In the 34th chapter of Charles Dickens’ sweeping yet incisive novel, “Dombey and Son”—a novel throughout which themes of alienation, separation, and reconciliation run deeply—Dickens, through the voice of a perspicacious narrator, offers this observation:
In this round world of many circles within circles, do we make a weary journey from the high grade to the low, to find at last that they lie close together, that the two extremes touch, and that our journey’s end is but our starting place?
As I reflect upon the long and complex history of the Christian church, it occurs to me that Dickens’ metaphor of “circles within circles” is at least partially applicable to the church’s many schisms. The people of the Church, ostensibly united in their conviction that God has acted uniquely, definitively, and salvifically through the life, ministry, death, and Resurrection of Jesus, have never lacked vigor in finding things over which to separate. Divergent understandings concerning Baptism and Eucharist; contrasting perspectives on the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human agency; opposing viewpoints on Papal authority and church governance; incompatible convictions related to gender roles and race; doctrinal conflicts emerging from differing hermeneutical approaches to Scripture—these things and many others throughout the centuries have resulted in an ecclesiastical complexity in which manifold denominations often function (to borrow Dickens’ imagery) as “circles within circles,” sharing an affirmation of the Christian faith, yet encompassing disparate interpretations of its sacred text, its creeds, and its theological priorities.
It is popular to conceptualize the various denominations as streams that were once a river together but that now flow separately. Frequently, though, I am led to believe that denominations are often more like what Dickens’ narrator describes—circles spinning meaningfully within and around one another, touching one another and thereby reminding those within each circle that “our journey’s end is but our starting place.” If that is at all true, then not even a church schism can eliminate the continuing connection that the separating parties experience within a grander circle. The remembrance of this has been an encouragement to me in recent days.
On May 1, a new Methodist denomination called “The Global Methodist Church” (GMC) experienced its official launch. Seeing itself as the provider of a necessary corrective to what it believes to be the theological and missional distortions of the current United Methodist Church (UMC), the GMC has cultivated a very specific understanding of orthodoxy and its implications.
While the UMC’s continuing disagreements over human sexuality are at the forefront of the GMC’s origins, some within the GMC have asserted that the divide over human sexuality is merely the presenting issue of a much deeper theological crisis within the UMC—a crisis that includes widespread deficiencies in the denomination’s Christology, its understanding of the authority of Scripture, and its theology of holiness. I do not wish to debate the matter in this context. My concern, however, is that the larger theological criticisms articulated by several proponents of the GMC do not represent an accurate characterization of either my personal theology as a United Methodist clergyperson or the theological worldview of the vast majority of United Methodist clergy and laity with whom I serve. This fact leads me to believe that the church’s current schism is primarily fueled, not by a rampant problem with United Methodism’s Christology or its doctrine of Scripture (both of which are clearly and sufficiently described in the UMC’s Doctrinal Standards and General Rules), but by two connected realities: first, a significant and longstanding divide over how best to interpret, understand, and apply the Biblical verses about homosexuality; and, second, clearly divergent convictions about how the UMC should respond to situations of intentional noncompliance with the prohibitions enumerated in its Book of Discipline.
I maintain, then, that the current schism is not a division between Christians and apostates. It is rather a division between faithful followers of Jesus who have come to radically different conclusions about the ways in which the principles and priorities within Scripture are best identified and honored.
Friends and colleagues whom I dearly love and deeply admire have already made the decision to become a part of the GMC. Others will join them in the months and years ahead. These are people whose leadership and ministry have shaped and encouraged me throughout my life beyond what I can capture in words. I hold them in my heart, praying that their discipleship continues to bear vibrant fruit and that their love for God and neighbor grows exponentially in their new denominational context.
Other friends and colleagues have already made the decision to remain in the UMC, which will no doubt become a very different denomination as a result of all that is taking place. These are people whose leadership and ministry have shaped and encouraged me throughout my life beyond what I can capture in words. I hold them in my heart, praying that the integrity of their faith and the joy of their salvation will help the UMC to become more faithfully the church that God is calling it to be.
Other friends and colleagues (and congregations) are currently uncertain of precisely where they will land. These are people whose leadership and ministry have shaped and encouraged me throughout my life beyond what I can capture in words. I hold them in my heart, praying that their discernment in the days and weeks and months ahead will become a time of deepening intimacy with God and increasing clarity about where and how they might best live out their faith.
If this season of new ecclesiastical realities is to unfold in as healthy a way as possible, I believe that the divided but still-beautiful portion of the church called United Methodism will need to embrace several important priorities:
First, we must commit ourselves to the spiritual discipline of refusing to believe the worst about one another. Refuse to believe, for example, that those who choose to remain in the UMC are driven by idolatrous institutionalism or an eagerness to downplay Biblical truth, when, in fact, they may very well be motivated by a deep commitment to denominational legacy and a Biblical hermeneutic that inspires them to prioritize what they believe to be a Christ-honoring justice over an adherence to a Biblical prohibition they believe causes harm. Likewise, refuse to believe that those who choose to become part of the GMC are driven either by legalism or homophobia, when, in fact, they may very well be motivated by the conviction that the church’s integrity and holiness are at stake and that faithful discipleship demands nothing less than a diligent and sacrificial stewardship over one’s own sexuality. In the intense rhythms of schism, it is frighteningly easy to demonize or disparage those whose decisions and perspectives do not align with ours. One of the most reliable ways to guard against this tendency is to pray our way into a stubborn refusal to assume the worst about one another so that what is potentially best about one another might be affirmed instead.
Second, church leaders (Lay Leaders, Bishops, District Superintendents, clergy and laity across the theological spectrum) must commit themselves to the hard work of helping one another into the denominational future to which they feel called. In order for this to happen, they must prioritize accountability, integrity, and graciousness while resisting resentment, territorialism, and punitiveness. In the Annual Conference in which I serve, I am grateful for a Bishop who has consistently expressed her heartfelt desire for people to “land well” wherever it is that they feel called to land. The particulars of what that might mean in present circumstances remain to be discerned. At the very least, however, it will require a shared devotion to doing good, avoiding the doing of harm, and attending upon the ordinances of God. As a District Superintendent, I commit myself to this work and invite you to do the same.
Finally, our part of the church must make peace with the fact that the road ahead will be hard, just as it has already been. Quite frankly, it needs to be hard. Leaving the connectional covenant of the UMC, after all, should not be easy or cost-free. But neither should it feel punitive or exploitive. Likewise, remaining in a changing denomination should not be easy or without sacrifice. But neither should it feel burdened by unnecessary institutional weight. Daily prayer for the church’s ministry and daily acceptance of the hardness of the road before us are nothing less than essential.
In the interest of transparency, I will tell you that I write this post as a Christ-follower and clergyperson who has chosen to remain in the United Methodist Church. In the days ahead, I may write more about how I arrived at this decision, not for the purpose of convincing anyone else, but simply to share deeper portions of my heart, my faith, and my priorities. For now, I will simply ask you to respect my decision, as I respect yours, and to pray for me, as I pray for you.
I return to the words of Charles Dickens:
In this round world of many circles within circles, do we make a weary journey from the high grade to the low, to find at last that they lie close together, that the two extremes touch, and that our journey’s end is but our starting place?
I am praying that the various circles continue to lie close together—close enough to touch, in fact—and that our ending places and starting places are both close to Jesus.
Throughout the years of my childhood and youth, this is the language that I heard the pastor use whenever persons were received into the membership of a United Methodist congregation:
Dearly beloved, the Church is of God and will be preserved to the end of time, for the conduct of worship and the due administration of God’s Word and Sacraments, the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline, the edification of believers, and the conversion of the world. All, of every age and station, stand in need of the means of grace which it alone supplies.
In many ways, this language shaped my ecclesiology before I even knew what ecclesiology was. In hearing these words on a regular basis, I came to believe that the church, at its best, is something more than an institution or denomination. In fact, the church is nothing less than God’s sacramental instrument in a fallen world—a Christ-centered and Christ-shaped community that God will preserve “to the end of time.”
I still believe those things about the church. If you are a person of the church, I hope that you believe them too.
I am inspired to invoke that paragraph from United Methodism’s liturgical history so that it might become the theological backdrop for everything else I am about to write. These are challenging, frustrating, demanding, and at times heartbreaking days for the denominational tribe known as the United Methodist Church. My prayer, however, is that United Methodist Christ-followers will find encouragement in the truth that the Church is well worth the struggle and that the Church “will be preserved to the end of time,” even if we are uncertain at present of exactly what part the United Methodist Church will play in that preserved church.
