Divorce: A Broken Metaphor
I’ve often heard the analogy that right now the United Methodist Church is like two people in divorce proceedings or at least marital counseling. They have irreconcilable differences, a word some folks know from personal experience, others from celebrity gossip news. The UMC is like two parties each firm in their beliefs, and there is no way forward together.
- That’s too neat of a metaphor (almost clinical in its presentation) when real life divorce is messy and traumatic…
- That’s too “final” of a metaphor as if the division is a foregone conclusion…
- And too small of an analogy with just two perspectives when there are so many perspectives in our diverse church…
We need a better metaphor to talk about the church.
Ailing Parent: A Better Metaphor
I think of The United Methodist Church like an ailing parent whose children are quarreling over her best course of treatment.
This is a familiar metaphor to many. With extended life expectancy, many folks have aging parents, either at home with them or nearby or in a retirement community near or far. Many folks have siblings or other people with which they might quarrel about their care. Making the later life and end-of-life decisions about parents is an emotional rollercoaster and often brings out difficulties when there is a difference in desire for a way forward between multiple parties.
The church as we know it today is 50 years old. That doesn’t seem old, but the church has changed through merger or schism frequently in our past. It even split 60 years after it began in 1784 to the schism north and south before the civil war in 1844 (and had several schisms and breakaways before that). Various mergers and schisms since then finally settled in 1968, so we are 50 years old this year.
The image I set before you today is that the big tent United Methodist Church is an ailing parent. It hasn’t turned a corner towards inevitability, but it doesn’t have the markers of improvement to be covered by insurance either. It has served well the world from whence it came, and it has nurtured each of us in different ways as we grew in our faith. But many factors have compounded over the years, and the reality is that the overall structure is perhaps now too weak to stand.
There may be a miracle cure in the coming years, and that is what we should all pray for, but the grim reality is that the church will not be the church we know in the coming years. A path of normalcy is elusive, and like most transitions, the new normal has not yet set in. And we have multiple parties quarreling about the best path ahead.
Four Children Vying for Authority
Today, four children are caring for their aging parent, and they each have a different plan of care, each heartfelt and each very different.
- The first sibling in Christ thinks that their parent would be better if their care was divided among three groups, each tasked with a different kind of attention. The first sibling proposes the Connectional Conferences plan. It divides United Methodism differently: instead of dividing by regions, this would divide us by our beliefs on the inclusion of LGBTQ persons. So we would have a progressive Methodist conference that is open and affirming, a conservative one that is not affirming, and a moderate conference that lets everyone choose their own adventure. Perhaps that’s the way we need to care for our ailing parent: keep the siblings apart, let them live their lives, and only come together for the family reunion once every few years. “Good fences make good neighbors” as the saying goes.
- The second sibling in Christ wants to keep the family together and wants each of us to grow in our own way. A total middle child peacemaker, she proposes the One Church plan. It keeps our structure, our regional conferences, and allows each region to make their own decisions around LGBTQ inclusion. So Washington State could choose to ordain LGBTQ persons and to host weddings for all people, but Oklahoma may decide not to ordain gay or lesbian folks (but local churches can host weddings for all their members). Choose your own adventure, in a way, and your experience doesn’t affect your neighboring states, just like American states today.
- The third sibling has had a frustrating life. Probably the oldest, the firstborn, the one most used to enforcing the rules. The sibling has tried for 40 years to keep LGBTQ people out of their parent church’s blessing and leadership. They put language that defines the limits of God’s love in our book of polity. They put in punishments for pastors and for bishops that proclaim God’s love for all people. And in this season of the church, this sibling has decided to say “my way or the highway.” This sibling proposes the Traditionalist Plan that makes the rules so stringent and the punishments so severe that they hope the other siblings leave their parent and never come back. Now, the sibling is willing to give generously of the parents’ possessions to anyone who wants to leave United Methodism. So churches that want to affirm LGBTQ people can take their buildings and their pastors and go. Then the Traditionalist sibling can relax, knowing that gay kids are never born to straight parents.
- But there’s a fourth option, probably the youngest sibling who is always disagreeing with the firstborn. This one says that the rules making some family members second class are stupid and outdated, as there’s no reason for a wall between apple trees and pine trees. That sibling offers the Simple Plan: No big reorganization of the church, and no different conferences or diversity. Just simply remove all the restrictions based on sexual orientation and gender identity from the Discipline. Removal of those lines means that gay pastors can serve, churches can hold weddings, but those who affirm neither don’t have confessional statements they have to say that affirm it either. It seems progressive, but it just makes space for inclusion as it doesn’t name it directly.
