The Case for Unity

April 11th, 2012

In the midst of my preparations for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday last week, I received a mailing sent to delegates of The United Methodist Church's upcoming General Conference. It was a pamphlet entitled “In Support of Disaffiliation for Reasons of Conscience,” speaking to a particular piece of legislation that arises in one form or another every four years.

As we know, The United Methodist Church is deeply divided over its own position on homosexuality, with many of us seeking to overturn the church’s policy that homosexuality is not compatible with Christian teaching, and that the church cannot officiate marriages/unions for gay or lesbian couples, or appoint and ordain pastors who are in relationships with a person of the same gender. And so, in response to this division, the question arises each General Conference: are we really the “United” Methodist Church? Should we split along lines of opinion on this matter? Can what we have in common hold us together when compared with the depth of our disagreements?

This particular legislation would give local churches the right to disaffiliate from the denomination, becoming, I presume, nondenominational churches (something with which I also take issue—much as I may resist over-focus on metrics, accountability is a very good thing!) and would allow clergy to withdraw from the denomination (something I thought I could do anyway), all based on whether or not we agree with the church’s stance on homosexuality.

Personally, I don’t find this a compelling course of action. It suggests that the depth of Methodism is agreement with the Book of Discipline in whatever its current iteration is, or even worse, agreement with a handful of paragraphs.

I am often asked, given the outspoken passion with which I disagree with my denomination’s policy on this point, why I don’t withdraw my status as a United Methodist clergyperson and affiliate with a denomination that I find more agreeable.

The reason is that there is so much more to being United Methodist to me than our current language about gay people.

Don’t get me wrong—how we treat others is vitally important. And as I have said, our language and position on homosexuality represent, in my opinion, our gravest sins of commission. However, I did not choose the UMC as my denomination based on whether or not I agreed with the Discipline.

I grew up Roman Catholic, and so upon feeling called to pastoral ministry, I went denomination shopping, learning as much as I could before intentionally affiliating with one denomination that I felt was most faithful to how I understood the call to live as the Body of Christ. I chose The United Methodist Church for four reasons:

  1. An understanding of grace that gives voice to both the journey and the love that surrounds us before we even know it,
  2. Mission that does not seek conversion, but empowers people by working side by side, and a historical commitment to social justice in all levels of mission and minsitry,
  3. “The quadrilateral,” which is a misnomer, but for me means that we are never asked to check our reason or experience at the door, but continue to engage with the history and context of our faith as we understand and apply scripture, and
  4. Strong support of women in pastoral leadership. This includes the fact that, because Bishops make appointments, women cannot be refused as pastors by local churches based on their gender. Neither can persons of color. One day, when we ordain gay and lesbian clergy, as I believe we will, neither can they.

I now add the itineracy as something I find invaluable about the UMC. I hate it when it’s time for me to go, but I do honestly feel that the Methodist practice of having clergy appointed by the Bishop for a shorter (i.e. less than 20 years) period of time keeps congregations and clergy fresh, promotes congregational identity that is separate from the pastor (resists cult of pastoral personality), and frees clergy to preach, teach, and administer with sometimes difficult words and actions without fear of direct retribution from the personnel committee (now, whether one can critique the denomination or conference without reprisal is another matter!). And, above all, I love the people called Methodist.

So I remain. The United Methodist Church is not perfect. We are slow in “moving on to perfection” in trying to be who we say and envision we are. Still, I believe we are on the path to being as faithful a people as we can be. We engage difficult conversations, and it takes us time to resolve them, because we are a global and diverse body. We are a deeply passionate people, and we care far more about following and serving Christ than perfecting doctrine, so we quibble incessantly, because following Christ is hard to figure out faithfully.

I believe there is room for everyone in the United Methodist Church.

Dick Cheney is United Methodist. So is Hillary Clinton. So is Rush Limbaugh. So is Sandra Fluke.

So am I.

And as strange as it may be, and as hard as it is to see sometimes, I believe there is more that keeps us together than can keep us apart. We believe in Christ. We strive to follow. We believe that social justice is vital to ministry and mission and theology itself. We walk grace as a journey before we even know it and long after we have had our “hearts strangely warmed.” We sing. We pray. We eat potluck like nobody’s business. We value relationship and connection—with God and with each other. We confess our sins of racism and discrimination, and try, albeit imperfectly, to repent. We have a network of mission across the face of the earth in more places and in longer deployments than nearly any other charity in the world. We say our hearts and minds are open, and we pray it might be so.

We have split in the past (over slavery), and there are those who have walked away because of matters of conscience (over homosexuality or discrimination, or other reasons we may not know). We will continue to wiggle and wrestle and fragment, I am sure.

But I’m not leaving until and unless we lose what holds us together, or until and unless the day comes when the church no longer wants me because the denomination sees not enough in my ministry that keeps me Methodist when compared to the areas of my disagreement. When I criticize my church over homosexuality or idolizing metrics or anything else, I do it because I love it, and because I believe my voice matters—in the pulpit, in the committee rooms and on the floor of General Conference, and yes even on my little blog—when it comes to engaging the church as it is and calling it into what it needs to be.

We are a great denomination, but I believe we can be yet more faithful. I want to be part of that conversation and growth, as we are made perfect in love and witness by the one who calls us to life, to faith, to work.


Becca Clark is the pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Montpelier, Vermont.

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