As most United Methodists have heard, the Commission on General Conference issued a press release last week (Thursday, March 3) stating that the long-delayed 2020 General Conference will be postponed once again, this time until 2024. The following link will take you to the Commission’s press release in its entirety:
This news, while perhaps somewhat anticipated, has fallen heavily on the hearts of many persons throughout the denomination, irrespective of where they might locate themselves in the theological spectrum. In a meeting that I attended recently, one pastor phrased it this way: “I feel like we are stuck in an administrative quagmire that is preventing us from doing the ministry that we are called to do. And the mechanism for getting out of the quagmire has just been pulled away from us for another two years.”
Even those who were less enthusiastic about the proposed Protocol for Separation (a portion of separation legislation upon which the General Conference was to have voted) are feeling the pain of this most recent postponement. “I will be a United Methodist come what may,” said a lay person to me this week. “But I hate the thought of people in the United Methodist Church feeling like they are being held hostage by a denomination that they no longer feel called to be a part of.”
As a District Superintendent in the denomination, and as one who has served gratefully at various levels of United Methodism over the last 33 years, I hold the dynamics of the current situation deeply in my spirit. Like many, I too am weary with the waiting, even as I cling to my conviction that God is still redemptively at work in the nooks and crannies of the struggle. I am also weary of the cynicism and rancor that many are all too eager to embrace in their frustration. Wherever it is that I have been either an agent of such cynicism and rancor or its inspiration, I offer prayers of repentance, even as I type these words.
A second announcement made last week concerns an updated launch date for a new traditionalist Methodist denomination called the Global Methodist Church. Leaders had originally planned to launch the new denomination later in 2022 in conjunction with the General Conference that was to have been held in late August and early September. Motivated by the most recent postponement of General Conference, the Global Methodist Church has moved up its launch date to May 1, 2022.
What does all this mean for United Methodists in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference and elsewhere?
Given the fact that this news is so recent, denominational and conference leadership is still in the process of responding to it. The Council of Bishops met last week and will meet again this week for the purpose of clarifying information and achieving consensus on how to lead the denomination in a manner that addresses the current circumstances and navigates their implications. The episcopal leaders of the Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Susquehanna Annual Conferences (Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi and Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball) have kept their Cabinets up to date on the general progress of these important meetings while guarding completely the confidentiality of the meetings’ specific content. I am confident that reliable guidance and leadership from the Bishops will be offered in the days, weeks, and months ahead. I invite your patience in that regard.
Worth noting is that coordinated, sustained, and prayerful work has been done in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference over the last year to envision, develop, and, I hope, eventually propose some strategic ways forward for the Conference related to the current denominational division. While I cannot share the particulars of this work (since the work is still in process), I know that the work has taken place at Bishop Moore-Koikoi’s initiative and with her active involvement, and that the participants in this work include traditionalist, centrist, and progressive laity and clergy, all of whom have voiced a commitment to helping the people of our Annual Conference to “land well,” no matter what happens in the denomination. I am deeply encouraged by the fact that Western Pennsylvania’s Bishop and Conference leaders have been forward-thinking enough to begin strategic conversations about how this Conference can approach denominational realities in a manner that is attentive and gracious to all parties. With you, I look forward to more detailed information about this work when that information becomes available.
I am also encouraged by the fact that Bishop Moore-Koikoi and her Cabinet (including this District Superintendent) are wholeheartedly committed to providing the kind of leadership and assistance that will help the laity and clergy of Western Pennsylvania to navigate the complex territory that is before us. We are seeking to lead in a manner that, in accordance with our tradition’s “three simple rules,” avoids the causing of harm, manifests the doing of good, and prioritizes an attendance upon the ordinances of God.
As the dust settles upon recent developments in the denomination, I encourage the United Methodists who are reading these words to commit themselves to those practices that best reflect the love of Jesus and the integrity of our Gospel:
Pray with fasting and a renewed sense of urgency for our part of the Body of Christ called the United Methodist Church. Even if you are unsure of exactly how to pray at this point, spend daily time in wordless attentiveness to the presence of God on behalf of the denomination, allowing the Holy Spirit to intercede on your behalf and to translate the deepest groans of your soul into articulate petitions. Pray for the members of the Commission on General Conference as they process the various reactions to their recent decision. Pray for the Council of Bishops (including Bishop Moore-Koikoi) as they discern how best to lead. Pray for the entirety of the denomination in a without-ceasing kind of urgency, that we might become more vibrantly and faithfully the church that God is calling us to be.
Engage in the essential spiritual work of providing non-anxious leadership among anxious people. Some of the people in your church will approach these matters with fear, anger, and perhaps even resentment. Amid such responses, behave in a manner that helps those around you to envision what it looks like to rest and live in God’s peace, even when the circumstances feel less than peaceful.
Model consistently a graciousness that stubbornly refuses to dismiss, belittle, or demonize the viewpoints and perspectives with which you disagree. Remember that the divide in United Methodism is not a divide between people who love Jesus and people who don’t, or between people who believe in the Bible and people who don’t. Rather, it is a divide between faithful Christ-followers who have arrived at significantly different conclusions about how the Bible is to be read, interpreted, understood, and applied. I am not suggesting that each conclusion is equally right. I am simply calling for agapic love across the theological divide and a stubborn refusal to weaponize one’s own sense of certainty.
Be intentional about caring for those voices and hearts in your church that might reflect a minority viewpoint that runs counter to your church’s majority perspective. In most if not all of our United Methodist congregations, there is a spectrum of thought that includes a diversity of convictions. While many congregations may have a dominant theological viewpoint, it is unlikely that it is unanimously affirmed.
Remember that there are LGBTQ+ persons who are part of your congregation or who are connected to your church, community, or family who feel particularly vulnerable and who bear with great pain the emotional wounds and scars of this ongoing divisive conversation. Irrespective of your theological stance, look for ways to incarnate an intentional ministry of love and care on behalf of the LGBTQ+ persons in your network of relationships.
Help the people of your church to cultivate the kind of patience that will prevent them from acting irresponsibly or hastily (ahead of pending guidance from episcopal and denominational leadership) and that will enable them to practice discernment at a healthier pace. I realize that a call for patience might sound unhelpful and even offensive to those who feel they have been waiting too long already for an intended outcome. In my experience, however, significant and trajectory-altering transitions demand much more time than many are willing to afford to them. It is the responsibility of experienced leaders to set a pace and tone that make holistic discernment a greater possibility.
Stubbornly resist anything like cynicism during these days, since cynicism both distorts our spiritual vision and stifles the joy of our salvation.
Finally, amid denominational division, help the people of your church not to get sidetracked or distracted to the point that they lose their focus on the church’s mission, which remains as urgent and critical as ever: Making disciples of Jesus Christ and equipping them to offer transformational love, ministry, and witness to a fallen and hurting world.
Within my network of friendships and certainly within the ministry of the United Methodist Church, there are Conservatives/Traditionalists whom I dearly love and who will eventually find their way into the Global Methodist Church; there are Liberals/Progressives whom I dearly love and who feel strongly called to become a very different kind of church than that which the Global Methodist Church envisions; and there are those whom I dearly love who locate themselves somewhere in what might be described as “the wide center,” holding strong convictions but refusing to treat them as either theological litmus tests or a compelling reason to divide.
I am praying daily and fervently for the many souls in all three of these categories, believing that the unity we share in Jesus Christ is durable and trustworthy enough to permit hearts to connect even over significant theological differences and perhaps even different denominational identities.
I conclude where I began, with a portion of the church’s liturgy that speaks powerfully into the circumstances in which we find ourselves:
Dearly beloved, the Church is of God and will be preserved to the end of time, for the conduct of worship and the due administration of God’s Word and Sacraments, the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline, the edification of believers, and the conversion of the world. All, of every age and station, stand in need of the means of grace which it alone supplies.
May the truth of those words resonate loudly in the hearts of United Methodists, that their discipleship might reflect unwavering integrity and that their church might illuminate the very priorities of God.
When I was in my teens, my youth group would occasionally engage in an exercise that one youth director used to call “Points of View.” Three different youth would be asked to leave the room for three minutes, each with a piece of paper and pen. During the three minutes, their task was to describe from memory the room they had just left, writing down everything that they could remember about the setting. After three minutes, the three youth would rejoin the larger group and read their descriptions of the room. What was most entertaining and illuminating about the descriptions, of course, was how significantly different they were from one another. One person remembered the style or color of the carpet. Another person, the color of the walls or the painting beside the bookcase. Another person referenced the furniture and the kinds of chairs in which people were sitting. Some of their memories of the room were spot on in their accuracy. Others were a bit distorted. No two descriptions included the exact same details about the room.
The purpose of the exercise, as I remember it, was to help the members of my youth group to appreciate the fact that differing perspectives and points of view are a significant part of human community—that human beings are inclined to differ with one another in the ways they conceptualize reality and in their perceptions of the world around them. I remember the youth director making the point that such divergences in perspective occur, not only in the way people see a room, but also in the way that people understand issues. “Just as people see a room differently,” he said, “so will they see politics differently. And social issues. And the Bible. And Christianity.” He went on to make the point that, while not all ways of looking at things are equally right, each way represents a perspective that is strongly held and that most likely reflects the priorities and principles of its holder. “And there’s the challenge of being a nation or a church or a youth group,” the youth director said. “It’s the challenge of maintaining a lasting unity around shared core beliefs while respecting one another’s differing perspectives and viewpoints, and perhaps even learning from one another in the process.”
