- There is deep division in The United Methodist Church.
- As my friend, Chad Brooks, points out there is no normative Methodism. Our Jurisdictions, Annual Conferences, Local Churches, Seminaries, Boards and Agencies, and Institutions all have different ideas of a normative Methodism. This blog has postulated over and over again that there must be some sort of belief that we hold in common, but we have been unable to name anything that would be a core belief of Methodists everywhere. While our Book of Discipline names doctrinal elements of the Articles of Religion, Confessions of Faith, General Rules, and Wesley’s Sermons and Notes, you would be hard pressed to find two Methodists that would agree to some of the commitments found within. John Wesley himself has proven to be one of the most misquoted persons of all time.
- The United Methodist Church has instead defined itself in a connection of money and resources bound up in an institution to administer these things. We have maintained the connection to one another through the General Conference ordering the life of the church through an ever increasing rule book known as the Book of Discipline. Millions of dollars are spent in this effort to maintain a connection in ministry. One might say our connection to one another has never been doctrinal, but missional. Our beliefs differ, but we are organized in how we spend money.
- There have been three things that have impacted The United Methodist Church in the past 40 years. One, the shrinking of Western Mainline Christianity and the rise of Global Christianity. In the United States, mainline Christianity has shrunk in every way possible. While charismatic and nondenominational churches continue to grow, mainline Christianity has declined. Two, the lack on any real core doctrinal commitments. Even at the much celebrated uniting conference of 1968, Outler’s words spoke of unfinished unity. The unity was never complete and even Outler tried to fix this with the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” which has further created division in the church. Three, the divided political climate of the United States of America and its close connections with the church. The United Methodist Church is so closely tied to the political structure of the United States of America that our bodies are almost indistinguishable from one another…Executive Branch, Legislative Branch, and Judicial Branch…all there, all sharing the same function and disfunction.
- These deep divisions are not easily solved.
- No amount of live and let live or kumbaya is able to heal these divisions. I have talked to friends on the left and friends on the right. Both sides hold deep convictions over human sexuality. Both sides are sincere in their theological convictions. Both sides believe strongly about where they stand. Both sides say this is an important issue we need to address. There is no true centrist position here. There might be people who are center-left or center-right in whatever forms those positions might take, but they still have a belief around human sexuality. Whether we admit to it or not, we all hold a position on human sexuality and disagree with those who hold another position.
- Can we stop pretending that our divisions are simple? I witnessed a lot of pain at General Conference and in response to General Conference. They are not as simple as changing a few paragraphs here and there. These are complex and deeply held beliefs that are in competition with one another. These beliefs don’t change through altering wording in our Book of Discipline. They are too important to everyone involved to be reduced to wording manipulation.
- The adoption of either of the main plans brought before General Conference in 2019 wasn’t going to solve the problem. You cannot force the other side into suddenly believing what you want them to believe. You cannot make the other side’s belief about something not as important. You cannot change that by changing the Book of Discipline no matter how minor or insignificant you might think the change is. I can honestly say right now if something passed that violated my deeply held convictions I would have to surrender my credentials and walk away. For a lot of people this is too important for them to change their belief. Stop trying.
- General Conference is unable to fix/heal these divisions.
- While I lean Traditionalist (and would consider myself a center-right person), I wasn’t a supporter of the Traditionalist Plan or the One Church Plan. I am an original supporter of the Connectional Conference Plan. From day one it was the only plan coming out of the Commission on the Way Forward that I was interested in. I thought if we could get everyone to come together at General Conference 2019 and perfect the Connectional Conference Plan from day 1 we could do something truly different. That was my prayer. That was the button that I wore. I thought that the Commission on the Way Forward had given us a gift. Something strange and different, but yet still connectional. I have told my friends on one side and on the other side, that the traditional plan and the one church plan both have problems. They are not healing the divisions of the church. They are quite possibly expanding those divisions. The biggest flaw of these plans is that they did nothing to the structure of the church, and they created no space for those on the other side. Only the Connectional Conference Plan was intentional in its desire to create space for the other side. I keep asking myself the same question: What if? What if we knew the outcome of General Conference 2019 and we could go back and get a redo? What if we had caucus groups and bishops talking about and promoting the Connectional Conference Plan? What if Chris Ritter was on the Commission on the Way Forward? What if we had tried something completely different and completely out of our comfort zones? What if we saw the hurdles for the Connectional Conference Plan to pass as opportunities to engage one another at the local level in a new way?
- Instead, General Conference locks us into a position of us versus them. I hear my friends on the right and left talk about their team versus the other team. There is no alternative for reseting the denomination into a very different structure. The structure creates the struggle. It lacks the adaptability and it doesn’t foster working together. It promotes the pushing our agenda at the expense of the others. Substitute this for that. Argue for this versus that. Play parliamentary games win parliamentary prizes. If it is even possible we are more stuck now than we were before General Conference 2019. We need to stop hurting one another, but our structure won’t let us. The catch-22 is we cannot change the structure without working together in a structure that encourages us not to work together.
- Ultimately, what we need in The United Methodist Church is a complete structural change. We need an entire denominational overhaul. We don’t need a few words shifted here and there. We don’t need more accountability structures. We don’t need to keep playing this us versus them. It is not going anywhere, and it doesn’t help. The only real way forward for everyone is a redo on the entire structure of The United Methodist Church.
But for now…now is a time of lament, penance, repentance, and forgiveness. It is time for us to acknowledge our own self-centeredness. My own self-centeredness. It is time to enter into the season of Lent. This season of Lent I will reflect on my own failure in creating a better United Methodist Church. What else could I have done? How could I have helped? Where did I fall short?
Ash Wednesday is a week from today. I think it is time for all of us to take a moment for self-reflection. To repent in sack cloth and ashes and to remember the words of the prophet, Joel, “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.