A covenant for unity

March 2nd, 2015

If we are to push through the significant impasse that faces The United Methodist Church, we must put aside equivocation and false pretense and be completely honest with each other. In the spirit of honesty, I am not convinced that The United Methodist Church can stay together.

In fact, I am certain that if those of us who value some manner of diversity of belief do not take concerted steps toward building relationships with each other, we will end up with what we deserve: a bifurcated church, impotent in both iterations, and less faithful (if, admittedly, less maddening) than a united church.

I arrive at these conclusions as a thirty-one-year-old United Methodist elder, ordained for less than two years, with much less experience and knowledge than most of my colleagues. I have been accused of not being informed or experienced enough to fully understand the complex problems facing The United Methodist Church.

However, I love The United Methodist Church too much—and value it too much as the most faithful expression of the body of Christ I have experienced—to let it die without an effort. Fortunately, I am not alone in this conviction. In response to calls for “amicable separation,” nearly twenty clergy and laity produced a statement calling for church unity; you can read that statement at umunity.org. While we are quite proud of the result, the process of writing the document together was difficult. Such a process mirrors how we understand church: no single perspective is entirely sufficient to do justice to God’s perspective. We need each other to faithfully reflect God’s image.

We titled our statement “That They May Be One: A Covenant for Unity in the North Georgia Conference of The United Methodist Church” and invited North Georgia United Methodists to publicly lend their names in support. Among the 650 signatories were district super­intendents and church leaders; in all, 237 clergypersons in the conference signed on, representing the senior pastors of well over 100,000 North Georgia United Methodists. Some signatories would consider themselves very conservative, others very liberal. All are committed to working together.

Some say that this kind of diversity of opinion leaves The United Methodist Church in theologically muddy waters with no clear witness in a fractured world. My experience as the pastor of a diverse, multicultural congregation is proving otherwise. Diversity is the new normal in the world, and an ecclesiology that does not seriously attempt to deal with diversity in all its forms—including ideological diversity—does not do justice to the richness of the gospel. In the midst of this global situation, The United Methodist Church is well suited to offer a faithful witness because we worship a savior whose love shows up in people and places that are not exactly like the people and places remembered from an earlier era.

A simple statement is not enough to hold the church together, of course, and many of us in North Georgia are in the process of discerning what is next. As a first step, we gathered a couple hundred United Methodists (lay and clergy) in the North Georgia conference who are interested in building relationships and talking through difficult issues; these people have been divided into groups, and those groups are meeting for “unity meals” throughout the conference in groups of six to ten. While it is true that conversation alone will not solve our problems, it is likewise true that without conversation, we cannot resolve problems.

Throughout the entire process—from conception of a covenant to our continued efforts—the experience of working for unity has deepened my love for The United Methodist Church, even as it has opened my eyes to the real problems we face. Three specific lessons have emerged so far.

First, the problems we face are real, and the divisions are deep. As the unity covenant states, sexuality may be the presenting issue in our conflict, but it is a symptom of a larger divide over understandings of scripture, science, culture, and, ultimately, the nature of grace. I have received criticism—and, indeed, have lost friends—on several sides of this issue as we search for common ground while friends and colleagues accuse each other of privileging experience over scripture or law over love.

Second, middle ground is a particularly difficult place to live; though, I am likewise convinced that most United Methodists (clergy in particular) do in fact reside there. I do not mean to suggest that those of us who are working to maintain the unity of the church are neutral in matters of scripture and sexuality. I carry within myself a strong belief that the church should honor the callings and marriage relationships of those who identify as LGBT. But I also think that the dual emphasis on social gospel and evangelical fervor are properly held in tension with each other. The problem with tension is that it is tense! It would be much easier in some sense to split the church and be surrounded with people who agree with me. And yet as one who has been blessed by diversity, I know that what is easiest is not always the most faithful.

Third, the problems we face are no match for God. Division may be real and deep, but God’s uniting love is stronger than our division. If we are truly trying to follow Jesus, we as a church are actually at our most faithful when we are not of one mind. It is through stretching and pulling in conversation, and in the particular tension of social gospel and evangelical fervor, that we grow. I have experienced the most growth when I am faced with someone who disagrees with me. This kind of relationship is not easy, but it does bear fruit. To split would be to let all of us off the hook for bearing fruit.

I do not know how the current conflict will end. I will strive to find a way to live together, and I believe we can if we are willing to see each other truly not as opponents in a holy war but each as God’s children. I will continue to pray that we will be one united church.

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