Power of Attorney
So we have these four siblings who each care deeply about their parent, each hold firmly to their beliefs. Because they cannot agree, they put it to a vote in February 2019 that will determine which sibling has the most popular plan. Popular as in the most votes cast, not popular as in the actual votes for the last Presidential election.
In the meantime, we continue the work of care for the Church so that their vital organs are nurtured, and their continued presence is known. We continue to baptize, to proclaim the Risen Christ, to seek justice, to invite more people into this wayward, tilting family, because that’s who the Church is and this is what we do.
Who will prevail in February? Who will be given authority to care for our ailing parent? The choice is yours. Go and spend time with your family member (delegate) being sent to this family meeting, and encourage them as to the sibling in Christ you most support. And join me in prayer and advocacy for February 2019.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing on social media.
LLOYD E FLEMING
How will the various proposals be voted on and those votes counted? If all the proposals are thrown into a single vote, this will be like having 3rd and 4th parties running in presidential elections. This usually means that some fringe element siphons off votes, and the person who would receive the majority in a two party race loses. I think that if we have this kind of vote, the winning proposal must be required to have a majority of all votes, not simply a plurality. Otherwise we risk ending up with a proposal that the majority of the delegates do not support.
Generally speaking, one plan would need to be brought to the floor (possibly each part separately) and that plan would get an yay/nay vote. If it passes the required threshold (2/3 for connectional conference, 50%+1 for the others) then the other ones likely wouldn’t be brought forward. It’s really up to the Commission on General Conference and which ever Bishops are presiding on how that happens and which petition would be scheduled first (though GC could ask to vote on which ever they want first).
I see the older (and wiser) sibling wanting to care for the younger siblings and wants what is best for them. I see the youngest sibling as kind of a cry baby – who whines when they can’t have what they want. The youngest sibling is like the stereotype millenial and as time passes and experience grows their understanding and perceptions will to. the Oldest sibling is usually misunderstood by the baby of the family and is viewed as mean and hateful – like his / her parents and grandparents – by the youngest. I would say the youngest is like the prodigal son, but they don’t have the courage to step out on their own. The oldest sibling needs maturity and patience, like the father in the parabel. And needs to love like the father does – giving free will to the youngest sibling and will to accept him back when they learn the error of their ways, repents, and seeks forgiveness.
Julie A. Arms Meeks
Let me guess: you’re the eldest/firstborn?
This eldest/firstborn (adopted) is totally a rule follower as evidenced by a chunk of my life given to the USMC. However, good leaders (& delegates) are aware of the welfare of others (members of their team) and listen to those members whose perspective is different by being on the ground; and too, in all places there are fewer leaders than members.
This eldest is going to listen to the last born, who grew up under the tutelage of the 3 siblings, and encourage all to go with the simple plan. Remove the barriers to all of God’s beloved children and extend the grace we so love to talk about, and move forward into a (still) United future.
Actually I’m a middle child of 7 – as Oprah once determined – the lost child….independent and self sufficient, compared to the eldest and the youngest. The Simple plan is the lazy plan. It eliminates the determination, acceptance, and application of truth and bases life on relativism. Barriers to God are relative to one’s relationship with God. Knowing God and having have full relationship with God are very different, and to have both requires discipline and accountability which the youngest child lacks. The youngest child grew up with the teaching that everyone is a winner and everyone gets a trophy – which always makes me laugh. The oldest sibling needs to learn patience, love and grace and the younger siblings need to learn to accept grace, love and truth. Unity in the UMC should not be top priority – truth and discipline should be the goal. Splitting is not a bad thing – Baptist, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, UCC, etc… are all our brothers and sisters in Christ and being part of a group that can not agree on theology and doctrine and is pulling a part and pulling each other down…nah, unity is overrated as their enough options in the Christian world. There is enough variety within Methodism itself that lends to the understanding that the continued fighting is not worth it – agree to disagree and move apart and lift one another in prayer.
I agree that unity should not be the goal. That is the goal of UMC clergy as it prevents a dilution of funds available for pensions. No, the disagreement Re UMC theology is too deep and divided to expect unity.