I have reflected often upon that “Points of View” exercise over the last few years, especially as divisions in our nation’s political and moral thought have become seemingly sharper and more rancorous than they have ever been, at least in my lifetime. If one were to ask a thousand randomly chosen Americans to leave the metaphorical room and write down their perspectives and perceptions of what kind of nation America currently is, what its priorities should be, and where it should be headed in its continuing development as a nation, I suspect that one would receive a mind-boggling variety of seemingly divergent observations and convictions. As one youth group member said during the “Points of View” exercise, “it’s as though they are describing two different rooms.” Frequently, after spending time listening to perspectives on MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN, I feel as though the various pundits are describing different nations—different “rooms”
Journalist George Packer recently wrote an article that appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of The Atlantic (Vol. 328). The article, entitled The Four Americas: Competing Visions of the Country’s Purpose and Meaning Are Tearing It Apart, is an insightful exploration of four political worldviews (or four streams of political philosophy) that Packer believes have become primary in America’s national ethos. These “rival narratives,” as Packer describes them, have taken the place of the dominant two narratives that the nation’s two-party political system once generated—two narratives in which “Liberal Republicans” and “Conservative Democrats” once had sufficient political air to breathe and significant roles to play in the functioning of the nation’s political machinery. To Packer’s credit, he is critical of each of the four rival narratives without demonizing any of them. He believes that each narrative offers something important that Americans dismiss at their own peril. He also believes that each narrative, without the correctives and counterbalances provided by the others, is, at best, inadequate and, at worst, destructive to the nation’s moral and philosophical integrity.
Packer calls the first of the four rival narratives “Free America,” and describes it as the most politically powerful and influential narrative of the past half century. The “Free America” narrative places a philosophical emphasis upon the elevation and protection of individual rights and liberties, the furthering of libertarian ideals, and the three-engine impetus of small government, consumer capitalism, and rugged individualism. According to Packer, many who embrace the Free America narrative have “interpreted the Constitution as a libertarian document for individual and states’ rights under a limited federal government, not as a framework for the strengthened nation that the authors of The Federalist Papers envisioned…The purpose of government [in Free America thought] is to secure individual rights, and little else. One sip of social welfare and free government dies.”
As I understand it, the strength of the Free America narrative is that it reflects the very spirit of independence out of which America was born—a resistance to tyranny and governmental oppression that both strengthens political accountability and clarifies the moral vision of America as “the land of the free.” The Free America narrative also gives an important voice to portions of the American population that feel marginalized and, in some cases, silenced by political and social elites. (“I don’t watch the Oscars anymore,” one person said to me recently, “because Hollywood elites are so in love with their own opinions that they act like my opinion and the opinions of many others don’t even matter anymore.”)
The pitfall of Free America thought, however, is that its emphasis on individual rights, if unchallenged and unqualified, can lead to a spirit of isolationism that, while championing freedom FROM government, loses sight of the urgency of freedom FOR responsible and sacrificial citizenship. In such isolationism, paranoia can inspire a person to see tyranny where it is not really present (like in a governmental mask mandate for the protection of a school or community), which tends to result in an outrage that is often more obstructionist than righteous, and frequently more parochial than it is patriotic.
Another criticism (highlighted by Packer) is that the Free America narrative accommodates and, in many ways, depends upon the presupposition that everyone in America has an equal shot at the individual freedom and liberty that the narrative celebrates. If history has taught us anything, it is that such a presupposition is not grounded in truth.
Packer entitles the second narrative “Smart America.” Emphasizing higher education, professional advancement, cultural engagement, and the nurturing of expertise, embracers of this narrative celebrate their cosmopolitan identity and this nation’s long-held prioritization of personal advancement and holistic improvement. Packer describes the narrative in this fashion:
The new knowledge economy created a new class of Americans: men and women with college degrees, skilled with symbols and numbers—salaried professionals in information technology, computer engineering, scientific research, design, management consulting, the upper civil service, financial analysis, law, journalism, the arts, higher education. They go to college with one another, intermarry, gravitate to desirable neighborhoods in large metropolitan areas, and do all they can to pass on their advantages to their children. They are not 1 percenters—those are mainly executives and investors—but they dominate the top 10 percent of American incomes, with outsize economic and cultural influence. They’re at ease in the world that modernity created. They were early adopters of things that make the surface of contemporary life agreeable.
Like Free America, Smart America champions capitalism and a government that does not interfere with advancement. But Smart America tends to believe that “some government interventions are necessary for everyone to have an equal chance to move up.” Proponents of the narrative affirm that “the long history of racial injustice demands remedies…the poor need a social safety net and a living wage…and poor children deserve higher spending on education and health care.”
Interestingly, Smart Americans, according to Packer’s analysis, “are uneasy with patriotism.” They appreciate their country, the freedom it affords, and the sacrifices that have been made to ensure those freedoms, but tend to look upon excessive patriotism as either narcissistic or self-aggrandizing. As Packer puts it, “[Smart Americans] have lost the capacity and the need for a national identity, which is why they can’t grasp its importance for others.” To put this into a contemporary context, in a debate over the issue of kneeling during the national anthem, one of the other narratives might be quick to express offense and outrage over the perceived disrespect. A Smart American, by contrast, might be inclined to wonder why such a big deal is being made about a simple act of protest and might focus instead on gaining a deeper understanding of what is being protested.
The strength of Smart America is its consistent emphases upon intellectual scrutiny and holistic comprehension, both of which help the nation to avoid the toxic danger of being dominated or governed by extreme worldviews and irresponsible conspiracy theories. One of the narrative’s noteworthy dangers, however, is that its championing of knowledge and expertise can breed condescension, classism, and artificial hierarchy, all of which tear at the fabric of national unity. Likewise, Smart America’s ambivalence toward patriotism tends to resonate like unpleasantly dissonant music in the concert hall of a nation that is struggling with its national identity.
Packer calls the third narrative “Real America.” It is, according to Packer, “a very old place,” and is built upon the conviction that “the authentic heart of democracy beats hardest in common people who work with their hands” and that the fullest truth is to be found, not in specialized learning, but in “the native wisdom of the people.”
Here is Packer’s more detailed description of the narrative:
From its beginnings, Real America has been religious, and in a particular way: evangelical and fundamentalist…The truth will enter every simple heart, and it doesn’t come in shades of gray…Finally, Real America has a strong nationalist character. It’s attitude toward the rest of the world is isolationist…but ready to respond aggressively to any incursion against national interests…[In Real America] the villagers can fix their own boilers, and they will go out of their way to help a neighbor in a jam. A new face on the street will draw immediate attention and suspicion.
Real Americans are fiercely loyal to their ideals, which tend to be grounded in a vision for America that emphasizes things like protection, prosperity, tradition, religious freedom, nationalistic pride, and the valuing of the industries upon which this nation was built. They want government to be small in its interference but big in its fight for the working class and in its opposition to any form of elitism that would diminish the middle class. Phrases like “Make America great again” and “Drain the swamp” and “Build the wall” resonate with particular power among Real Americans because such phrases tap into the nationalistic priorities and anti-elitism that Real Americans hold dear.
At its best, the Real America narrative brings to the nation a strong sense of patriotism, an honoring of important segments of tradition and history, and a stubborn refusal to allow leaders to forget about either the working class or the protection of the nation’s citizenry.
If unchecked, however, Real America’s patriotism can quickly and easily degenerate into jingoism; its anti-elitism into a resistance to important expertise; and its fierce Americanism into an accommodation of white Christian nationalism.
Finally, the fourth rival narrative is what Packer calls “Just America.” Fueled by the injustices and inequities (past and present) that our nation has both enabled and accommodated, this narrative grounds itself in a vision for an America where things that are painfully wrong are made right. The governing principle for Just Americans is “justice for all,” and they tend to evaluate the nation’s health and integrity by the degree to which it realizes this principle for its people. As Packer notes, “for Just Americans, the country is less a project of self-government to be improved than a site of continuous wrong to be battled.” According to the narrative, America’s best and most urgent priority is “the historical demand of the oppressed, [which is] inclusion as equal citizens in all the institutions of American life.”
Just Americans long for a government that shares its vision for justice and participates actively and dynamically in the realization of that justice. They long for a citizenry that refuses to remain complacent or indifferent to the struggles of the oppressed and the marginalized. They long for a nation that takes its painful history of racism and sexism seriously while creating a future where such sins no longer have sufficient American air to breathe. According to Packer, Just America “forces us to see the straight line that runs from slavery and segregation to the second-class life so many Black Americans live today—the betrayal of equality that has always been the country’s great moral shame.”
