Schism: Ecclesiastical Divorce

The long-expected schism in the United Methodist Church finally hit close to home for me. I learned recently that the congregation I grew up in will be voting soon to disaffiliate from the United Methodist denomination. The move to sever ties, as in other congregations, is being officially described as being based on the one true (literal) way to apply “Christian” scripture, values and laws to contemporary issues of ethics and morality.

Hidden among the pious platitudes proof texted from the Bible is the real reason for the denominational divorce. No matter what the Wesley Covenant Association, the architects of the new Global Methodist Church claim, the real reason for the schism is fundamental disagreement over a few sentences inserted into our “Book of Discipline” 50 years ago excluding LGBTQ persons from ordination.

The debate has become more heated in recent years as LGBTQ rights have been recognized in society and not in the church. Instead of transforming the world as forerunners of radical hospitality the church has been playing catch up. Many courageous and progressive UMC bishops have decided to be loyal to the all-inclusive Gospel proclaimed by Jesus instead of the legalistic and exclusive letter of the United Methodist law. The modern day Pharisees in our denomination are calling those bishops and those of us who agree with them heretics subject to hellfire and damnation unless we repent and see things their way.

I wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper recently in response to an article describing another congregation’s decision to vote on disaffiliation. In response a member of that congregation wrote his own letter to the paper making the standard arguments and accusations. I had to chuckle over his attempt to rebut my claim that the real issue was LGBTQ ordination and marriage. He cited a church he knows of that has a head usher who is gay. Translation: “We’ll let them in the pews, just not the pulpit,” completely ignoring the central issue of this argument which is ordination. Our current “Book of Discipline,” in similar fashion talks out of both sides of its mouth. It says LGBTQ persons are “of sacred worth,” and in the next breath says that does not make them “sacred” enough to be ordained.

Talking to a friend who is still a member in my home church reminded me that I wrote a short post about all this way back in the pre-covid era. It was after a special General Conference of the UMC was held in 2019 to once more attempt to come to some mutual agreement over this controversial topic which is an existential reality for our LGBTQ siblings. What I wrote then still pretty well sums up how I feel. I titled it “Know When to Walk Away, Know When to Run.”

“If that house will not welcome you shake the dust from your feet and walk away.” Those words from the Gospel of Matthew kept running through my mind as I followed the struggles of the United Methodist General conference last week. Leaving a significant relationship is never easy, but sometimes it is the best choice to make. I have been an ordained United Methodist pastor for almost 50 years. For all but 3 years of my entire ministry my denomination has been arguing over LGBTQ acceptance.

Like Charlie Brown I dared to hope that just maybe this time the General Conference wouldn’t pull the ball away before Jesus could kick a field goal. It pains me greatly that once again my denomination has failed to be the church. Isn’t 47 years long enough to wait for the UMC to produce good fruit? Far too many good people have been damaged by the judgmental policies of our church. Far too much time and precious resources have been wasted fiddling with this unwinable debate while the world burns from hunger, poverty, climate change, racism and rising nationalism.

The world is in desperate need of authentic ministry to the marginalized, the immigrants and oppressed, and a church that cannot even accept its own LGBTQ children so we can all join hands to care for God’s children is not a a church worthy of Christ’s name.

I will of course pray long and hard for everyone wounded again by this rejection and for the rejectors. But I will also be praying about my future relationship to the UMC. My decision may be easier because I am retired. It will be a much harder choice for others in active ministry. I will wait to see what last week’s vote for an even harder line rejection of my beloved sisters and brothers actually means. Like Congress church politics are messy and convoluted. Even those who were in Indianapolis at General Conference are not sure what the so-called “Traditional” plan means. Parts of it were apparently declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council before the vote which probably means the battle will continue, and even more LGBTQ people and their progressive supporters will be alienated from Christ and his redeeming, inclusive love.

Even though we don’t know what the future holds, these things I do know for sure. God isn’t finished with us yet. For people of faith resurrection always follows death. It may feel like Friday, but Sunday’s coming! The Christ I have come to know and love says, “Come to me ALL (not just those we deem worthy) who labor and are heavy laden.” And in that verse from Matthew where it says to shake the dust from your feet, listen to Jesus’ final warning to those who refuse to welcome God’s blessed ones: “Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.” (Matthew 10:15)

Whatever emerges from the coming schism I for one am ready to shake the dust of judgement and rejection from my feet and align myself with those who are welcoming and inclusive. I don’t know yet what that looks like organizationally, but Jesus knows it’s not the name on the church door that matters. It’s the hospitality inside the fellowship of believers that makes us a church.”

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