience is that Church splits benefit very few people, and not usually the people you would hope would benefit. Mostly you end up with a smaller less diverse, less capable and less vital denomination.
When I attended the event I had two primary questions that I needed answered to decide if I would continue to support the values expressed by the Uniting Methodist Movement.
1. Is the Uniting Methodist Movement truly diverse? – I needed to know if there are really progressive United Methodists and traditionalist United Methodists who are willing to talk about how we can get along with each other, how we can respect each other’s views, and how we can make space for each other to live up to our own understandings of the issues we all face around varying understandings of human sexuality.
I was please that yes, those in attendance, those in leadership, and those speaking at the event were even more theologically diverse than I hoped for. There were voices from all sides of the spectrum at the event who argued passionately for the gospel witness of unity as well as concerns for justice not only in the areas of human sexuality but also race and gender. It was powerful to hear both progressive and more conservative voices tell us why we are better together and why they believe the gospel mandates that we find ways to figure our our divisions together. There was no tokenism here. All voices were welcomed, encouraged and lifted up.
2. Is this about real unity or just about institutional preservation? – Friends and colleagues of mine have expressed concern that the Movement is just about preserving the organized church and all the flaws that go with it. And that people of privilege are simply trying to preserve their privilege within the organization.
I always have to speak carefully about issues of privilege because as a white male clergy person, I am privileged in almost any system of the Church. I want to acknowledge that. So, I wanted to be very sensitive to any whiff of “preservationist” behavior at the event that might be pandering to privilege. Also, to honestly evaluate my own motives to make sure I’m not just trying to preserve the status quo.
What I saw in the theological presentations, the preaching and other presentations was not at all about institutional preservation. Instead I heard impassioned messages about the theological imperative of unity. I was particularly moved by the sermon by the Pastor of First UMC Atlanta, the first African American pastor and the first woman pastor of that church. I hope to get recordings of the event so I can listen to her sermon again. She spoke honestly about the struggles of trust in a denomination that has struggled with racial justice, and justice for women. She encouraged us to bold witness and personal sacrifice for the sake of the gospel and the sake of unity. It was powerful, riveting, and spirit led!
We also heard from the pastor of Foundry UMC in DC. She preached about the importance of not participating in the divisions within our culture and not allowing the Church to be caught up in the “us versus them” disease that plagues the US right now. Again, her preaching was powerful, Biblical, and convincing.
Splitting – The Easier Answer, Not the Best Answer
I became even more fully convinced that splitting our denomination is really the easier answer rather than the best answer.
For progressives – the Uniting Methodist Movement wants you to be able to follow your conscience and have the ability for your pastor and church to legally perform same sex marriages in the UMC. The UMM also wants it to be possible for willing conferences to ordain LGBTQ clergy with integrity.
What progressives do not get is uniformity of acceptance in every conference and every church. I know that is a huge sacrifice in the minds of many progressives. But it is fairly similar to the current situation in the UCC and ELCA whom we often hold up as progressive examples. Is it everything progressives want/need? No. Would it be a huge challenge to our polity? Yes. But so is splitting.
For “Traditionalists” – For traditional United Methodists (I know my terminology isn’t perfect. But I have to use something!) You and your church will be able to follow your own consciences as well in reference human sexuality. Will you get everything you want? No. You won’t get to maintain the status quo. And United Methodists who disagree with you will, as always, still be doing ministry differently down the street than you are.
Is this a Way Forward?
All I can give is my own opinion. If the Uniting Methodist vision caught hold I do believe it is a Way Forward. It is a way to being family together, not agreeing with each other. It is a way of finding space for each other, not a way for one side or the other to “win.”
And make no mistake about it, if we split there will be no winners. We will all lose! Many churches will split or splinter. Many ministries will no longer be supportable. Some churches may close. We may or may not be able to support other ministries of justice that we support now. And for years and even for generations we well may limp along as yet another little set of fractious factions of a body of Christ that cannot be all that God has called us to be.
As always, “Though we can’t think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may” ~ John Wesley