Naturally, the Just America narrative generates a sense of urgency within America’s national consciousness, thereby deepening the country’s heart toward the hurting, the oppressed, and the mistreated. The narrative itself helps to stimulate the nation’s moral sensibilities, even among those who question or oppose the narrative. Case in point, when some Americans respond to the phrase “Black lives matter” with the retort, “No, ALL lives matter,” the Just American might be inclined to take the conversation into deeper moral territory: “Of course all lives matter. But you are missing the point of the phrase. All lives won’t truly matter until we stop doing systemic harm to black and brown lives.” Such conversations help to clarify a nation’s response to racism, even when there is disagreement over some of the particulars.
A fair criticism of the narrative, however, is that the ferocity of its moral vision can lead to a distorted worldview that demonizes all persons and perspectives that do not fully embrace the totality of the narrative. As Packer notes,
What had been considered, broadly speaking, American history (or literature, philosophy, classics, even math) is explicitly defined as white, and therefore supremacist. What was innocent by default suddenly finds itself on trial, every idea is cross-examined, and nothing else can get done until the case is heard.
Also, in the Just America narrative, the intense focus on systemic injustices and institutional policy can obscure the urgency of personal choices, individual initiative, and interpersonal skill. “Structural racism is real,” Packer writes, “but so is individual agency.” Any holistic vision for justice must surely emphasize both.
Four dynamic stories, each of which a multilayered attempt to interpret a nation’s identity and trajectory and to clarify a nation’s priorities.
Packer does not argue for the superiority of any of the narratives. Neither will I. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly with Packer’s assessment that “each [of the narratives] offers a value that the others need and lacks ones that the others have.”
I have to believe that the healthiest way forward for a divided nation involves a commitment to understanding the different narratives, appreciating the values upon which they are built, affirming their various strengths, acknowledging their various weaknesses and dangers, and clarifying their various distortions. This is hard work, to be certain. It is always far easier to compartmentalize than it is to collaborate. I believe wholeheartedly, however, that America will become a far grander nation when it learns to accommodate its various narratives as important and necessary stories within a shared anthology instead of reducing them to rancorous rhetoric or, worse, battle lines in a civil war.
Our best and only way into a healthy national future is to figure out what it means to become multilingual enough to converse meaningfully and strategically across the spectrum of narratives, thereby generating a national identity that embraces a wide range of important and unifying values—values such as Free America’s freedom, Smart America’s intelligence, Real America’s patriotism, and Just America’s justice.
Packer’s concluding paragraph resonates with important truth in this regard:
We have no choice but to live together—we’re quarantined as fellow citizens. Knowing who we are lets us see what kinds of change are possible. Countries are not social-science experiments. They have organic qualities, some positive, some destructive, that can’t be wished away. Our passion for equality, the individualism it produces, the hustle for money, the love of novelty, the attachment to democracy, the distrust of authority and intellect—these won’t disappear. A way forward that tries to evade or crush them on the road to some free, smart, real, or just utopia will never arrive…But a way forward that tries to make us Equal Americans, all with the same rights and opportunities is a road that connects our past and our future…Neither separation nor conquest is a tenable future.
If you have read this far, perhaps you will travel with me into one more personal reflection:
I am struck by the way in which Packer’s analysis of the nation applies to the current climate in the ecclesiastical setting in which I live out both my vocation and my life of faith: The United Methodist Church.
Like the nation, my Christian denomination is divided over principles and priorities—over different understandings of identity, purpose, and vision for the future. There are at least four (and probably more) rival narratives that are fighting for dominance within United Methodism at present.
To borrow George Packer’s nomenclature, there is a strong “Free Church” narrative within United Methodism—an ethos that advocates for a more congregational (and less connectional) model of church that eliminates denominational ties and accountabilities and places decision-making, prioritization, and even the selection of pastoral leadership entirely in the hands of the local church. The strength of such a narrative is its passion for local ministry and contextualized community impact. Its weakness is its proclivity to the kind of congregational isolationism that limits and perhaps even prevents the kind of global impact (and global sense of community) that a connectional system of polity makes possible.
There is also a “Smart Church” narrative within the denomination. Smart Church clergy and laity believe that the church’s best future depends upon theological and ecclesiastical education, leadership training, and professional expertise. The Smart Church rightly emphasizes the urgency of well trained and well educated leadership and lifelong learning. Its weakness is that it can become dismissive of the important voices and perspectives that often emerge from untrained and non-professional congregants and members of the community.
One of the strongest narratives in contemporary United Methodism is what might be called “Real Church.” With a clear, specific, and almost absolutist set of convictions about what constitutes orthodoxy, correct biblical interpretation, and right practice, Real Church people (on both the right and the left) envision a church that is pure and unified in its doctrine, its teaching, and its behavioral standards. Currently, nowhere is the Real Church narrative more clearly manifested than in the denomination’s divide over human sexuality, with many across the theological spectrum convinced that the particular church they envision is the most “real.” Those who embrace the Real Church narrative help the denomination to clarify its doctrine and deepen its theological understanding of both the church’s ministry and individual discipleship. The danger of the narrative is that the purity and homogeneity of doctrine it pursues can be both elusive and difficult to maintain without theological myopia. Likewise, Real Church thought can feel cold, rigid, and dismissive to those who might bring a differing perspective to what it means to be fully “real” as a church.
Every bit as strong as the “Real Church” narrative is the “Just Church” narrative. In the Just Church’s ecclesiastical vision, nothing is more important than the pursuit and expanding realization of the justice that it believes accompanies God’s reign and the righting of those wrongs that prevent the church and world from being a reflection of that reign. The Just Church looks upon areas of focus such as the dismantling of racism, ministry with the poor, and caring for the sick as being nothing less than the church’s most urgent work in a fallen world where distortions and injustices abound. This narrative helps the United Methodist Church to honor its longstanding emphasis upon social holiness and community transformation. Its weakness is that it can lose sight of the denomination’s other historical points of emphasis, such as personal transformation, individual holiness, and the salvation of souls (as well as bodies).
Many within the denomination believe that these narratives can no longer healthily coexist under one denominational roof—that the “big tent” of United Methodism is no longer big enough for all the narratives. These are the voices that are advocating most fervently for a denominational split in order to allow the different narratives to exist without having to accommodate (or battle) other perspectives. On many days, I am inclined to agree with those voices calling for split. After all, as I wrote earlier related to the nation, compartmentalization (or division) is ultimately easier than navigating collaboration across a diverse theological spectrum.
But there is a significant portion of my soul that believes that George Packer’s words about the nation apply even more to my denominational tribe:
We have no choice but to live together. We’re quarantined as fellow citizens [or fellow disciples]…Neither separation nor conquest is a tenable future.
Both divided. Both searching for a way forward. Both faced with the daunting challenge of deciding between collaboration and division; between staying together and separating; between creating space for multiple narratives and limiting the space so that only the preferred narrative can fit.
It may very well be that you are able to find your own voice easily in one or more of the narratives that Packer identifies and that I have described. If so, I hope that you will resist the temptation in this forum to argue for the rightness of your narrative(s) or the wrongness of someone else’s. Instead, I encourage you to discern the values that fuel other perspectives and listen to the echoes of truth that may resonate within those narratives that are different from yours.
I do not presume to know with any certainty the best way forward. My prayer, however, for both a nation and church I dearly love, is that integrity, compassion, respect, and unity will flourish from sea to shining sea—and from sanctuary to prayerful sanctuary.
As Black History Month 2020 nears its conclusion, I was inspired this morning to spend some time re-reading Peggy McIntosh’s essay from the late 1980s entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” I am asking all of the United Methodist clergy and lay leaders on the Butler District to read or re-read this essay and to reflect on its content. I also hope that church leaders on my district will continue to seek out additional resources that will help them in the work of dismantling racism (such as the book “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi).
This morning, I found these words from the “Invisible Knapsack” essay to be powerfully convicting:
“In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.”
McIntosh’s words compel me to acknowledge how frequently I have been guilty of minimizing (or, worse, ignoring altogether) both the unearned privilege I experience as a white male and the oppressions made possible by the continuing existence of systemic and institutional racism. Too often, I allow my passion for dismantling racism to be quelled by my self-satisfaction with my own avoidance of individual “acts of meanness.” In so doing, I often become inattentive to the “invisible systems” of racial dominance that continue to exploit, disenfranchise, and oppress.
I once heard a United Methodist pastor offer what I think is a popular viewpoint concerning the issue of racism. Here is the pastor’s viewpoint, offered with the pastor’s permission:
I don’t know why we have to keep making racism such an issue. Most of us have been delivered from racism…But when we keep making racism a point of focus, all we’re doing is beating a dead horse and highlighting an ugly thing that doesn’t deserve to be highlighted.
