United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 2

This is the second post I am sharing regarding the future of The United Methodist Church after the special General Conference of late February 2019.

The FIRST POST I shared on this topic linked to THIS PIECE from Rev. Lynn Malone which is well worth the read.  Rev. Malone has been a pastor, district superintendent, and General Conference delegate, and is thoroughly familiar with the inner workings of United Methodism.

Lynn laments that no matter what General Conference chooses to do, including a choice to pass no legislation, there will be additional pain and division within the church.  Lynn's very sober assessment ends with a word of hope: who knows what sort of resurrection God may yet bring?

Now, for a different perspective, I'm sharing THIS POST from Rev. Thomas Bowsher, a pastor in the Dakotas Conference.  Rev. Bowsher's post was recently highlighted at UM NEWS.  Bowsher argues that The United Methodist Church is at a critical crossroads because the values that have held United Methodists together are no longer understood in the same way by all Methodists; for this reason, he says, a split of the church is now inevitable.

Bowsher says that we are deceiving ourselves if we think that the General Conference 2019, or any of the three plans submitted to it (or any plan that the General Conference itself can produce) will actually put an end to the bickering and division within the Church.

Bowsher also argues - and is echoed by many traditionalists on this point, and even a few liberals as well - that because a split is inevitable, the leadership of the Church (including GC2019) should be working to make that split as smooth and amicable as possible.

While many of the Bishops have adopted a "unity at any cost" approach to GC2019 and the future of the UMC, Bowsher makes an important theological observation:

"We are deceiving ourselves if we believe that maintaining unity as a denomination is the same as unity in the body of Christ. We are not biblically commanded to maintain unity as an organization. However, we are called to be in unity as brothers and sisters in Christ"

In discussions of church unity, people have often pointed back to Wesley's sermon about the "Catholic Spirit" as pointing a way forward for divided Methodists.  But what has not so often been pointed out is that, in this sermon, Wesley clearly is addressing Christians who are already divided into different denominations over theological differences, but who are nevertheless working and praying together for the mission of Christ.  In other words, Wesley is addressing how Christians of different stripes can work together in love, not whether Christians in the same church who are crippled by disagreement ought to split or remain institutionally united.

Wesley does not address institutional unity in that Sermon, but unity in heart and unity in love.  At this moment, Methodists would do well to consider where these differ and where they overlap.  We should consider how (and if) we can maintain loving fellowship while also dividing institutionally OR how (and if) we can maintain a loving fellowship while also remaining locked together in a continuous and acrimonious fight for control within the institution.

I fear that Bowsher is correct that some kind of split is inevitable, either a formal "top-down" split arranged by a General Conference or a less formal "bottom-up" split as families leave congregations, and congregations leave the denomination.  This is already happening (as the departure last year of the Mississippi Conference's largest congregation reminds us) and it is every bit as much of a real schism in the body as a "top-down" split because the church is composed of people and congregations (including those that will leave), not simply institutional machinery such as boards and agencies and seminaries.

Many theologians and pastors have been asking for some time now the question: "Has the split of The United Methodist Church in fact already happened, already begun?"

Bowsher is implicitly suggesting that our current situation points us towards the limits of diversity and inclusion.  As 21st century Westerners and as United Methodists we have been quick to repeat the mantra, so celebrated in our culture, that 'diversity is our strength', and it can be a strength indeed.  However it should be clear with even a few minutes of clear thinking that some forms of diversity can also become a weakness.  How can we walk together if we are determined to walk in divergent (i.e. 'diverse') directions?  Does a marriage become stronger the less and less that a husband and wife have in common (which is to say, the more "diversity" there is between them)?

Bowsher is asking how can Methodists maintain unity if we no longer understand our core values in the same way (i.e. if we have a 'diversity' of contradictory understandings)?  Wesley raises this same point in his sermon when he says "two cannot walk together unless they be agreed", quoting from Amos 3:3 (KJV).

For a large institution - especially a religious institution - to remain united, there must be agreement on the core values and the basic, "non-negotiable" beliefs and practices, and that agreement must be spelled out clearly in black and white, not left up to the reinterpretation (or misinterpretation) of each individual or faction.
This clarity on core principles is precisely the function that the Book of Discipline was created to serve.  The Discipline gives expression to the mind of the whole global church that United Methodist faith and practice is "this, not that."

And yet it is the authority of church teaching and church law contained within The Book of Discipline that is now being openly challenged by some pastors, and even a few bishops.  Do we then have enough agreement on core principles to walk together in a unified direction?
Bowsher is not so hopeful on this point.

For my next post I'll be looking at a recent Judicial Council ruling on whether the plans submitted to General Conference are constitutional.

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