Don't give up

September 15th, 2022

I remember clearly that day fifteen years ago when Dr. Maxie Dunnam—at that time the President of Asbury Seminary in Kentucky—began talking about an “amicable separation” between his people, the “Traditionalists,” and those he depicted as his opponents, the “Progressives.” With a grandfatherly smile and gentle Southern drawl, he told me that a Methodist division´┐╝ was for the best. We could go our separate ways, and do our own thing, and ultimately God would judge which side was right. 

I speak from personal experience. I’m sure he doesn’t remember me, but I had lunch with Maxie Dunnam during the 2007 Order of the Flame retreat in Georgia. As he spoke at our table, I wondered what would become of my people, “United Methodists without a label,” if his vision became a reality. 

I also wondered why Maxie didn’t mention Jesus’ words from John 17 about the unity of Christ’s church and why it’s so important. 

But mostly, I wondered if Maxie had ever, in his long and distinguished ministerial career, counseled an unhappy married couple. Because I had—many times—and I knew a thing or two about divorce. My parents divorced in 1985, so I have firsthand experience.

Divorce is rarely “amicable.” A couple may start off with good intentions when they think they have irreconcilable differences. They may resolve that they won’t be uncivil, for the sake of the children. But when they have to decide who gets the house, the cars, the heirlooms, the mutual funds—when they have to work out child custody—that’s when civility dissipates like fog on a hot summer morning. That’s when the lying, the name-calling, the accusations, the undermining, and the manipulation of children, grandparents, and mutual friends begins. 

By the time it’s over, everybody involved has gone through hell on earth. Some never recover from it. 

How could Maxie not realize that, I wondered? I assumed he thought Christians would behave themselves, but I’ve seen devout church members turn into vindictive monsters during a divorce. Instead of his amicable separation, I fully expected accusations, lies, manipulation, and lawyers. I envisioned a spectacle that would grab the attention of the media—“Look at these hypocrites who preach love and reconciliation but can’t even get along with each other!”

Divorce can get even worse, you know. I’ve seen separations that resulted in violence. People can lose their minds over the possession of wealth or children. I fear that may happen in this separation as well. This past week, the Africa Colleges of Bishops finally realized that amicable separation is a lie and published a letter not only calling for church unity, but demanding an end to the misinformation and subterfuge of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) and the Global Methodist Church (GMC). 

The Wesleyan Covenant Association’s response was immediate and predictable: FAKE NEWS. “It wasn’t ALL the Bishops (correct, it was 12 of 13).” “The African Bishops are liberals and don’t represent their people.” “American liberals are bribing them and pulling their strings.” And on and on, exactly as expected. The WCA doubled down, saying they’ll continue to liberate the poor, naive, traditional Africans from their tyrannical, heretical, liberal leadership. 

Somebody is going to get hurt. And don’t think we Americans are immune to it. I need only remind you of recent history. 

I’ve been writing way too much on Facebook recently, and after posting a version of this article I will be taking a break. A few weeks ago, when I first got word that a local disaffiliating church was promoting videos on their website that claim The United Methodist Church is apostate, I became alarmed at the lack of response from loyal, faithful United Methodists. It’s as if we thought responding to such miserable malarkey was beneath our dignity. We acted as if the truth would win out all by itself, without anybody to forcefully promote it. Surely people will acquire the facts on their own, and see the light, and come to their senses! 

Nope. Americans, of all people, ought to know better. We now know, after four straight horrific election cycles, that we’re remarkably vulnerable to rhetoric that induces fear. 

"We’re afraid that somehow, right under our noses, our beloved church has become full of heretics because, well, we saw it on YouTube! It has to be the truth!" 

"We’re afraid that our beloved church will be taken over by 'the gays’—even though most of us don’t even know any, or don’t know that we do—and it must be true, because certain reliable WCA preachers told me so in another YouTube teaching moment."

Once people are afraid, they become resistant to reality. They go into survival mode. Those who manipulate them know this and exploit it. It’s called “psy-ops” and the Americans and Russians perfected the practice during the Cold War. A significant portion of the videos on YouTube and Facebook are psy-ops. We’re constantly encouraged to be afraid of something or somebody because frightened people are easier to influence and control. 

I know we want people to be reasonable, to listen to facts, and to be civil, but as Bishop Marion Edwards once said—referring to the LGBTQ-exclusive language in our Book of Discipline—“Reason can’t take out what reason didn’t put in.” 

Our church is burning and this fire isn’t going to put itself out, especially while arsonists continue to pour gasoline on it. 

So I posted. And I posted. And people started to contact me, mostly from New Bern (where I serve in a local church) at first. Three weeks in, I’ve now been in touch with people from Little Washington, Morehead City, Greenville, Swansboro, Wilmington, the Western North Carolina Conference, Virginia, Georgia, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, and even Africa. Some are loyal United Methodists in the pews who are afraid that their church is about to be stolen from beneath them. Some are shattered because that’s already happened. Many are worried United Methodist colleagues or retired pastors or sympathetic ministers whose denominations were similarly torn apart by the machinations of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

They’re refugees trying to make sense of a senseless disaster, and their numbers are growing.

I can offer only limited help via social media. Private messages are short and can’t convey the true depth of sadness and anger and anxiety people are feeling. 

So here’s my offer, reader. 

Whether you like this article and my posts—or you think they’re from hell—an actual conversation is better than a comment on Facebook or a text message or e-mail. Reach out. Let’s talk. I can pray with you and you can pray with me. 

I don’t know what the future holds for us. I dread the worst but I hope for the best. Adam Hamilton has a vision for a renewed, global United Methodist Church rising from the ashes of this catastrophe. He’s worth checking out. Our North Carolina resident Bishop Leonard Fairley is a calm, compassionate voice of reason in the midst of a cacophony of confusion. Listen to him. 

Most importantly: don’t give up.

Reach out. Let’s walk through the fire together. Our God is good and will lead us into something better beyond this mess. If I don’t hear from you or see your face, perhaps some day we’ll meet on the other side of the “amicable separation,” and break bread and praise Jesus for delivering us.

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