The Season of Splintering
Somewhere in this nation there are probably folks who are celebrating the United Methodist Judicial Council’s decision #1341. The body ruled that the consecration of Bishop Karen Oliveto in the Western Jurisdiction was a breaking of church law. Somewhere. Somewhere they must be slapping one another on the back, saying “we did it, we fixed it.” Somewhere.
There was nothing fixed by this. This whole kerfuffle just adds more fissures undermining the denomination’s ability to remain “united” Methodist. Our energies, mission, identity and witness — all are predictably falling to pieces. And somewhere there are folks who think they have won something.
It is just one more indication that we are further removing ourselves from being a church for others, a church that shares the good news of the love of Christ for all people. Busy with trials we miss finding ways forward that can acknowledge God’s call on many and diverse people — all being able to carry the name “United Methodist.” This is placing ever more stress on the cracks in the earthen vessel we call the church. And, somewhere there is celebration.
The Judicial Council’s decision ironically says that Karen Oliveto “remains in good standing as a clergy person” and now must be granted a “fair process” as to her ordination status. A fair process based on whose assessment? Is there one annual conference that has the perfect evaluation for clergy qualifications for all other conferences? Is the Judicial Council saying that the California-Nevada Conference got it wrong in assessing who might best serve in their area in ordaining Bishop Oliveto in the first place? Should Bishop Oliveto have been judged by another better suited group? Maybe a body in Texas, Mississippi, Indiana or Congo?
Somewhere there is joy. Somewhere hearts are light. It is the Western Jurisdiction that now has been named the “fall guy” in this travesty. They are the one’s who failed when they consecrated Karen. Is that it?
Oh yes, and why do we have Jurisdictional structures in the first place? Is there any memory that back at the time when the Methodist Episcopal Church North and South came together that the south didn’t want to have any of those northern bishops overseeing their conferences? Is there memory of the desire to keep segregation alive by setting up a separate “Central Jurisdiction” for blacks? Not wanting to welcome persons without distinction or category, the southern church (aided and abetted by many in the north) “allowed” black Methodists to have a separate jurisdiction.
I know something of the south and value so much of what I know. My college and seminary work were done in Wilmore, Kentucky at Asbury College and Seminary. There are so many good things represented by these schools, especially the commitment that was once focused on mission. At the same time this is were some of the seeds of perfectionism, and the proclivity to exclude and divide, are sown.
Chapel was required at Asbury College. My seat mate was Patty. Patty was remarkable — talented and intelligent and had a nose for prejudice and discrimination. If a sermon was racist or sexist or dismissive of those who were, dear God, liberals or Democrats, Patty would smile and whisper “Holiness Unto the Lord Has Nineteen Letters.” She was saying to me “count the letters on at the front of the auditorium and ignore this simplistic drivel.” Once after chapel she confided that “too many of these folks need an enemy to feel good about themselves.” Patty didn’t acknowledge much else about her identity, her background or her pain — but I knew she carried a burden and a wisdom beyond my experience.
Fortunately, most of my experiences in chapel were uplifting and valued. Still Patty had it right, I think. She died a few years back — may eternal light be upon her. Often these days I think of her and the code she was sending by whispering “Holiness Unto the Lord has nineteen letters.” Many, many good folks attended Asbury and learned the lesson that Patty was teaching me. Sadly, others from Wilmore, and ones who claim to be shaped by the “holiness tradition,” carry on the tendency toward exclusion and now sow the seeds for this splintering in the denomination.
In many respects the Civil War didn’t end one hundred and fifty years ago. It simply has shape-shifted into new forms and battles. Old style bigotrys turn into new ones and every generation struggles with permutations of false perfections that lead to such splintering and pain.
The splintering that has been a part of so many other denominations in recent years, is upon us in United Methodism. It arrives now in real and troubling ways. In truth, neither side, of the many sides in this tragedy, wins.
I recently visited with a friend, a middle-aged father. He was a cradle United Methodist coming from a family with deep links to the leadership and hierarchy of the denomination. As we talked, he spoke with pride of his talented son, a young adult just beginning his higher education. Then my friend said, “It was during the 2016 General Conference sessions that my son told me he was gay. I have lost any pride in my United Methodist legacy since that day.” It was heart wrenching. Here is the irony — the son still finds a home in a fine United Methodist congregation in the south. I wonder for how long this will last, given the splintering at hand?
I am struck by how many of the “leaders” of the groups pushing for perfection have not served as pastors, or at least not pastors in places where there are diverse populations. Perhaps this falls in the category of “enough said;” even so, I think back on the way God opened my eyes to the beauty of others who were different from me. It has been in the relationships with others that I saw the greater gift of God’s realm on earth. And I still think of Patty.
During this splintering season, I think of all the pastors who have children, or siblings, who are gay. And, of course, I think of all the pastors (closeted and out) and lay leaders (closeted and out) who are gay. Somewhere there is celebration. Not among these good folks. We have substituted rules for relationships and… I believe we have snuffed out the very essence of the gospel.
Somewhere there is celebration. I know this — those who “celebrate” and will either take control or break away carry within their theology and world view the seeds for another splintering, and another, and another. This is the way perfectionism thrives until it is a majority of one.
Some may celebrate. I weep, I grieve. The church of Jesus Christ will go forward, even as we United Methodists splinter.