Open Letter to Dr. Bill Martin's call for Amicable SeparationThis is a two-part series of responses to some high-level letters regarding our future in the United Methodist Church as a diverse body.
We must love them both, those with whom we agree, and those with whom we disagree. For both have labored in the search of truth, and both have helped in the finding of it.
~ Saint Thomas Aquinas
It annoys me every four years since 2004 that “amicable separation” becomes in the news as the United Methodist news media runs post-General Conference stories.
Case in point: the United Methodist Reporter ran an article by A. W. “Bill” Martin, a RMN/MFSA member who wrote an open letter calling for an amicable separation between the progressives and the traditionalists because of “irreconcilable differences” over LGBT issues. It’s an article that allows for introspection from the progressives and a “see, even the liberals think this” jab that traditionalists can use against progressives.
Now, I know Bill Martin. His last day as a professor at Oklahoma City University was my first day there to study religion. But I’ve met him on occasion and I know many many of his colleagues in Oklahoma. He’s got solid progressive credentials. While at OCU, he was very active in a coalition against capital punishment for many years and his spouse was a strong supporter of Skyline Urban Ministries. Now living in Texas, he is responsible for the resolution that passed at GC 2008 that chastized the all the UMCs in the state of Texas for not doing more toward the abolishment of the death penalty and the resolution that prevents us from holding GC in a city or state that supports the death penalty. He is a one-man wonder that shows the power of a single focused individual on an aspect of justice in church and society.
I write all that to give perspective about Bill Martin as I believe that he writes out of principle. The principled stance is the most unyielding as it has a laser focus on an issue and is dedicated towards changing that issue. While the methods and the approaches can change over the years, the goals never change in a principled stance.
So it is out of appreciation towards Martin’s principles that I disagree with this particular approach towards this goal.
Amicable separation is a bad idea for the United Methodist Church for several reasons drawn from the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.
First, Tradition shows that separation is hardly amicable. At the 2004 General Conference, I was in attendance at the press conference where Bill Henson and James Heidinger (both of the Good News and Confessing Movement caucus groups) suggested an “amicable separation” in the denomination. Per Martin’s comments, it sounded like a good deal: they would offer a hand and help in the split and the two sides would split up assets. Or would they? From their proposal, the progressive group would retain their pensions, while the conservative group would retain property and bequeathed assets…and the ironic name “United Methodist.” Hardly amicable, and hardly a “hand extended to help us depart” so much as a dowry to silence the progressives and buy their church in the same style of takeover that the Southern Baptists accomplished a few decades ago.
Second, Reason shows that separation doesn’t solve the issue. MFSA’s response to Dr. Martin has some good reasonable points. But more personally, in 2003ish, I heard a speaker in Boston who spoke about her dream for the United Methodist church that would have a different stance on LGBT issues. The question was asked “why don’t you just leave and either join or create a church that matches your dream?” In response, the speaker said “Because as crazy as it sounds, straight Methodists will continue to have gay children. Separation doesn’t solve the issue, it makes it even more one-sided and without more resources for the minority group.” So it is reasonable that for our posterity’s benefit that we continue as one church with widely divergent viewpoints, seeking a way forward.
Third, Scripture shows that it is the way of reconiliation, not separation. Over and over the Hebrew people are reconciled back with God and with the people. But one story of “amicable separation” is found in the first chapter of Ruth. Naomi has two daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpah. All their husbands die on a journey and they are alone. Naomi tells the daughters to go back home and to leave her. Orpah chooses to amicably separate and returns home. Ruth refuses and pledges that “where you go, I will go” and eventually changes the parents mind. Ruth goes on to become part of the bloodline from Abraham to David to Jesus in Matthew’s chronology. But even more interesting is what happens to Orpah. The canonical scriptures are silent but a Jewish midrash claims that Orpah returns home and becomes the parent of…Goliath. Goliath who fights with David, a descendent of Ruth. So the two children of the amicably separated family perpetuate the violence done to them down the familial lines. Fascinating!
The accounts of tradition, reason, and scripture show that amicable separation is an unwise course of action, perhaps even for traditionalists whose children might be different than their parents (shocking, I know). But for the United Methodists that are reading, they know there is one more area left: Experience.
Experience is the harshest consideration in this lineup. I write this blog post with a lot of experiential privilege, being a straight white male with a Masters degree and a full-time ordained elder appointment in the UMC. My experience in the UMC is easier than anyone who does not have even one of those characteristics. So it is in full acknowledgement of these characteristics of myself that I attempt to address the variety of experiences in the UMC, starting with Dr. Martin’s experience.
Dr. Martin, I get it. I also come from the Bible Belt and I have worked for the past decade with progressives in the Bible Belt who often come in two forms: young idealistic progressives who believe change will come quickly, and older bitter liberals who lament that change is coming too slowly. Living as the minority opinion in the Bible Belt is tough…I’ve lived it too. We start to lose our idealism of reconciliation. As we get older, we start to wonder if MLK’s “long arc of justice” is too long to bear. We start to want the church to change before we die. Principles are a hard thing to live with, as you’ve shown in your work with the death penalty.
But I have a principle too: that the United Methodist Church is a stronger witness to a world of factions and polarization when it holds together that tension. That echo chambers of like belief are toxic to move theological conversation forward. That forcing diverse beliefs to sit in the same room together leads to more holistic approaches. That unity can mean “unity in diversity, not unity in uniformity.” And my experience, as a progressive in the Bible Belt, and as a slightly more moderate presence in the West, is that diversity leads to some pretty awesome things.
Like the cliche reads, You need a left wing and a right wing to fly. And if we want the United Methodist Church to soar in a generation of the Nones, then holding unity in diversity (not uniformity) is a powerful witness to a culture all too ready to ghettoize the world.
Thoughts?(Photo credit: “Wings” by WTL Photography on Flickr, Creative Commons share)