Shortly after my conversation with that pastor, I heard the following comment made by a United Methodist lay person (offered, again, with permission):
People have told me that they don’t want a black pastor at our church. They’ve told me that they would leave if that kind of thing ever happened. Truth be told, I might leave too. I guess I just wouldn’t be comfortable with that kind of thing. I would feel like I couldn’t relate to my own pastor.
Those two viewpoints help to illuminate the painful complexity of the issue of racism in the church. Racism is as real as it ever was, but we are tired of hearing about it. A pastor’s racial identity is still important enough to inspire a parishioner to leave a church, but the last thing that we want to hear is someone highlighting the issue of racism. We prefer to comfort ourselves with the shallow belief that, because we have been delivered from our individual racist “acts of meanness,” our commitment to dismantling racism has been fulfilled.
Concerning the matter of white privilege, some have gone so far as to suggest that white privilege is nothing but an artificial social construct created to further a social agenda. My own personal journey has led me to conclude that this perspective is dreadfully misguided. I have experienced far too many instances in which people of color have been confronted with racially-driven presuppositions and antagonism from which I, as a white person, am automatically exempted. As a District Superintendent, I have listened to newly-appointed clergy of color address a committee’s concerns about how the church’s first non-white pastor will be accepted, all the while knowing that I will never have to experience such scrutiny as a white United Methodist pastor in Western Pennsylvania. I have participated in far too many group conversations in which I have suddenly realized that people are making steady eye contact with me but not with the person of color standing right next to me.
Much could be added to this list. All of it bears witness to a privileged access to an unearned collection of advantages. That privileged access is decidedly white.
When one begins to take seriously a racism that is thoroughly undergirded by institutional injustices and white privilege, one is compelled to move beyond defensive rhetoric such as this:
“Those people of color are just as prejudiced as I am!”
“People of color need to stop playing the race card in every situation, because nobody wants to hear that anymore. It’s time to get over the past.”
The danger of this kind of rhetoric is that it overlooks or, at the very least, oversimplifies the complexities of systemic racism. Moreover, such rhetoric often discounts the most crippling racism of all—specifically, the kind of racism that can only be generated and perpetuated by people in power.
I have no easy answers in the midst of all of this. This much, however, is certain: United Methodism’s emphasis upon dismantling racism is, first and foremost, one of the many necessary consequences of both the sin of racism and the fervency with which that sin has been perpetuated by both the American culture and the American church. The aftermath of this particular sin is an environment in which Christ-followers will have no choice but to be creatively and prayerfully engaged in the messy tensions that often exist related to this issue: tensions over how to create ethnically and culturally diverse communities of faith; tensions over the fact that there are so few racial/ethnic United Methodist clergy in Western Pennsylvania; tensions between those who see racism as an ongoing problem and those who simply want people of color to “get over it;” tensions over what it means to have a church that makes tangible its belief that “red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in God’s sight.”
These tensions are not going away any time soon, nor should they. They are tensions emerging from the unsettling presence of a Holy Spirit who stubbornly refuses to allow a church to settle for being less than what it has been called by its Savior to be.
Personally, in my life and ministry, I want to live into an ever-deepening sensitivity to the sin of racism and all of its manifestations. Even more importantly, I want to lead by repentance. I want to name and confess all the different ways in which I have perpetuated the kind of racist presuppositions and patterns of behavior that have simultaneously fractured human community and broken the heart of God. Only then will I become a suitable laborer in the work that the dismantling of racism demands.
There were beautiful parts of this year’s session of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, held on the campus of Grove City College. These beautiful parts to which I refer practically brought me to my knees in grateful prayer:
The sound of over a thousand voices singing grand songs of praise during worship;
The ordination and commissioning of precious souls who are as gifted as they are called;
A Retiree Celebration that provided a heartwarming honoring of retirees, all of whom have served the church with faithfulness, creativity, and integrity for a long, long time;
A Memorial Service that celebrated the lives of our conference’s honored dead, who breathed their last breath during this last year (but who, at present, are more alive than they have ever been);
Preaching that elevated my spirit and illuminated the goodness of Jesus;
Testimonies that reminded me of the transformational impact of the Gospel;
Youth whose vibrancy regularly inspired a sense of abundant life;
The setting of pastoral appointments for another year of ministry;
The leadership of a Bishop who teaches me something every time she leads;
Moments of prayer and tender conversation with amazing people, many of whom I only get to see once a year;
Friends (like Joel Garrett and Erica Rushing) going out of their way to minister compassionately to my spirit.
In the aftermath of Annual Conference, some participants make it a sport to denigrate the entire experience, which always feels to me like both the mistreatment of a portion of sacred ground and a dishonoring of many people who sacrificed a great deal of time and energy to put the experience together. Our collective heart would probably beat in healthier fashion if we began with gratitude rather than cynicism.
I will certainly acknowledge, however, that I experienced great pain at Annual Conference this year—perhaps a deeper and more unsettling pain than I had ever experienced in that context. I know that I am not alone in that. Progressives experienced the pain. So did Traditionalists. So did the LGBTQ+ community and its advocates. Many things led to the pain, not the least of which was a burgeoning sense of a division among people related to the denomination’s official position on homosexuality—that homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching,” which has led the denomination to continue its prohibition of the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals and the hosting of same sex weddings in United Methodist sanctuaries.
Traditionalists maintain that this position represents a necessary honoring of orthodoxy and the Biblical understanding of marriage. Progressives assert that it represents an institutionalized bigotry and a marginalization of people based on an irresponsible adherence to biblical legalism. This spirit of division manifested itself dramatically this last week at Annual Conference, particularly around the work of electing our delegates to the 2020 General and Jurisdictional Conferences. At those 2020 Conferences, the issues of human sexuality and denominational structure will once again figure prominently.
The following are my personal reflections on what transpired this last week. There is nothing official or sacrosanct about these reflections. Nor am I insisting on my own rightness. (There is already way too much of that going on.) I offer these reflections simply to broaden the conversation, deepen our shared sense of accountability, and hopefully clarify my own heart on some of the matters at hand.
Here are my reflections.
We elected a remarkably gifted and extraordinarily faithful delegation to the 2020 General and Jurisdictional Conferences.The clergy and laity on the delegation bring strong convictions, abundant giftedness, and a wealth of experience. They will serve the church faithfully, prayerfully, and with a comprehensive devotion. I am honored to be alongside them in the work of the delegation, and I will learn much from them. They are my friends, and many of us have stood together in important places over the years. I have been praying for them since the moment they were elected. I am particularly grateful that Rev. Alyce Weaver Dunn is the chair of the delegation. Her stellar leadership will be a profound blessing to all of us. In fact, it already has been.
We elected a delegation that does not reflect (or represent) the complexity and theological diversity of Western Pennsylvania.This is where the pain begins. In a time when people feel a sense of urgency about clarifying boundaries and battle lines, tension is heightened and processes become distorted, or at least exaggerated. This year, the exaggeration at hand is a delegation that is disproportionately Traditionalist. This fact takes nothing away from the gifted delegates we elected. It simply generates a marginalizing and disenfranchising sense of voicelessness on the part of many in Western Pennsylvania who feel that their convictions will not be valued or honored fully, particularly at General Conference. The delegation will need to be attentive to this.
The 16 people from the delegation who will travel to the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis (12 delegates and 4 alternates) include one Asian American and no African Americans—meaning that, in the election process, we were not as attentive to racial diversity as we have been in the past. I do not believe that this reflects intentional racism on anyone’s part. Please hear that. But there is such a thing as institutional racism—a systemic devaluing of racial minorities that finds expression when processes and systems bend toward a particular strategy that ultimately excludes or marginalizes people of color (such as when an election process becomes fixated on a particular theological perspective at the expense of fair and necessary representation). A posture of privilege might inspire some to dismiss this point as irrelevant. My sense, however, based upon several personal conversations, is that many African American United Methodists in Western Pennsylvania experienced a deep sense of institutional harm at Annual Conference. We dare not allow ourselves to become dismissive or cynical about that.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association of Western PA, a strategic Traditionalist group in the Conference, mobilized effectively and had a significant impact on the elections of delegates. In fact, the six clergy and six laity elected to General Conference were precisely the twelve people that appeared on the WCA’s list of endorsed possible candidates. In Western Pennsylvania, many women and men whom I greatly admire and whose leadership I value have become members of the WCA because their deeply held convictions and prayerful discernment have led them in that direction. Which is to say, it is not my intention to demonize the WCA or its leadership. But I will express this heartfelt concern: There is always the potential for great relational and spiritual harm whenever any group, irrespective of its theological persuasion, begins to have a disproportionately weighty influence on the decisions of a community. In such cases, the group often becomes a self-appointed arbiter of discernment, which can only result in a truncated collection of priorities. While I respect the WCA’s convictions, I hope that we as an Annual Conference will recognize the urgency of making certain that we avoid the kind of one-dimensionalism that ignores the reality of who we are.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association of Western PA, in one of its recent letters, singled out five leaders in Western Pennsylvania for whom NOT to vote in the elections for General and Jurisdictional Conferences: Sharon Gregory (our Conference’s faithful Lay Leader); Diane Miller (a longtime overseer and supporter of Missions in the Conference); Amy Wagner (our Conference’s multi-gifted Director of Congregational Development and Revitalization); William Meekins (former District Superintendent and Assistant to the Bishop, current pastor, and one of the most courageous voices for Christ-centered justice that this Annual Conference has ever known); and, finally, yours truly (a humble District Superintendent who is simply trying to keep it real).We were put on the list of “objectionables” because, at the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference, we stood in support of what the WCA describes as the “progressive” (an adjective that I find inaccurate) One Church Plan—a plan for which I did indeed vote. Of all the plans that remained, I saw the One Church Plan as the best option to ensure the existence of a denomination that could make space for a diversity of perspectives on matters that, in my opinion, do not strike at the root of Christianity. I also saw the One Church Plan as an opportunity to remove language from the Book of Discipline that, irrespective of the righteousness of our intentions, has become weaponized against a segment of humanity that has already been marginalized and excluded.
