GROWING IN GRACE
The great separation has now begun. 2020 was supposed to be the pivotal year we finally settled the division over inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the life of our denomination. After almost 50 years of fighting, we were finally set to end the division and go our separate ways to serve the Lord as we felt God called us. And then a global pandemic caused General Conference to be postponed for four full years, making it five full years between gatherings. Nonetheless, leaders beyond the general church have decided it’s time to begin the work of separation.
For many, to wait any longer would be a leadership malpractice in their local churches. For many others, these next two years are an act of patience and resiliency in leadership as we wait for the official details of our denominational split to be decided. Still, for others, now is the time to declare proudly that they will #BeUMC as they live into whatever this next iteration of Methodism will be.
John Wesley once said, “And we would all embrace a mutual unity in things necessary; in things non necessary liberty; in all things charity.” As we seek to stretch and grow our historic bonds I guess the next thing we must ask ourselves is this: Can we really extend charity to each other or was Wesley naive at best and a liar at worst?
You don’t have to go far to read a meme or a shared post or a diatribe online from a faithful Methodist somewhere outlining the many reasons why they want to remain a United Methodist even as our GMC brothers and sisters seek to split off. I’ve seen many of them, most of them shared many times by diehard UMC’ers from all over the connection. It’s good to remind ourselves why we believe in our institutions. It’s also good to find community in our tribal alliances. After all, one of the many reasons why we give our lives to institutions is for the sense of connection and belonging that comes with our allegiance.
But as we get swept up in the tide of the pep rallies and cheer sections for our denominational loyalty, we must be careful that we don’t succumb to the temptation to demonize those who feel like their loyalty is increasingly to a different institution. If you’re faithfully and deeply entrenched in Camp UMC, great. But if your celebration includes the belittling or demonizing of those who don’t agree with you, then you might be missing Wesley’s challenge to have charity for one another in all things.
Likewise, if you feel God is leading you and your church to the new Global Methodist Church (or to some other entity outside of the UMC), good for you. Your faithfulness means a lot to God and many other people. This new movement will no doubt teach its older sibling a thing or two about how to recapture a vigor and enthusiasm for the Gospel. But, if your realigning of loyalties includes the demonization of those who wish to remain in the UMC, then you’re probably missing Wesley’s point about having charity for one another in all things.
Those who do not agree with you are not necessarily bad people. At the same time, we must also remember that all of us — no matter our institutional loyalties — are sinners in need of God’s grace. And this disease of sin is present in the ways we demonize and mischaracterize each other. I do not believe churches and pastors who opt to leave the UMC do so out of hatred for those who might be more included if some denominational stances change. Likewise, I hope you know that such changes are not an assault on basic tenets of the faith like the Lordship of Jesus, the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, etc. Invoking fear in each other is another expression of sin and we must name it for what it is lest we get blinded by it.
The Apostle Paul reminds us that we can have all of the right answers, believe the right things, do the right deeds, love the Bible and the Church more than anyone else and, if we lack love for one another, we are no more than a noisy gong or an obnoxious cymbal. John Wesley knew this and that is why he calls us to love, even if unity cannot be fully established. Jesus knew this, too. It’s why he told us that the world will know we are his followers by the ways we love one another, especially when it's hard (John 13).
As Methodists heading into this great unknown of a change-filled future that is yet to be determined, may we also know the power of love as we deal with change and each other with grace, humility, and charity for all.
The Rev. Ben Gosden is senior pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Savannah. He can be reached at email@example.com.