What we need to focus on instead of unity is truth. What does the Bible tell us? That leaves the Traditionalist Plan as the only truthful plan that follows God’s word. The sooner that realty sinks in, the sooner we can all get back to spreading the Good Word.
I fail to see Jesus ever saying Heterosexual Marriage trumps Love of Neighbor as a Christian value. Jesus’ Teaching that at times we must “hate” our heterosexual family in Luke 14:26 relativizes Heterosexual marriage as an ultimate measure of right and wrong in our relationships. Jesus never relativized Love of Neighbor as a norm.
Teresa Callahan, M.D.
The older (wiser) sibling knows what is best for the younger sibling? Really? Is it truly best to treat a beloved child of God as though they are an abomination? Is it truly best to deny a beloved child of God the right to fully participate in all the ministries of the church, including serving as clergy? Is it truly best to force a beloved child of God into dangerous conversion therapy that may cause lifelong psychological trauma? Denying the sacred worth of LGBTQ+ persons as the UMC has done for the past 45 years is not “wanting what is best” for them. It has caused real, serious harm. There is now good medical evidence that living with racism for decades may be the most important factor behind the shortened life expectancy and higher incidence of post-partum complications and peri-partum death among African-Americans in the U.S. Yes, medical evidence has shown that racism can kill! Is it really that big of a stretch to think that having to struggle against a lifetime of homophobia has any less of a deleterious effect on LGBTQ+ persons? As Christians Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. In fact, we show our love for God by the way we love our neighbors. Perpetuating harm on our neighbors is not loving and it certainly is not “wanting the best for them”. When you truly love others you want them to thrive, to be happy, to love and be loved, to be fulfilled in their lives. The traditionalist plan accomplishes none of these things. It is mean-spirited, unloving and punitive. I think the oldest sibling needs to learn not to project his homophobic feelings onto God. God is love and they who abide in love abide in God, and God in them.
Like many liberals/Progressives, you try to cast Traditionalists in a negative light, saddling us with intentions which we have not expressed. None of the plans call for conversion therapy, and the only mention of conversion therapy has been by liberals/Progressives. So, please don’t make it seem we Traditionalists are going to force conversion therapy on anyone. That is disingenuous.
As to “wanting what is best” for our LGBT brothers and sisters, it is we Traditionalists who want to be truthful with them, sharing God’s word Re the sinfulness of their behavior. You liberals/Progressives don’t want to be truthful with the LGBT members, turning your heads to their sinfulness and how it distances them from God.
No, the perpetuation of harm comes from those who refuse to follow God’s word and make others aware of the error of their ways. Loving the LGBT members means being courageous enough to share the truth with them and not just agreeing with their sinful behavior to keep from possibly upsetting them. No, the go along to get along is not Christian love.
II am a retired pastor who believes that Jesus is the Word of God, not Paul of Tarsus. We have set aside many of he Old Testament rules and punishments. But having placed Paul as the co Word of God in certain things we are stuck in some of the Old Testament views and ideas. We’d be so much better if we could admit that Paul was a great evangelist and church founder, but his words are not the Words of God in all instances. Victor
It also is a possibility that what Romans 1 states about homosexuality may not even be Paul’s words. It might have a quotation of some interlocutor that Paul responds to in Romans 2:1 that when they condemn, they condemn themselves. Similarly, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman,” in 1 Corinthians 7:1 is probably a quotation that Paul responds to in the rest of that chapter.
One of the thing that absolutely confounds me is the use of the “LGBTQ+” acronym. It’s as if the issues facing one member of this group is automatically on the same plane as the issues facing other members of the group. This is terribly worrisome given that the acronym has grown almost exponentially. It once was the LGBT community, now it’s referenced as LGBTQ+ in this post, I have also read it as LGBTQIA+.
I’ll be the first to admit, I have searched my heart and I do not know where I stand on this issue. But I know the thing I long for is the thing that may never come; clear boundaries on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.
We can talk about how we want LG clergy and want to have same-sex marriages as part of the Methodist Church. But, how do we know that is the clear line that will be set? What’s going to prevent other LGBTQIA+ issues from arising in the future? Could we have a debate decades from now on polygamy?
If I am an ally of our gay and lesbian community and support their efforts for gay/lesbian ordination and marriage, will I be called upon to be a champion of a future LGBTQIA+ issue in the future? If I am not a champion of that cause, where will my church home be? I’d be too liberal for the conservatives. Too conservative for the liberals.
