Wednesday, April 09, 2014

A three-way battle for the United Methodist Church

The following is an opinion piece. It is based on observation of the current events of United Methodists. It is not intended as a position piece, arguing a course of action. In other words: my blog, my space to vent. If you care nothing for my opinion, the state of United Methodist affairs, or personal venting, feel free to Google something more to your liking.

Monday, a press release was issued. It was released by Good News, an evangelical United Methodist movement. The press release can be found here. It essentially states the opinion of the Good News staff and board regarding the current state of affairs of the United Methodist Church. It uses the word "untenable" to describe what our current UM reality is. According to Merriam-Webster, untenable means, " not capable of being defended against attack or criticism : not tenable"  The situation they are referring to is the "united" portion of United Methodist. 

Response to this statement is clearly divided. Some saying this is honest and inevitable. Others are saying it is arrogance and bigotry. Still others are saying it is contrary to Christian spirit and does not reflect God's purpose for the Church. 

The issue is not homosexuality, by the way. That is a catalyst issue, though. What Good News offers as the problem is: 

  1. Failure to uphold the covenant laid out in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.
  2. Failure to hold accountable those who violate the law set down in the Book of Discipline.
  3. Conflicting worldviews among the United Methodist people which include the issues of authority of Scripture and the nature of our covenant. 
Because of these issues, Good News claims that the United Methodist Church is open to attack and criticism. Now, who or what would attack the United Methodist Church, I would not care to explore. But criticism is another issue. We are under the ecclesiastical microscope. 

The unchurched world doesn't really care what we do. The regard of those outside of our church walls falls between disinterest, ignorance, and vindication. But we are now in the spotlight of church politics. The Protestant church world is watching to see what we are going to do. The United Methodist Church is one of the largest denominations in the United States. We hold a very prominent place among church structures. And how we proceed will leave a mark on the ecclesial landscape. 

I think it is time to be critical. I feel that we have put on a good face long enough. It is time to uncover the skeletons hiding in the closet, bring out the dirty laundry, and have a good house cleaning. We have been dishonest for too long. We have tried to preserve the peace but peace is sorely lacking.

We are a church divided. I'm sorry that is the state of affairs. We cannot call the divisions that are currently simmering a state of unity. There are some fundamental differences that are being polarized the longer we go like this. The interesting aspect of this polarizing effect is that it is not a two-sided division. 

As I view the issues being presented, I see a three-way fight shaping up. Yes, I said a fight. We have three positions within the UMC that are getting increasingly louder. My experience is, the louder you get, the more obvious it's a fight. But the three sides of this fight are beginning to put stress on the "united" part of the UMC.

Here is what I see:
1. You have those who agree with Good News to some degree. They see that the covenant is no longer being used as a standard for identity. They see that Scripture is no longer viewed as traditionally authoritative by some within the body. They argue that the only way for the UMC to go forward into the future together is submission to the authority of Scripture and Discipline

2. You have those who would support the views of the Reconciling Ministries Network, a movement within the UMC that strives for acceptance, justice, and equality of all persons. They believe that the church is called to welcome all people into full fellowship. Scripture and the Discipline allow this approach to ministry. But in reflection upon exclusionary items, they agree that we can adapt to the changing world. What is more important is declaring the love of God. They argue that the only way for the UMC to go forward is to put aside laws and boundaries that limit persons experiencing the full love of God in the church.

3. You have those who believe that the UMC is to be a church united. Unity is God's will for Christians. Division goes against the common commandment "love one another". Dissolution of the UMC would be the admission that the church has failed. They argue that the only way for the UMC to go forward is to find the points of common spirit among the sides, compromise on issues that divide, and reconcile the fellowship in some way to preserve unity.

On one side we see an argument from Scripture. On the second side we see the argument from personal experience. On the third side we see the argument from tradition. So where is reason in all of this?

My opinion is that division is, within the current climate, inevitable. That isn't a reflection on theology or ecclesiology. That is a reflection on human nature and systems. The institution of the UMC cannot stand up to the three sided pulling stress. The structure of the UMC can only withstand the strain being placed upon it so long. The use of church trials has already been called into question for holding clergy accountable when violating the rule of Discipline out of conscience. The last General Conference was unable to move any meaningful legislation forward. We can no longer depend on Christian conferencing to discuss honestly what is at stake in the age of blog rhetoric.

I am not calling for the church to divide. I do not want the church to divide. Schism is not my answer to the circumstances. But given the climate we are currently experiencing, that is the direction we are headed. And I wish I had the divine wisdom to provide a different outcome. But I am not a prophet in this case. There are plenty of prophets on all three sides of the situation. All of them crying, "Thus says the Lord." All of them able to point out the sins we need to corporately repent. 

I feel that we are being dishonest to one another, the UMC as an institution, the Church universal, and the world we have been called to transform. We continue to lift our mission up for everyone to see - we are here to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But we don't agree on fundamental issues of who we are, what we stand for, and how to achieve that mission. 

When I told my wife about the press release, she asked me a very difficult question, "What are you going to do?" She wasn't asking if I was going to write a blog piece. She wasn't asking what my plans for the day were. She was concerned over my future, my calling, and my heart for the UMC. She knows I love this church. She knows that I am committed to the ideal of being a United Methodist. She also knows I'm torn, broken on the inside. 

As I said in the opening, this isn't a positional piece. I'm not asking for people to jump on my bandwagon. I'm not looking to gather a flock and build my own piece of security. I'm also not telling people they should stay with something they may fundamentally disagree with. I am hoping that we could secure our future together as the United Methodist Church. I hope that we can find reconciliation in our fellowship. I pray that God's peace and grace could work a miracle within the broken fellowship we are currently experiencing that we may come to the unity of Christ.