I met a man in my hometown of Forks recently who told me that he grew up in the Methodist church. I asked him which Methodist church; there are several kinds. He said “the” Methodist Church. I realized he meant the church we were before we were United with the United Brethren in 1967. I’m picturing that curvy “M” right now on the old Methodist Church hymnal which Tom left behind in my office.
I joined the United Methodists about 10 years ago. My father’s side of the family are predominantly Free Methodist. Some Free Methodists stop me when they hear my last name; they remember my extended family. I am also a former Salvationist, and from a long line of Salvation Army “officers” (pastors). All of these are different expressions of Wesleyan Christianity. There are other denominations which share that heritage.
The man from Forks grew up in a church that, in a way, no longer exists. On a train ride from Prague to Budapest, I met an American man and his Czechoslovakian wife. It was 2004, and she lamented that her country no longer exists. Czech Republic and Slovakia went back to being their respective countries when the U.S.S.R. fell apart in the early 1990s. Sure, they have much in common, including about 90% of the language. Yet they operate as different countries, and their cultures have and will continue to evolve separately since 1991. This woman can’t return to her country which no longer exists.
The Methodist movement reached all over the globe. Yet with varied reasons, we have split off into various expressions. It’s been a long time since our denomination has split or joined with another church. The United Methodist Church is a global body, and one of the largest protestant denominations in America. We have a big umbrella. I liked to tell people that our church includes both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton; we include everybody at the table of Christ.
General Conference 2019 revealed an ugly truth to us. Even though people interpret what scripture says about human sexuality differently, the disagreements may break our big umbrella. The “traditionalist” plan received the most votes. Clergy who are “self-avowed homosexuals” and clergy who marry same-sex couples will be punished. This means Bishop Karen Oliveto, a leader very much filled with the Holy Spirit. When I hear her speak, I hear the breaking of chains. My former ministry mentor and our current District Superintendent, Kathleen Webber, is in a committed, loving relationship with a woman. My predecessor, Tom, could be “punished” for marrying a couple from our own congregation. Fortunately, our God is bigger than human prejudice.
The Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, as well as our Western Jurisdiction, join with other annual conferences in standing up and saying that we refuse the Traditionalist plan. Another General Conference is planned for next year in Minneapolis. There are multiple proposals coming forward. Some are for dissolution as The United Methodist Church. Some are for sharing some things, and having a 2 or three way split with the option to keep UMC within the denominational name. Another is to have conferences decide for themselves. There is a lot to look at and decipher. It can be overwhelming. I would hope that each proposal comes from a place of love, but it’s hard to see the evidence in some of the stricter concepts.
Rev. Jeremey Smith is the pastor of First Church Seattle, which (full disclosure) is the church that birthed me. He does the hard work of analyzing all these proposals through his blog Hacking Christianity (http://hackingchristianity.net). In his posting published on August 27, 2019, he breaks it down a bit:
“What do we seek? Unity, Division, Dissolution, or Expulsion?
Most of the plans have to do with one of four directions:
Unity: a better form of unity for the Church (often consequential but incremental changes).
Division: A “wheel and spokes” model whereby there are some shared structures and name, but division along ideological and geographic lines as far as governance goes.
Dissolution: The UMC goes away and is replaced by two or more entities.
Expulsion: one side packs it up and leaves, leaving the other half as the legal successor to United Methodism up to this point.
And some are not neatly in those categories, but they suffice for now.”
Change is inevitable. What does this mean for us? We no longer have the luxury of sitting back and hoping things will return to the “good ol’ days”. As Methodists, we know that change is a big part of our spiritual lives. In the midst of all this, we see opportunity. We see opportunity to examine ourselves, discern the Spirit and follow Her into a new expression of Wesleyan Christianity. We get to be proactive in letting God work with and through us for a creative, life-giving way to be the church. I don’t know what that will look like, but I am grateful for what will emerge.
Centralia First United Methodist Church 506 S Washington Ave 98531 360-736-7311