Because of the way we voted, five of us made the WCA block-list. This was not a hatchet job on the part of the WCA. They did not disparage our character and made clear in the letter that we are loved (which I appreciated). But it was indeed a calculated political maneuver rendered for the purpose of keeping out of the General Conference voting the voices of leaders whose convictions on human sexuality might not be in alignment with the WCA’s corporate understanding of orthodoxy. I suspect that members of the WCA would defend themselves by saying that, since their goal was to preserve what they understand to be orthodoxy by influencing who gets elected, the end justifies the means. But there is a destructive consequence when a group moves intentionally from “please consider voting for these people” to “please DO NOT vote for THOSE people.” Such a tactic corrupts community, undermines both the integrity and the potential of colleagues, and elevates hegemony over orthodoxy.
I hope that the members of the WCA, no matter how justified they feel in their actions, understand that their block-list was wounding to the people named. It felt like a punitive response to our commitment to do exactly what we were entrusted by the Annual Conference to do as delegates in 2019—specifically, to vote our prayerful conscience with the most attentive discernment that we could bring to the table. As a member of the larger delegation for 2020, my challenge now is to open my heart to some wonderful people on the delegation whom I dearly love but who may be connected to a WCA that publicly advocated for my not being elected to the very delegation of which I am now a part. I pray that my friends on the delegation (and my friends in the WCA) will hear my heart and join me in the vulnerability of navigating this complex territory.
Finally, I will share with you once again some words that I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the Special Called Session of the General Conference in February. They are words about what I am choosing to believe at present:
I choose to believe that my Traditionalist friends are driven, not by hatred, homophobia, or bigotry, but by their conviction that souls, eternity, and biblical truth are at stake.
I choose to believe that my Progressive friends are driven, not by irreverence toward Scripture or by an eagerness to accommodate cultural trends, but by an unwavering passion for a history-altering liberation and justice to which they believe the ministry of Jesus absolutely points.
I choose to believe that my Centrist friends (and, yes, I believe that there is a Center place in all of this) are driven, not by a refusal to “choose a side,” but by the belief that the saving grace of Jesus Christ makes possible a wide and durable unity in which divergent viewpoints can breathe the same healthy air.
I choose to believe that my LGBTQ+ friends are driven, not by a desire to diminish the church’s emphasis on sexual holiness, but by their recognition of the fact that their sexual identity is an integral part of their personhood and by their desire to be seen, not as an “issue” or as a group of “incompatibles,” but as souls within the Body of Christ who are called, gifted, and equipped and who long for relational covenants and spiritual wholeness like all the rest of us.
Most importantly, I choose to believe that Jesus is still Lord, and that God cares about the ministry and mission of the United Methodist Church even more than we do—FAR more than we do, in fact. Furthermore, I choose to believe that our current struggle has not taken us beyond the boundaries of what God can redeem, reshape, reconfigure, and restore.
In the aftermath of the recent United Methodist General Conference, I choose to believe some important things today as an evangelical centrist, a heartbroken unifier, and an embracer of gracious and justice-minded orthodoxy within the United Methodist Church.
I choose to believe what is best about people in the midst of our serious divisions. Some would call this either naïve or morally irresponsible—or both. But I see it as my only way to breathe healthy air at this point in the journey, especially as a District Superintendent in the church.
I choose to believe, for example, that my conservative friends are not driven by hatred, bigotry, or a crippling homophobia in their support of the United Methodist Church’s current restrictions related to homosexuality. Rather, the conservatives with whom I relate are driven by the conviction that souls, eternity, and Biblical truth are at stake, and that to love homosexual people authentically means something far more unpopular and complex than affirming their choices. (I desperately hope, of course, that my conservative friends will have a profound sensitivity to the fact that their stance, irrespective of its motive, lands as something oppressive, abusive, and contemptuous upon the hearts of LGBTQ+ people, their family members, and their advocates. Such a sensitivity will help my conservative friends to approach the current negative responses to General Conference with a more durable patience and a more nuanced understanding.)
I choose to believe that my progressive friends are not driven by an irreverence toward Scripture or an eagerness to dismiss Biblical teaching in order to accommodate societal trends. Rather, the progressives with whom I relate are driven by an unwavering passion for a history-altering liberation to which they believe the ministry of Jesus points, somewhere way beyond what they interpret as the incomplete and culturally-conditioned Biblical condemnations. (I desperately hope, of course, that my progressive friends will have a profound sensitivity to the fact that many conservative United Methodists are just as heartbroken concerning our bitter divisions, even though they occupy the majority side of a winless debate. Such a sensitivity will help my progressive friends to approach the current conversation with righteous and well-stewarded anger instead of abusive insults and bitter vituperation.)
I choose to believe that my centrist friends are driven neither by a cowardly refusal to choose a side nor an idolatrous fixation on preserving the institution. Rather, the centrists with whom I relate are driven by the belief that the saving grace of Jesus Christ makes possible a wide and durable unity in which divergent viewpoints can live and breathe together, and that none of those divergent viewpoints necessitate a severing of our connection in the mission to which all of us are called. (I desperately hope, of course, that my centrist friends have a profound sensitivity to the anguish that is taking place to their left and right and an awareness of the fact that their position may sound like an abdication of leadership to some on both sides. Such a sensitivity will help my centrist friends to nurture deeper relationships across the spectrum.)
I choose to believe that my Christ-following LGBTQ+ friends are not driven by a desire to diminish the the church’s emphasis on sexual holiness. Rather, the LGBTQ+ friends with whom I relate are driven both by their understanding that their orientation is an integral part of their personhood and by their desire to be seen, not as an “issue” or as a group of “incompatibles,” but as souls within the Body of Christ who are called, gifted, and equipped, all the while longing for relational covenants and spiritual wholeness like all the rest of us. (I desperately hope that my LGBTQ+ friends will know the love of God in tangible ways in these hard days through the ministry of caring people, so that they might not be further crushed by a debate that is often dehumanizing for them.)
Most importantly, I choose to believe that Jesus is still Lord and that God cares about the ministry and mission of the United Methodist Church even more than we do—FAR more than we do, in fact. Furthermore, I choose to believe that our current struggle has not taken us beyond the boundaries of what God can redeem, reshape, reconfigure, and restore.
Therefore, I choose to remain in this broken, imperfect part of the Body of Christ called the United Methodist Church. I choose this messy, heartbreaking, and important journey with progressive, traditionalist, and centrist Christ-followers, many of whom have forgotten more about discipleship than I will ever know. I choose to embrace the struggle of it all, not with cynicism, but a strong conviction that the struggle is worth it (as it so often is in the life of God’s church).
What I have written here will strike many as being woefully inadequate, a theological or moral cop-out during a time that demands a clearer sense of certainty; or a deeper commitment to Biblical faithfulness; or a more passionate pursuit of justice and radical hospitality. If that is your take on what I have written, then perhaps you are right.
Then again, perhaps God is utilizing United Methodism as a sacred instrument by which to announce to a politically, racially, culturally, and philosophically fractured world that there really is a better way forward—that there really is a countercultural and rugged unity that is as gracious as it is urgent.
(Photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service)
Just before morning worship today, the Western Pennsylvania Delegation to General Conference received heartbreaking news. Faith Geer, a member of the delegation, had breathed her last breath after a lengthy journey with cancer. Faith, a member of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Allison Park, desperately wanted to to be here in St. Louis but was unable to make the trip because of her failing health. Her death ushered all of us into the depths of instantaneous grief.
