{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

Some Things Haven’t Changed: Revisiting The Idea of Splitting the UMC over Sexuality

umc18 months ago, I wrote this article with Jeremy Smith on why we believe The United Methodist Church should not split over the issue of human sexuality. In recent weeks I’ve been reminded that some things never change (or at least take a long time to change) because it seems article after article is being written on why, for some ungodly reason, it makes sense for those of us in The United Methodist Church to pack up our toys, go our separate ways, and play only in the camps where we feel comfortable and everyone agrees with us.

In reading these articles and listening to the recent commentary on this issue and where the Church should go from here, I’m still moved by one of our opening sentences from 18 months ago:

“And we both want a better UMC for our daughters than the one we inherited.”

As young clergy who will have 40 years of ordained ministry ahead of us (although the rising retirement age may be at 86 years old by the time we get there!), we do not find a valid reason for schism. We both hold that the church should resist this and redouble efforts to find unity in diversity.

Most writings on the subject of separation seem to model the church as a funnel, whereby all resources and formation go toward a common mission. Anything that distracts from that mission is dangerous, and thus the talk of schism is attractive and every conflict becomes an opportunity to dream of escape while the idea of covenant becomes an expendable virtue.

So where do we stand on this debate in the United Methodist Church? It seems progressives who want to split forget that the church they leave will continue to have gay children. And it seems traditionalists (not “orthodox” as some claim because orthodoxy is defined by creedal beliefs and NOT social stances) who want separation naively think separation will finally rid the church of the homosexual debate, as though gay persons will no longer inhabit our spaces of worship, formation and service.

Clearly, schism will not end the conversation before us.

If conflict ultimately destroys any hopes of a homogeneous church, what’s a more faithful model? I see the Eucharist as the sacramental and formative model for how we are to be the Church. In the Eucharist, as the worldwide church gathers around the table, unity in diversity is at the heart of what it means to be the Body of Christ. This is why we can say with confidence and hope that the church’s unity is grounded in a reality more determinative than our good feelings for one another. The Church as Eucharist is a guiding model for our inclusiveness and for a demanding call for transformation—it’s what unifies us all as sinners in the need of God’s redeeming grace. The Church as Eucharist means we are continually called out of and sent back into the world as redeemed people.

Stanley Hauerwas writes:

“The church, therefore, has rightly thought confession of sin, penance, and reconciliation necessary for the reception of the Eucharist. How could we dare come to the feast of reconciliation not in unity with our brothers and sisters? The name given to that unity is ‘love.’ The gifts of bread and wine must be brought by those at peace with God and one another. If we are unreconciled, we best not receive; we dare not dishonor the holiness of the gifts of God.”

By having the Eucharist as the central metaphor for the church, it serves as the corrective for both sides on this debate. It means we’re both radically inclusive and that we put the Body of Christ ahead of any individual, caucus or political camp. And it means that through our worship, our service, our lives, and yes, even through our conferencing together, unity is at the heart of it all. We may worship in diverse ways across our connection, and there may come a point where our polity is diverse as well (as it currently is in our worldwide church), and such diversity is not disconcerting in a Church with the Eucharist as its guide.

Quite simply, by seeing the church as the Eucharist, we become the means of grace to a broken world. In a world of polarizing politics, widening chasms between the “haves” and “have-nots,” demonization of the “other side,” what better means of grace could the Church offer than how to hold together unity in diversity, to welcome the varieties of the United Methodist experience around the Communion Table?

Through our liturgy, every time we gather around the Table we declare that we long to be made “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” Are we serious about this longing for oneness, or do we simply give lip service to the idea of unity? If we’re serious, then members of both the progressive and traditionalist camps will have to come out of their respective camps and join together—maybe at the Communion Table—and decide whether our identity as the people called Methodist is more important than any issue that could divide us. It won’t be easy, but no one ever said being the church was supposed to be easy.

And this unity is grounded in holiness marked by our common love for God and one another — something sadly lacking in the way(s) we talk and write about those we disagree with.

I was encouraged by a Facebook post Rev. Adam Hamilton wrote last week talking about a meeting he had with someone he disagreed with but who shared a common interest in trying to love and listen to him:

“I flew to Memphis on Thursday to spend time with Maxie Dunnam, an elder statesmen in the UMC and its most influential conservative. I love, value and respect Maxie. He’s done a great deal in his lifetime of ministry to help people know Christ, to grow in their faith, and to prepare leaders for the church. We don’t agree on everything, though we agree on far more than we disagree on. We both love Christ, we are passionate about evangelism and church renewal, and we care deeply about the United Methodist Church.

Over Memphis barbecue, long walks, and glasses of iced tea we discussed what we share in common, our hopes for the church, our differences and if there is a way forward for the UMC that avoids dividing over the issue of homosexuality. I’m not sure that is possible, but I hope and believe it is. It won’t come from name calling and demonizing those with whom we disagree. If there is a way forward, I believe it will come out of conversations like these that begin with mutual respect and a focus not only on our differences, but on what we share in common. I also believe it will only happen with the Holy Spirit’s work in and through us.”

We want our generation to be the last that has been broken by the homosexuality debate. And we know more conversations like this need to happen. You can’t rush unity, but you sure can take the baby steps necessary to attain it — especially when those baby steps mean checking your own self-interests at the door in the process.

Jeremy and I don’t know our daughters’ sexual orientations yet, and we want a church committed to relentlessly loving them regardless. They both have, however, been baptized which means they will be named “Christian” by less than perfect churches who are a part of a less than perfect connection of churches. So our greatest hope and most fervent prayer is that it’s a connection that will seek unity—not because it’s expedient but because it’s difficult and ultimately faithful.

We want more for our daughters. We want more for your sons and daughters. And we still hold out hope that God is not yet done with the United Methodist Church.

We believe that the United Methodist Church, united in common mission, but not uniform in its expression of that mission, will serve a polarized world better than two Wesleyan traditions who took their toys and bitterly retreated to their respective camps.