I believe the issues and the concerns facing the gay and lesbian community and much different facing the bisexual community, which are different than those facing the transsexual community, which are different facing the questioning community and….you get the drift.
Those advancing those LGBTQIA+ have done people like me a disservice. They have failed to clearly delineate what the differences in those issues are and they have failed to clearly state what they deem as acceptable behavior (for lack of a better term) and what is not acceptable. This is important because as the acronym gets longer, the lines get blurrier.
Teresa Callahan, M.D.
I can’t call the behavior you describe loving when so many, many LGBTQ+ persons I have known and cared for over the past three and a half decades have described and experienced such behavior as deeply hurtful, trauma-inducing and hateful. How can you call such behavior loving when the person on the receiving end of the so-called love experiences it as anything but loving. The way we love our neighbors is supposed to flow from our seeing God in them and showing them the life-affirming love of God through our actions. If all they are seeing and experiencing is hatred and condemnation from such behavior, as so many LGBTQ+ persons have, then the behavior you describe has woefully fallen short of the love Jesus called us to show our neighbors. It may make you feel better to call it love, but I cannot do so. In fact I can say that such behavior on the part of Christian conservatives has done more to drive LGBTQ people not just away from the church but away from God and religion altogether. Of course, you can just claim that you are right and they are wrong about it being loving, but for myself, I’m more inclined to take their word for it.
I can’t speak to what has been done previously. However, I believe that what the Bible says is the word of God. I also believe as Christians we are to love our neighbor. Thus, to reconcile the two, I believe that God is telling us to take a “tough love” stance, similar to scolding a child not to touch a hot stove. Would my child call it traumatic when I yell at them to get away from the stove, Yes. It is up to me as a parent to explain why I yelled and wanted them away from the stove. We must find a similar way to explain to LGBT individuals how their behavior is sinful and not pleasing to God. They may not want to hear what we have to say, but that doesn’t relieve us as Christians of the responsibility to try and change their behavior.
Now, have others taken a severe response to homosexuality, yes most definitely. However, as Christians we must treat our LGBT members with love. That doesn’t mean accepting their behavior as natural or anything but sinful. But we should work with LGBT individuals to change their behavior and do so in a loving way, not a hateful way.
My father was an alcoholic for more than 30 years. I loved him, but Ididn’t love his behavior when he was drunk. It took 30+ years but he gave up alcohol. I believe the situation is similar with LGBT individuals. They choose to act in a sinful manner. Yes, they may have been born predisposed for homosexuality, but ultimately it is a choice that they either act upon their urges, or they don’t. Through loving Christian counseling, Ibelieve that God can work in LGBT lives to change their behavior. To not try to lovingly help them change is what liberals/Progressives revert to. To me, that is not Christian love. That is abandoning them to continue their sinful ways.
I also believe that we are all sinners. However, I believe that our Church leaders and clergy must be held to a high standard to lead by example. Just as I would not be comfortable with a UMC leader being an alcoholic, adulterer, etc. I am not comfortable with them being LGBT.
Your loving brother in Christ,
I put off reading this article and when I did, I admit I was impressed with the analogy right up until you started bashing traditionalists. John Wesley’s definition of schism is “love grown cold”. And that is very evident in this article. At least the traditional plans allows an honorable exit for those who are not willing to abide by what every General Conference since 1972 has stated. The One Church Plan is its own heavy handed enforcement because it fails to reciprocate with a similar offer.
Your anger is wasted on traditionals because another way to describe the theological chasm that divides us that you feel free to rewrite historic Christian doctrine, traditionals believe that Christianity requires them to pass down historic doctrine.
What comes to my mind is the passage in the Bible when the Jewish leaders were debating “what to do about Jesus”. One wise person spoke up and said something along these lines: We do nothing. If he is not of God then what he says will not stand the test of time, if he is of God we cannot stop him. If your “new and improved” doctrine is truly of God then it will survive no matter what the United Methodist Church says or does. What you don’t see is that, with its exit provisions, the Traditional Plan is allowing you the time to prove that what you say is truly a new expression of God’s will. Traditionals are not asking you to give up your beliefs, they are giving you free reign to preach and teach them. The same cannot be said about the One Church Plan.
Even though I have a somewhat different interpretation of the “oldest son” I truly appreciate the metaphor and find it helpful in examining this process.