Changes Ahead for the Global UMC – But No Need to Panic
Thoughts by Pastor Chris
TC Central Church is part of the worldwide United Methodist Church. We are a huge denomination, but one that has been in transition since its original founder, John Wesley, broke away from London’s Fetter Lane Christian Society to start a different mission outpost known at the Foundry across town.
We at Central continue to offer info and conversations to help us learn about the proposals that are coming to the specially called General Conference of global delegates this month in St. Louis. This gathering will try to deal with the fact that worldwide United Methodists do not agree on whether to ordain or marry LGBT persons. At issue is whether the denomination remains together beyond 2020. “The Way Forward” is a plan designed by a group of our bishops intended to keep us together despite differences on this issue. Most bishops are in favor of the One Church Plan, which allows conferences and congregations to make their own decisions on embracing full inclusion of LGBT persons. You can find out more about this and other options by CLICKING HERE.
Many of us have been in prayer for the upcoming conference in St. Louis, praying a wise path forward for our denomination currently not of one mind on the matter of mature human sexuality. Our global UMC mission statement is “To Make Disciples for the Transformation of the World”. Now our delegates, come Feb 23rd, will help decide how folks on all sides of this issue can live out our mission – either as the one large UMC begun in 1968, or several smaller denominations. As someone raised in the UMC since birth, and serving as a pastor for all of my career, I am not afraid of the prospect of our denomination dividing (multiplying) in the future, to allow us to better serve our contexts and the people before us. I believe faithful UMs will be able to fully serve Christ’s Church, even if we must part ways, or relate as sister denominations defined by region or principle. Again, I do not fear the possibility of a schism in the UMC, which is likely, for I do not believe we serve our mission best by a false unity, as we currently exist.
IT’S ABOUT INTEGRITY
For me as pastor, this is an issue of integrity, to respect the God-honoring mature covenantal love between adults, whether straight or gay. Our UM Book of Discipline (ie. the rule book for running our churches) added language in 1972 saying, “While affirming that all persons are people of sacred worth and that God’s Grace is available to all, the United Methodist Church (UMC) does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers it not compatible with Christian teaching”. What does this language say to the gay couple who wants to take membership vows to join our church? What does this language say to the straight couple whose child, after years of reflection, comes out to them as gay? What does this language say about the Church modeling Jesus’ way of breaking down social barriers and having inclusion extended to the outsider?
Again, when you look at history, our Methodist movement is no stranger to schism and re-alignment in order to live out the mission of serving Christ as best we know how, in our time and place. When it comes to full inclusion of African Americans; when it comes to full inclusion of women as pastors – it has sometimes required the Church to divide and reorganize to more fully live its mission to call all persons to Christ. Here’s an excellent article by UM historian and professor, Dr. Jack Jackson, on the history of unavoidable schism that has allowed Methodists to be in more places. I hope you’ll read it. He makes a strong case for living our mission as more important than keeping a false sense of unity for the sake of staying together. Here is a quote from Dr. Jackson:
“The UMC is at an impasse and there is no solution that truly unifies. Nevertheless, we can thrive as distinct Protestant and Wesleyan communities if we value our different understandings of mission as it relates to human sexuality instead of trying to cling to a false unity. If we can release each other to live out our missional visions separately, we can then devote all our efforts to being the missional communities the Spirit wants us to be, without all the vitriol of the last 50 years. We can refocus our time, energy, and finances so that we aren’t fighting each other, but are actually serving the world. Both new expressions of the Methodist spirit might decide, to see each other as fellow Protestants, blessing each other as fellow Methodists and Protestants, and perhaps working in partnership with each other as we currently do with hundreds of Protestant communities. Methodists have done this before–it is in our Wesleyan and Protestant DNA.” Read the full article HERE.
WE’LL BE OK
Finally, a word on how I see Central Church being affected by these potential changes in the UMC. Ours is a healthy vibrant congregation. New people come here, and they tell us it is because they see Christ’s love and hospitality and joy and mission consistently being offered. Regardless of what decisions are made at General Conference, we’re going to be just fine at Central. We will continue to love one another, to feed the hungry, to welcome the stranger, to build up the Body of Christ which includes God-imprinted persons both straight and gay. Or as my friend, and General Conference delegate Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, beautifully says, in this 1-minute video “we’ll still be a people of hope beyond General Conference.”
I can see instances where we’ve learned to joyfully receive our gay brothers and lesbian sisters into our fellowship. Still, others have left us because they did not feel welcome. There is always more work for us in learning to fully receive all people searching for God. And there is work to do in understanding one another when we may not all agree on this or other matters. May we pray for generous minds and hearts, here at Central, and for those gathering at General Conference. May we be open to Holy Spirit’s wisdom, brooding over us all. Or as Apostle Paul prayed in the Book of Ephesians:
…that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
May it be so, come what may,
P.S. Here’s one final link, this one from our Bishop of the Michigan Conference, David Bard, on behalf of all our bishops. He offers a hopeful word as we offer Christ into the future. READ THE LETTER HERE.