Thoughts of splitting The United Methodist Church trouble me for a host of reasons Some theological and missional.
This polarized and violent world desperately needs the witness of a community that grapples with disputes and differences with humility, mutual respect, and compassion. While divisions have been part of our heritage since the beginning, they never bode well for our commitment to oneness in Christ Jesus.
We need one another, whatever our labels. God has already reconciled us! We have been made one, whether we like it or not. So, I don’t quite understand why we can’t live the reconciliation already accomplished in Christ. If Christ has made us one, should we not live that oneness?
But I’m also troubled for personal reasons.
I’ll always remember that fateful Sunday morning almost 65 years ago when this son of Appalachian tenant farmers and textile workers walked shyly into a Sunday school class at McKinley Methodist Church.
Mrs. Mahoney greeted me at the doorway with a warm hug. I remember the Bible story she told that day. It changed my image of God and set me on a life-long quest to love, trust, and serve God. It was the story of the Good Shepherd. I can still hear her say, “God is like that shepherd.”
That was radically different from the messages I had been hearing in the church of my early childhood. I had the notion that God was like that cruel landlord who once dangled me over a rain barrel to “teach me to respect” him. God was the strict judge who expected, above all else, our respect and obedience. Eternal damnation awaited those who lacked such deference and compliance.
Mrs. Mahoney introduced me to a God who delights in rescuing little lost lambs, a God who invites us to share in the search and saving of the least, the lost, and the wayward. She invited me into friendship with Jesus, a friendship rooted in love not fear.
McKinley Methodist Church became my spiritual home as an adolescent. There I was baptized and received into membership. It was there that I:
• Received a new identity (beloved child of God)
• Learned I didn’t have to take the Bible literally to take it seriously
• Was elected to my first church office (president of the MYF)
• First spoke publicly before a group
• Had my first for-pay job (janitor)
• Taught my first class (Vacation Bible School)
• Was called into ordained ministry
• Introduced to the church as connectional (we were on a circuit)
•Selected to attend the National Youth Conference where I heard an African American preacher for the first time (James Thomas)
• Approved for candidacy and granted a local preacher’s license
At a conference youth assembly, I met my beloved wife, Linda. We were married in the Methodist Church. She was educated in a Methodist college. We attended a Methodist seminary and spent 42 years living in homes provided by the church. Our daughters and grandchildren have been baptized in United Methodist Churches.
I’ve been privileged to serve eight wonderful congregations and two strong episcopal areas. Additionally, I have taught in a United Methodist seminary, sat on the governing boards of numerous United Methodist related institutions and agencies, experienced the world-wide mission of the church while visiting in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Latin America.
All of this is to say, it’s impossible for me to sever my life from that of the denomination in which I have been and continue to be formed.
To me the reasons being advanced for splitting the denomination seem extraneous to the core Christian gospel and the church’s mission in this polarized and violent world filling up with lost lambs.
When I entered McKinley Methodist Church as a child of poverty, I wasn’t looking for dogmatic pronouncements. I was longing for a community in which I was accepted, valued, and loved. I wanted a place to grow in my understanding of and friendship with God. And, I needed a purpose worth my life.
The church I joined gave me room to grow, and I’m still growing. It moved me beyond provincialism, challenged my racial prejudices and patriarchal practices, gave me a theological lens through which to view every aspect of life, anchored me in sound doctrine while encouraging continuing theological exploration, extended the horizons of God’s salvation to include the healing and transformation of human hearts, communities, nations, and the entire cosmos.
I’m not worried about the survival of the Church. The Body of Christ has been raised from the dead and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. And, I know the institutional form which the body of Christ takes is always changing.
But dividing The United Methodist Church into “Progressives” and “Traditionalists” is just plain wrong. As the late Will Campbell said about the death penalty, “I just think it’s tacky!”