By Kara Witherow, Editor
In a season when The United Methodist Church is fraught with discord, distrust, and dissension, more than 250 South Georgia clergy and laity have signed an online petition to demonstrate their commitment to unity.
The “Hope Through Unity” open letter was published last month and has gained attention around the Conference and the connection. The writers hope to build a coalition of people on both sides of the human sexuality debate who support unity.
“Our hope is unity; to remain as one, even with different convictions, for the sake of our mission and to grow as disciples. We who have signed below have varying convictions on human sexuality; yet, we pray as Jesus prayed that we ‘may all be one,’” says the letter.
Preserving unity until the special session of General Conference, to be held Feb. 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis, is the faithful thing to do, the letter writers say.
The special called 2019 General Conference will focus on moving the denomination past its decades-long struggle with issues around homosexuality. Three proposed plans offer a way to stay together and ways to split.
Until then, however, United Methodists should focus on unity and not make up their minds or take sides, says Rev. Ben Gosden, senior pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Savannah and one of the drafters of the letter.
While he and the other writers acknowledge there are hard decisions to be made, they do not think there is a need for the anger, vitriol, and divisiveness they’ve sensed in the past several months.
“There are hard decisions in front of us, but we aren’t angry; we aren’t ready to split the church today,” said Rev. Gosden, one of a team of clergy from across the theological spectrum who helped pen the letter.
“We want to cast a vision of hope and to say that, between now and General Conference we still believe in the unity of the church,” he said. “We are still realists. Things may well change in a dramatic way and that’s okay, but between now and then we want to be people of hope who stand up for the unity of the church. But whatever comes and whatever changes we face we want to be gracious and generous and kind.”
The letter points to shared ministries that rely on the support of all South Georgia congregations as those that would suffer greatly from a split. Kay Hanson, a retired clergy spouse, signed the letter and says that she would hate to see vital ministries hurt.
“There are so many things that we do together, like UMCOR, that I would hate to see us have to start over from scratch,” she said. “I sincerely love people who are on both sides of this issue and I would like for us to work together. Our heritage is so rich, and we have weathered storms that were this severe, this trying, this divisive before.”
While the letter is a call for unity, it’s also a call to work together, to move beyond the labels that have defined the debate for so long.
“It’s not a matter of being a progressive, a centrist, or a traditionalist,” Rev. Gosden said. “It’s whether we are going to be a compatibilist or a non-compatibilist. Wherever you are, are you willing to work with and be the Church with people who are different? That’s the choice this letter is putting out there for us.”
Rev. Jimmy Asbell, senior pastor of Vineville United Methodist Church in Macon, still has hope that The United Methodist Church can navigate through this. He signed the letter because he believes that, through the process of holy conferencing, there might still be room for a solution that keeps the Church together despite the differences.
“This is a hopeful act in the midst of a lot of despair,” he said of the letter. “There are a lot of people who have given up and cynicism is on the rise, so I think this says, ‘I am hopeful that the Church is bigger and it will survive.’ I know it will, but I hope it can survive in a way that resembles more of what we know than what we don’t know.”
Mavis Trice, a retired clergy spouse, admires the courage it took to write the letter and says it expresses much of what she feels.
“I just want us to be able to know that there are other voices and other thinking (out there),” said Trice, a member of Mulberry Street United Methodist Church in Macon. “When I think about what we would be giving up missionally that we support through The United Methodist Church – The Methodist Home, Magnolia Manor – all of those things are going to be affected, and I feel like the unity process helps us maintain what’s important.”
Rev. Gosden said that unity is more important than this one issue because, just as Jesus and the Father are one, it is Jesus’ prayer for the Church to be united.
“We believe that we are a stronger, better church that reflects the diversity of God’s kingdom when we’re together,” Rev. Gosden said, pointing to Jesus’ prayer for the church in John 17. “There’s a lot of difference here, but Christ calls us, in this grand mystery of faith, to find room to be the body together. Together we, in our differences, can make a really beautiful body.”