I met faith back in 1990 and have long been grateful for her leadership, her vision, her organizational acumen, and her sacrificial service to the United Methodist Church at every level.
As Bishop Cynthia came to pray with the delegation, I heard an encouraging whisper in the depths of my soul, reminding me that, in Jesus Christ, struggle and death are never given the final word to speak. Faith Geer knows that now, better than all of us. I am convinced that she is more alive than she has ever been.
So, thank you, Faith, for the the graceful stewardship you practiced over your well-lived life and for allowing your journey to bless so many others, including mine.
As the General Conference gathered in plenary session to take action on Monday’s legislative recommendations, most of the morning was devoted to a debate of a “minority report” which called for a re-visiting of the One Church Plan (which is the plan that removes the current restrictive language about homosexuality from the Book of Discipline and allows pastors, congregations, and Boards of Ministry to come to their own contextual discernment about how best to care for marriage and ordination). Yesterday, while working as a legislative committee, the delegates opposed the One Church Plan (53% to 47%). This morning, if the plenary session had approved the minority report, the One Church Plan would have replaced the Traditional Plan as the point of focus for the delegates.
The minority report was not supported by the plenary. The percentage of the vote was the same as yesterday—roughly 53% of the delegates voted not to support the minority report, while roughly 47% voted support. The rejection of the minority report brought the delegates back to the Traditional Plan, which is the plan that maintains the current language about the “incompatibility” of homosexuality with Christian teaching and the current ban on both same sex weddings and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” The Traditional Plan also institutes a more rigid accountability in this regard for clergy and bishops.
On Monday, the General Conference requested a declaratory decision from the United Methodist Judicial Council, whose job it is to rule on the constitutionality of United Methodism’s actions, practices, decisions, and policies. More specifically, the General Conference asked for a declaratory decision on the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan (vis-à-vis the United Methodist Church’s Constitution as contained in the Book of Discipline).
Today, delegates received a report from the Judicial Council, declaring that ten petitions related to the Traditional Plan are either unconstitutional or in violation of the church’s established polity.
As a result, the rest of the afternoon today was devoted to the tedious but important work of debating and amending the petitions in order to make them both practically workable and ecclesiastically constitutional.
Here’s the long and short of it all.
This afternoon, in an urgent moment that I experienced with breathless trembling, the General Conference adopted the Traditional Plan as the Way Forward for the denomination.
A little bit later on, delegates approved a petition on disaffiliation, which, in time, will provide a means by which a United Methodist Churches can leave the denomination with their property.
I will refrain from trying to describe all the details of our remaining hours together following the adoption of the Traditional Plan. Never has the phrase “you had to have been there” been more applicable.
Many delegates wept, deeply and uncontrollably, anguished by what they believe to be the church’s sanctioning of a dehumanizing mistreatment of sexual minorities.
Many delegates sat in quiet gratitude, believing that an orthodox understanding of Biblical sexual ethics had been rightly and decisively honored.
Many delegates were outraged, initiating disruptive protests and actions of dissent.
Many delegates were caught somewhere in the middle—weary, vulnerable, stunned by the intensity of all that was happening around them.
Emotions ran high this afternoon, and intensified emotions tend to generate amplified responses. We saw plenty of those: Legislative stall tactics designed to prevent the plenary from getting to all of the Traditional Plan’s petitions; shouts of protest designed to remind the church that it has caused deep pain; debate undergirded by palpable outrage.
It would be easy to approach such dynamics with a spirit of harsh judgment. But I would encourage you to pray your way out of such a spirit. After all, many delegates saw this vote as a matter of life and death for the church’s ministry. Their hearts were broken by the vote. Their vision for the future had taken a huge hit. Their anguish poured out as heightened remonstration. I would like to think that the church I love is durable enough to cover such behavior with countercultural patience and gracious understanding. After all, this is family, and family members love one another even in their most raw and vulnerable moments—especially in those moments, in fact.
How did I vote personally? Normally I don’t answer such questions publicly. It leads too easily to labeling, categorizing, and distorted perceptions. But this is a unique moment in the church’s history. I feel that I owe you at least the offering of transparency. So, here goes.
I did not vote for the Traditional Plan at any point. I was part of the 47% that voted for the One Church Plan (and the Connectional Conference Plan before that). I was in the queue to speak in favor of the One Church Plan this morning, but was not called upon.
My vote will disappoint some of you. It will encourage others. (Please, I beg of you—honor my transparency by resisting the temptation either to chastise my vote or to celebrate it.) I have great love and admiration in my heart for people all across the spectrum—those who voted my way and those who didn’t. But, here’s the deal: I am an evangelical follower of Jesus Christ who believes the Bible is God’s inspired Word but who also believes that the saving grace of Jesus creates sufficient space for divergent conclusions about how Biblical teachings are to be understood, interpreted, prioritized, and applied.
What drew me to the Connectional Conference Plan and the One Church Plan is that I found in both of them at least three convictions that spoke profoundly to my heart:
First, the conviction that our most durable unity is found in the person and work of Jesus, not in the uniformity of our theology of sexuality
Second, the conviction that the church’s current stance on homosexuality is doing far more harm than good in the human community
And, third, the conviction that United Methodist Christians can have a far greater impact for the cause of Christ if they remain connected, in spite of their theological differences
But all of that is moot at this point. The Traditional Plan is the officially adopted way forward for our part of the Body of Christ. (I will lay aside the constitutionality issues for now, since I believe there are enough constitutional portions in the Traditional Plan to make it workable.)
So, what now?
Most of that we will have to figure out together over the course of the next year. Some people (and I am one of them) are greatly unsettled by some of the implications of the Traditional Plan’s petitions. But tonight is not the time to navigate all of the particulars. There will be plenty of opportunities for that in the days ahead. For now, allow me simply to offer a few priorities that are emerging from the weary but still-hopeful heart of this humble pastor.
Open your heart to the fact that many souls are devastated by the church’s decision to adopt the Traditional Plan. Over the last two days, I have received over thirty e-mails and Facebook messages from people in my network of relationships who have begun to question their relationship with the United Methodist Church. Some have already made the decision to leave. I am asking you to be sensitively and prayerfully aware of pain that is probably not very far away from you.
If you are a traditionalist, I greatly respect the sense of gratitude that you most likely have for an outcome that supports your heartfelt theological convictions. But, please, do not rejoice in this, as though the vote were a victory in a battle. Instead, allow the pain that others are experiencing to soften your heart and remind you that, if one part of the Body of Christ is suffering, the entire Body of Christ is suffering.
Reach out to those in your family and church family who are broken over this. Help them to know that they are seen, heard, and valued. If you are a progressive, reach out to the traditionalists who have been wounded by the dynamics of our divided church. If you are a traditionalist, reach out to progressives who are now living in a denominational plan that feels painfully disenfranchising to them. If you are a centrist, reach out to the people on either side of you.
Be intentional about building respectful and attentive relationships with the LGBTQ souls whose lives intersect with yours. If they have heard anything at all about what has transpired within the denomination, they most likely feel particularly vulnerable or marginalized at present. Your willingness to love them and to be loved by them may be some of your most urgent discipleship in the days ahead.
Commit to making your church a place of radical hospitality for all people, irrespective of your stance on homosexuality. Start conversations in your church about what it means to communicate to every person who walks through your church’s doors that, no matter who they are, they are in a place where they will be honored, protected, and loved.
Whatever your theological persuasion, resist the temptation to become so absolutely certain of your own rightness that you lose the capacity to engage with the hearts and minds of those on the other side of a variety of issues. We are a diverse church, after all, where Jesus is busy sanctifying conservatives and progressives, gay people and straight people, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. We cannot afford to waste time bowing at the altar of self-certainty.
Finally, breathe in and out the Gospel Truth—that Jesus Christ is still Lord; that he loves us with a love that will not let us go; and that nothing has transpired that has taken us beyond the scope of what God will beautifully redeem.
No matter your theological perspective, friends, I am alongside you in this. My deepest desire is for the authentic connection of our hearts as we learn from one another, nurture one another, and follow Jesus together.
Thank you for journeying with me through this General Conference. Thank you for being the church with me. Thank you for your prayerful encouragement. Thank you for reminding me of why the church is worth the struggle and pain.
It was a very painful day. Some of us agreed that it felt like there was a spirit of death in the place, no matter where people stood in their convictions. And I felt complicit in it.
The day started with worship, during which we prayed words together that ushered me into a deeper conceptualization of the faith by which I long to walk:
Faith can be cloistered, an in-house debate An object to study, a reason to hate Faith can be closets with things put away A good bit of talking with nothing to say
But when faith is a lifetime instead of a day A constant rebirth, not a token to pay If faith is the worldview beyond the decree Then nothing’s outside what the faithful can see No, nothing’s outside what the faithful can see
As we offered those words in unison, it was a moment of personal repentance for me, an opportunity to carry to the cross my tendency to reduce discipleship to a matter of debate—a fresh chance to lay at Jesus’ feet my “good bit of talking with nothing to say.” I quietly prayed that this Christ-follower (and Christ’s church) would become more passionate about seeing faith as a lifetime journey instead of an episodic paying of a spiritual token.
