May  2017 02
Are We Hearing the United Methodist Swan Song?

United Methodists in the U.S. have struggled this week to understand and process a recent judicial council decision concerning the “legality” of the election and consecration of the Rev. Karen Oliveto as a bishop this past summer. The court ruled that the consecration was illegal.

Phillips Seminary, which is a seminary of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has included Methodist and then United Methodist faculty, students, staff, and trustees for nearly 60 years; therefore, a Judicial Council decision is important at Phillips. And, I am a United Methodist clergyman, so the decision was personal to me, too.

Others with more knowledge of the case and of church law have commented directly on the case. What I want to do here is reflect on where it seems that The United Methodist Church is headed.

We've had major divisions before, but at times of effervescence and rapid growth rather than after a half century of decline. The Methodist Episcopal Church split into North and South in 1844, over disagreements concerning slavery and the authority of bishops. National political leaders such as Daniel Webster feared what the division meant for the nation.

Methodists were numerous and, at a grass-roots level, culturally influential. The nation’s leaders feared that Methodists’ inability to live in the same tent foreshadowed the same for the nation.

If The United Methodist Church (UMC) splits today, I wonder who outside of the old ecumenical mainline will care. And is splitting now how we want to be remembered in the U.S.?

Today, The UMC is on a path toward either loosened ties or schism. The ostensible reason for intense conflict this time include how to interpret scripture and tradition in relation to human sexuality.

Is heterosexuality the only God-created and blessed sexuality? We’ve debated some version of this question at the every-four-year General Conference since 1972.

As the remaining numerical strength of this declining denomination has moved south in the U.S. and grown in the global south, especially in Africa, and the U.S. population has moved remarkably rapidly toward acceptance of same-sex relationships, the conflict has intensified.

I grieve what my church is doing. I fear what may happen at a called General Conference in 2019, at which a Way Forward Commission will bring a recommendation or a set of options for the denomination to consider.

The centripetal energies (pulling in) are much weaker throughout U.S. society than the centrifugal forces (pulling out) these days. United Methodism in the U.S. does not have the internal power to resist acting like the nation. We will be a looser confederation, or we will split. A split could be the last action—a swan song— for which United Methodism is known in U.S. society, and that would be a shame.

In the 19th century, with the Second Great Awakening, the Methodist Episcopal Church became the most populous denomination, big-tent denomination.

While American Methodists did not accept the authority of their “Dear Daddy” John Wesley on these shores after the Revolution, they did preach his theology of a universally loving God who offered forgiveness of sin and grace for all, a message well-aligned with a nation dedicated to the proposition that all human beings are created equal.

They sung and mass-distributed Charles Wesley’s hymns that expressed that theology of love. “Jesus thou art all compassion, pure unbounded love thou art” (from “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”).

We were inventive. Preachers innovated in the field, with camp meetings, and on their appointed circuits. Rival denominational leaders admired the “equipped like a light artillery” organization that enabled Methodism to expand as the nation grew. Methodists were among the inventors of mass marketing and distribution.

We were institution-builders and contributors to the common good. As the century went on, and then progressed into the 20th century, Methodists established schools, colleges, hospitals, and care facilities.

Coupling personal and social holiness, American Methodism was an incubator for growing local, regional, national, and international leaders. The United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., is a visible sign and testimony of the denomination’s commitment to a more just and inclusive society. Chautauqua and Goodwill Industries are just two of the lasting cultural investments founded by Methodists.

Right, and then there was Prohibition. Political success. Cultural mess.

United Methodism has also been a profoundly ambiguous brand. The UMC is predominantly white (especially after late 18th and early 19th century divisions with African-American Methodists), middle class, sometimes anti-intellectual, and clergy leaders were slow to accept full partnership with the laity and slower to accept the equality of women with men .

We have not always played well with others.

Racism, classism, and sexism are much too-alive and powerful.

We are an international denomination with tremendous regional variations. We house laity, clergy, congregations, and conferences that are patriarchal, feminist, evangelical, progressive, parochial, ecumenical, traditionalist, future-looking, anti-intellectual, sophisticated, open arms-minds-hearts, and closed arms-minds-hearts. I could join each of those words with an “and/or” and have no fear of being contradicted.

And, we’ve reached a point where we are tired of the ambiguities. In fact, among the UM’s in my world, the word I often hear is “tired.”

Tired of fighting unproductively. Tired of the people on the other side. Tired of discrimination and dehumanization. Tired of justice denied. Tired of misuse of scripture. Tired of mirroring U.S. society, where we don’t have the cultural or political maturity to have the conversations and conflicts we need to have.

Therefore, we turn to the courts to resolve conflicts, and then care most about who the judges are.

Surely, we crave resolution. I hope we resolve for a looser confederation rather than for schism.

Something a United Methodist church consultant said many years ago has been in my mind frequently recently. He said (I am quoting from memory rather than a written source), “There are denominations and churches that are really good at excluding people. United Methodists should not compete with them. Rather, United Methodism should be a big-tent denomination and learn and practice welcoming all.”

Speaking personally, I’ve loved that “big tent” sense. United Methodism has been my home, all my life, and my experiences have kept expanding my personal sense of the big tent that United Methodism was and should be.

My Italian immigrant grandfather was a founding member of the Italian Methodist Church in Chicago (which no longer exists). My father was raised in the Methodist Church.

One of my earliest memories is my dad taking me to Sunday School. Church school, junior and senior high youth groups, camps, opportunities to participate in and leader worship, adults who helped me see and hear my call.

At two United Methodist seminaries, my appreciation and my ability to reflect critically and creatively on my tradition were developed and deepened. Education and experience in the UMC has grown my sense of the “big tent” this denomination is.

If the denomination splits, and regardless of likely real gains, there will also be real losses. The nation will look upon us for a news cycle or two as the swan song is sung, and then turn its attention elsewhere.

We will forever be known as the formerly inclusive and great denomination that split over a disagreement about the meaning of human sexuality.

A half century from now, when me and my generation are long gone, I would bet history will say we made a big, tragic mistake.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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