This Season of Dividing

This Season of Our Dividing

I am often slow to put my deepest convictions into words. Who knew? Folks who know me as a preacher will be surprised to hear this. Even so, finding the right word or words sometimes comes slowly. Then, I am helped when I read another who touches the heart of a matter better than I could.

It has been over two years. I was at a table with folks discussing the future of the United Methodist Church and its splintering into several pieces — some traditional, some progressive and some seeking inclusion of all. I recall being surprised when persons spoke of the need for what they referred to as an “amicable divorce.” They proposed separation, into parts where folks would no longer quarrel and could be in a safe theological home place. Such talk was not new — it was the many who were accepting this season of division that surprised me. They were ready to welcome the schism-movin-company to partial out the pieces of ministry developed over decades.

I wanted to say, “Hey, this is moving in precisely the wrong direction. We ought to be joining with other Christians, not dividing among ourselves.” I was only able to say, “I profoundly disagree.” I was unable to share my deepest conviction that supporting such brokenness in our body was sinful. Such words seemed too harsh and judgemental. I recalled a dear Lutheran friend who amidst the splintering of the Missouri Synod thirty years ago, said simply, “We are, on all sides, sinful.” Okay, I am sometimes a coward — and a sinful one at that! Many United Methodists over the past two years have offered plans for what is called “an amicable separation.” Such talk has gone on for a long time. But now, there are proposals, protocols and new denominations planned. For followers of Jesus to be comfortable with this seems to me to be nonsensical. Still, I didn’t have the words, until I came across a short essay by Eugene Peterson entitled “Comfort Zones” (“Called to Community,” p. 278-280, Plough Publishers, 2016).

Peterson give me language when he wrote: “Sectarianism is a common problem in Christian Community… Sectarianism is to the community what heresy is to theology, a willful removal of a part from the whole. The part is, of course, good — a work of God. But apart from the whole it is out of context and therefore diminished, disengaged from what it needs from the whole and from what the rest of the whole needs from it. We wouldn’t tolerate someone marketing a Bible with some famous preacher’s five favorite books selected from the complete sixty-six and bound in fine leather. We wouldn’t put up with an art dealer cutting up a large Rembrandt canvas into two inch squares and selling them off nicely framed. So why do we so often positively delight and celebrate the dividing up of the Jesus community into contentious and competitive groups? And why does Paul’s rhetorical question, “Has Christ been divided?” (I Cor. 1:13) continue to be ignored century after century after century?”…

There is more as Peterson points to the “selfism” that underlies such divisions. He reminds us “The birthing of the Jesus community on the Day of Pentecost was an implicit but emphatic repudiation and then reversal of Babel sectarianism.” As Peterson starkly puts it “sects are termites in the Father’s house.

Such seasons of dividing are a perpetual threat to Christian community. Just as the Methodist Church divided over slavery in 1844 only to be clumsily reconfigured a century and more later, I am rather certain that one day this season of dividing will pass, and after a time, there will be a Season of Reuniting. I may not live to see it, but believe in the Resurrection.

Sail On Ship of Zion

Jeremy Smith offers this insightful proposal for United Methodism as it faces possible schism: http://hackingchristianity.net/2019/10/will-the-general-church-advocate-for-big-boat-methodism-or-scuttle-the-fleet.html.

The Model of Mahayana Methodism

My Response: Well said, Jeremy. Your suggestions are good ones. I must say that I am surprised at how many seem to want to rush to the exits without giving more thought to what this means theologically. What is their biblical/theological understanding of the church? They rush without even considering unintended consequences. We live in a time, in our world, when the perfect becomes, for too many, the enemy of the good. Perhaps “big boat” is preferable to “big tent.” It is certainly an image with better theological symbolism (at least to my ears).

There are many contributors to our current dilemma. You identify ways General Boards and Agencies might better engage. Yes, good on the Women’s Division. And, yes our boards and agencies can improve — but it is not just in these places where more constructive initiatives are needed. A part of our challenge comes from the ecclesial and annual conference strategists over recent decades, who have through their various programs and emphases, encouraged the establishment of a flotilla of smaller vessels — that is exclusive attention to congregations.

This congregationalism was reinforced by “congregational development” where “specialists” took up many conference and general church resources (think Path One in the general church). Or look at many annual conferences where the lion’s share of program budget, for years, has been spent on experts who focus solely on starting new congregations or revitalizing older ones, and these modeled more on independent baptist theology and strategies. Congregations can and must be renewed and new ones started; still the strategies seem ignorant of historic Methodist resources. These “start ups” or “renewals” are done in ways that move us away from a sense of common mission and connection.

I recall one interview with a pastor of a strong congregation in my state who, when I asked about the participation of his congregation in UMCOR, GBGM or even annual conference efforts, said he thought his congregation would be better served by joining the mission efforts of one of the UM congregations in another city that did “really neat” mission trips. (His congregation had a long history of support for wider denominational initiatives). That “other UM congregation” with the “neat mission trips” has paid almost nothing in denominational askings over recent decades. It does a re-baptizing of members and is held up as an example for the conference of how “it should be done.” And one looks in vain on the website of this “other UM congregation” for any mention of United Methodist affiliation. This anxiety-over-decline-followed-up-by-congregationalist-strategies has gone on for decades with no accountability from conference leadership… no call for connection or even a basic Wesleyan theological basis. So, many other small boats have been launched that claim no United Methodist identity; however, now they stand in line asking for a share of the accumulated resources of the general church.

I watch in recent months as our colleges and universities (and seminaries) move to disaffiliate or distance themselves from the denomination and wonder why GBHEM, through the University Senate or another resource, isn’t moving to offer them alternative positive responses as part of the General Church’s educational efforts.

The fact that anyone would suggests there is little worth saving the general church only emphasizes how poorly the truth of who we have been/are/and/canbe is understood. It dismisses our broad, inclusive witness. I say “Sail On Ship of Zion.”