The General Conference spent the entire day engaging in its work as a LEGISLATIVE COMMITTEE. This requires just a moment of procedural explanation. In the work of a more typical General Conference, the delegates are divided into several smaller legislative committees. Each one of these smaller committees is assigned a variety of petitions categorized under a particular ministry area (Church and Society; Higher Education; Faith and Order; Discipleship; Financial Administration; Global Ministries; General Administration; Local Church; Superintendency; etc.) The purpose of each legislative committee in a typical General Conference is to review and refine the legislation assigned to it and then to make a recommendation to the entire General Conference which would then take final action on the legislation.
In this special called session of the General Conference, since all of the legislation is somehow related to deliberation about the denomination’s Way Forward, the decision was made to have just one legislative committee to which all of the delegates would be assigned. In other words, the plan was for the entire General Conference to become a legislative committee for a designated period of time, so that all of the delegates could work on refining the legislation and then vote on what legislative recommendations to carry into the plenary session.
Today, the General Conference engaged in its work as a legislative committee, addressing all of the legislation entrusted to its care. The deliberation and debate were frequently difficult and, at times, excruciatingly painful. The delegates, some with extraordinary vulnerability, all with passionate conviction, shared their stories, their hopes, their fears, and their perspectives, all for the purpose of determining legislative recommendations that will demand final action at tomorrow’s plenary session.
Here is where it gets painful.
As a legislative committee, delegates ultimately took the following actions:
Supported the Traditional Plan—meaning that the Traditional Plan (which both maintains and intensifies the denomination’s current ban on same sex weddings and ordination) will come to tomorrow’s plenary session for final vote
Opposed the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Simple Plan, all of which would have removed the Discipline’s current language related to homosexuality and created safe space for a wide variety of convictions within the denomination (There is a chance that the One Church Plan might find its way into tomorrow’s plenary session, but this will require the approval of a minority report, which is an uphill battle in this case.)
Supported two disaffiliation proposals which would institute a process by which United Methodist churches could leave the denomination with their property
Requested a ruling from United Methodism’s Judicial Council on the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan (about which delegates should receive information tomorrow)
What am I able to say about all of this by way of personal reflection? Not much at this point. I am weary and burdened—even broken—tonight.
Many traditionalist United Methodists view today’s legislative actions as a necessary preservation of what they believe to be a timeless Biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality. (I am praying, however, that their hearts will not permit them to rejoice, given the devastation that others in the denomination are experiencing.)
I also realize that many people in the United Methodist portion of the body of Christ are weeping tonight. Weeping because they no longer know what their place is in the church. Weeping because they feel isolated, excluded, abandoned, even demonized. Weeping because they believe that Jesus is walking with them but that his church isn’t.
All evening long, I have been reaching out to people in my life who most likely experienced today’s legislative actions as something hurtful. I encourage you to be attentive to those same people in your life. They are there, after all, probably somewhere nearby, hurting and uncertain, wondering if you see them—really see them—and wondering if you really care.
I am not inviting debate with this post (since there has been enough of that already). I guess more than anything else, I am inviting your desperate prayer for the United Methodist tribe. Irrespective of your theological stance, allow yourself to be heartsick, tearful, and undone by the anguish of a church that is fractured but hopeful; broken but beautiful; sinful but messily and awkwardly sanctified.
(photo by Paul Jeffrey, United Methodist News Service)
Sunday morning worship at General Conference today was richly evocative and unsettlingly thought-provoking. Bishop Kenneth Carter, President of the Council of Bishops, preached in a manner that built a creative bridge between the Biblical imagery of transformation and the present challenges facing United Methodism. Bishop Carter began the sermon in this fashion:
If you take a moment to look around the room, it will become clear to you very quickly that your story is not the only story…The good news is that God has a story too. It is the story of a God who salvages what we have discarded and redeems what we have labeled unclean…God’s story is about creation.
Bishop Carter went on to share his personal memories of how the churches that he served became contexts of reconciliation that bore witness to God’s ability to create astonishing unity amid stark diversity:
Some of the most conservative and progressive people I have ever known occupied the churches I served as a pastor. They sang in the choir together. They cared for the homeless together. They served on committees and studied the Bible together…And when they disagreed on the interpretation of Scripture (imagine that!), they looked for the heart of the person with whom they disagreed, reminded themselves of their shared dependency upon the saving grace of Jesus, and stayed together…Can God do this again? Can God abolish the dividing wall between two communities? Could these be three days during which Jesus might resurrect us and lead us into new life?
The cynic (and I can be one of those if I am not careful) might conclude that Bishop Carter was simply priming the pump for a conversation about the One Church Plan, which is the “Way Forward” plan endorsed by the Council of Bishops. But I experienced the sermon as something much deeper than a homiletical argument for a denominational plan. The sermon spoke a Biblical truth into my consciousness that I desperately needed to hear this morning—that the scandalous grace of Jesus has a way of keeping people together and connecting hearts across a variety of divides.
Bishop Christian Alsted, who serves as Bishop of the Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area of the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference, presided over the morning plenary. Bishop Alsted wisely and pointedly reminded us of the nature of our gathering:
This is not a football arena over the next three days [referring to the fact that we are meeting in the arena where the then-St. Louis Rams used to play]. No, for the next three days, this is Church, and we are a community shaped by the person and the work of Jesus Christ.
The rest of the morning was devoted to a presentation of the three denominational plans developed by the 32-person Commission on the Way Forward. As part of its presentation this morning, the members of the Commission reminded the delegates that the Commission’s role “was not to pick a winner or to choose a side but to explore new possibilities that magnify the United Methodist Connection.”
The three plans, already familiar to many of the people reading this post, are these:
The One Church Plan(the values of which are a generous and flexible unity, a contextuality for missional vitality, and a durable honoring of the connectional nature of United Methodism)
The Connectional Conference Plan (which is the most structurally complex of the plans but also the one that frames our future in a theology of connectionalism that envisions a “big tent” with smaller tents within it)
The Traditional Plan(which is built upon the values of unity in doctrine, consistency in practice, and an intensified accountability)
Following today’s lunch break, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, Resident Bishop of the Raleigh Area, led the General Conference in a prioritization process, the purpose of which was to assist the General Conference in determining the order in which delegates will address the numerous legislative petitions. In this prioritization process, the 70-plus petitions were grouped based upon their content and purpose. Each “bundle” of petitions was then voted on by the delegates as being either “high priority” or “lower priority.”
The prioritization process resulted in the following “top five” legislative priorities for this General Conference:
1. Pension liability petitions from Wespath (United Methodism’s pension and benefits agency)
2. The Traditional Plan (and its related petitions)
3. A proposed disaffiliation process (i.e., a means by which to exit the denomination)
4. A second proposed disaffiliation process
5. The One Church Plan (and its related petitions)
Voices from around the Connection responded to this “top five” list in different and important ways. Some lamented the fact that a concern for unfunded pension liability, as institutionally significant as that issue might be, would top the priority list. Some celebrated the high position of the Traditional Plan, believing that this indicates a majority support for the plan’s emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy. Others lamented that the Traditional Plan was prioritized so highly, believing that its place on the list signals a continued and institutionalized injustice against the LGBTQ community. Still other voices expressed concern and sadness that two disaffiliation plans made it into the list of top five priorities.
Personally, I am uncertain of what it all means. Perhaps I am still processing and pondering the way in which the dust is settling after a long and demanding day. What is abundantly clear is that hope and heartbreak are breathing the same air at General Conference, as are traditionalists, progressives, and centrists. We are a complicated, messy, global, often-divided, and strangely beautiful tribe. I long for an authentic and durable unity that reflects a shared subordination to the Lordship of Jesus and yet remains expansive enough to avoid both theological myopia and institutional idolatry. Our corporate vision for such a thing, however, remains painfully elusive.
Having cared for the pension liability petitions this afternoon, we will turn our collective attention to the Traditional Plan tomorrow morning following worship. I anticipate the kind of extensive deliberation that ushers the delegates through the complexities of parliamentary parlance and into the vulnerable territory of differing Biblical interpretations and disparate theological convictions.
As I prepare for tomorrow, I am thanking God for the way in which this long day ended—with a time of joyful interaction and bread-breaking, shared by most of the people who are here from Western Pennsylvania (delegates and volunteers, visitors and prayer warriors). These precious souls have taught me more about faithful discipleship than they will ever be able to understand. Their voices tonight reminded me sweetly…
…that Jesus is still saving the world…
…and that our United Methodist tribe is worth the sometimes-devastating struggle.