Seeking the "reset effect" to reverse gridlock
One of the trendy things to say these days is “Maybe the United Methodist Church should split up.” As in, the LGBT debate is so intractable that the UMC would be better if it dropped the U.
The claims seem to indicate that the debate over whether to ordain people living fully into their gay identity is the biggest thing we’ve ever had to deal with and we just can’t take it.
But if we take a moment to look at our history, the way the United Methodist Church has dealt with contentious issues surrounding ordination of non-straight-white-males is not actually through separation but through mergers with other denominations.
History of Hot Topics Resolved by Mergers
Women clergy (shock!). Minority clergy (shock!). Gay clergy (*faints*).
These are hot topics in many denominations in the modern Church. But the United Methodist Church has moved past two of the three above and accepted women and minority clergy. How?
Let’s look at our history.
Women Clergy had varied acceptance on the varied sects of Methodism in its early days. From Wikipedia:
Despite several women being ordained and even admitted to the their perspective conferences they were never given actual appointments. In 1939, the Methodist Protestant Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South merged. Although the women from the Methodist Episcopal Church-South gained the right to ordination, the Methodist Protestant women gave up full clergy rights in the merger. The politics used to justify this were said to be that the new denomination already faced sufficient problems.
There was a significant vote in 1956 that added women as able to be appointed. However it wasn’t until the EUB merger that full clergy rights were extended.
it was not until 1968, that all Methodist women clergy were afforded the right of full connection. This was due to the fact that it was not until 1968 that the Methodist Church united with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form what we now know as the United Methodist Church. It was not until this merger that all women were finally eligible for full clergy rights.
Thus, with the 1939 merger and the 1968 merger, the Methodist Church made significant strides towards acceptance of women clergy.
Minority Clergy (primarily Aftrican-American clergy) were spotty in their ordination status. They eventually were placed in the Central Jurisdiction, which was created as a separate-but-equal section of the Methodist Church. This was a…result of the 1939 merger.
1939: The Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church merge to form the Methodist Church. The segregated Central Jurisdiction is formed as a racial compromise.
So all the African-American clergy and churches became their own separate-but-equal church (which reflected the racial understandings of the time). It was the law of the church for almost 3 decades. Finally, the Central Jurisdiction was abolished as a condition of the…1968 merger between the Methodist Episcopal Church and the United Brethren Church, which became our modern-day UMC.
So that’s women’s clergy rights and minority clergy rights to ordination. Done. How? Through mergers of denominational traditions. Sure the 1939 merger created the Central Jurisdiction (which “solved” the hot topic at that point in time in a racist way) but it was fully rectified by the 1968 merger.
History shows us that mergers with other denominations solved seemingly intractable ordination debates over women and minority clergy in the United Methodist Church history.
The Methodist way of removing (and in some ways, creating) ecclesial discrimination was through partnerships with other traditions. The hot topic was settled through the reset effect of the new denomination removing the artifacts of discrimination from their past in their new form of a new unified denomination.
The Merger that almost did it.
That leaves us with the contemporary hot topic of Gay Clergy that is not really contemporary at all. At the 1968 merger of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Uniting Conference commissioned a Study…er, Commission to write the Social Principles of the combined denominations. Their original petition on the topic of homosexuality submitted by this Commission to the 1972 General Conference read thus:
Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with the self. Further, we insist that homosexuals are entitled to have their human and civil rights insured.
The floor debated it and objections were lifted up that if they adopted the statement without a strong prohibition towards homosexuality that the following would be feared to happen (these are from actual floor speeches, compiled by Rev. Dr. T.L. Steinwert in her Boston University dissertation on the LGBT debate in the United Methodist Church):
- Fears of losing children to the Southern Baptist Church
- Fears of children being abducted
- Fears of pedophilia
- Fears of an increase in the number of illegitimate children (how gay people cause illegitimate children is beyond my understanding)
- …ZERO bible-based arguments. Interesting! #themoreyouknow
The final statement adopted by that 1972 Conference is identical but with a new ending:
Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with the self. Further, we insist that homosexuals are entitled to have their human and civil rights insured, though we do not consider the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.
So with the merger of the EUB and the MEP, a statement was adopted that changed the original pastoral concern expressed by the Study committee into a statement that gave theological warrant to consider gay people dangerous to children and society.
It seems that the merger almost did it. It almost nullified this original concern, and due to arguments that have not stood the test of time (even by the most ardent of respected Traditionalists), we are stuck with this remaining hot topic. Since then that line has been debated for 40 years, expanded, contracted, expanded again, contracted again, ad nauseum. Imagine what our history might have been had fear not ruled the day back in 1972, with people afraid of all those illegitimate children sired by gay couples.
Today’s Merger Options
There’s a lot of articles these days (Jack Jackson and Bill Martin, to name a few) that emphasize that the only course of action before us is to schism. However, our history states otherwise. Often it was mergers that resolved the hot topics regarding “who should be ordained in the Methodist church.” Did we schism over slavery? Yes. Did the Free Methodists schism off over the pew taxes? Yes. But over ordination issues, only mergers have solved and expanded ordination rights to people and settled issues before the Church. The 1968 merger did water down a lot of our social principles, but as a whole it expanded clergy rights and nullified the Central Jurisdiction.
So what are our options today for the LGBT debate? Consider if the UMC contemplates a merger with another denomination and their possible effects on our doctrine:
- We are closest in liturgical lineage to TEC: The Episcopal Church (part of the Anglican Communion, which John Wesley came from). They are the most prominent church tradition that allow for gay clergy and, most recently, have a full marriage rite prepared for same-sex couples.
- As of 2012, we are in “full communion” now with the Lutheran ELCA. As of 2009, they allow gay clergy who are partnered.
- Some other denominations (United Church of Christ, for example) may have gay-friendly policies, but we have little in common with them. Even the Presbyterian PCUSA may, as of July 2011, have allowed gay clergy who are partnered. But Wesley and Calvin will have very little in common theologically, even today.
So the options are not perfect as far as “who to join with” to merge and solve this hot topic. Both the TEC and the ELCA have very different ecclesiologies (TEC bishops are radically different than UMC bishops). But both have had time now to deal with a lot of the fallout and, though they have some serious losses, they did not lose as many churches/clergy as the hysterics claimed. It is unknown how many illegitimate children were created by these gay-friendly denominations.
The pro-schism movement (which has Traditional and Progressive people in it) has a lot of hubris to believe that these issues before us are intractable, when our history shows that faithful Methodists have found novel ways to navigate difficult issues. Though unity is not a shallow altar that we should hold to no matter what, it is a bigger discipline than the towel-throwers would seem to want to seek.
My hope is that Traditionalists that seek unity rather than disunity for their church along with Progressives that seek to end ecclesial discrimination might seriously consider and explore what options for mergers might be a novel spirit-led direction for our United Methodist Church.
Thoughts? Thanks for your comments, and feel free to share with others!