The UMC: To Unite or To Divide

Make my joy complete: be of the same mind, have the same love, be of one mind

~Philippians 2

My Dad used to say that any organization that needs to include the word “united” in its name probably isn’t.

Over the next two or three years our denomination will figure out whether we are able to stay together, or whether we need to find an amicable way to split the church. The issue, of course, is the anti-LGBTQ language that is still in the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline, decades after it was first inserted.umc-general-conference-2016

It’s not as though everything has remained static.  The gulf dividing conservatives and progressives in the UMC has deepened and widened.  Those of us on the left have chosen a way of ‘Biblical faithfulness’, going about the ministry of the church as though our denominational polity were already as inclusive and just as the love of Jesus. Congregations like ours have decided that all people should be able to marry in our churches, should they so choose.  Our New York Conference has shown its willingness to commission and ordain LGBTQ clergy who are called by God; our bishops have appointed them to congregations where their gifts and graces for ministry are deeply appreciated.  Last year, our friends in the Western Jurisdiction followed the Holy Spirit and elected the UMC’s first out lesbian bishop.

Those on the right have reacted strongly to these actions, banding together into the Wesleyan Covenant Association.  Several conservative churches have been allowed to leave the denomination, taking their property with them.

Somewhere in the middle has emerged a new group, the ‘Uniting Methodist Movement’. This group has urged restraint on both sides, to neither prohibit nor compel discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. They issued this statement:

We urge our communities to affirm the reality that God’s grace can lead all people of any sexual orientation toward greater holiness. We call all of us to uphold our covenantal bonds with each other as we practice the difficult work of mutual love of neighbor. We urge all of us to uphold Christian marriage as a covenant between two faithful people in a relationship of self-giving love. We urge all our actions to reflect the love that Christ has shown us, and we encourage all to assume the best intentions in others – to understand that we are all striving towards perfection, even in our disagreements.

As the UM Queer Clergy Caucus points out, though, this effort at preserving unity at the cost of allowing (but not requiring) discrimination will lead to a divided United Methodist Church. How is that unity?

Meanwhile, a ‘Commission On the Way Forward’ is expected to report its recommendations to the Council of Bishops in the coming year.  I find it hard to imagine they will find a way out of our predicament. But we live in hope.

I pledge to keep you informed of twists and turns along the way.  It is possible that churches like ours will face a difficult and complex choice: to stay within a conflicted denomination, or somehow to join with others in the progressive Methodist movement in forming a church that testifies to the inclusive love of Jesus Christ.

K Karpen