I've never really wanted division within The United Methodist Church. I've always held up hope that somehow, someday, we'd find a way forward through acrimony and division to a better place. I don't think I'm particularly naive, I've watched the coverage of every General Conference from 1996 to the present pretty clearly, attended a United Methodist seminary, and experienced all sorts of tension--but I've always wanted to believe that we could learn from each other how to follow Jesus better. I don't know anymore. The truth is, the last year has left me unsure about the future of this particular segment of Christ's Church. I've seen the tensions rise around issues regarding homosexuality, mostly, and that's a part of it. I believe that underneath our disagreements about homosexuality lie our differences on the proper place of sexual ethics in the overarching schema of being Christian, and different theological anthropologies (specifically around the place, power, and role of passions for Christians). We can't seem to get beyond the surface issue to the deeper issues, and I'm not sure if we can (in my opinion, no other mainline Christian body in North America has, so we'd be unique if we succeeded).
I've always held out hope, though, that God might do something different with United Methodists. I've wanted us to offer a better model of Jesus' vision for his people (the Church) from John 13:35 "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Now, I'm not Greek scholar, but the "love" here is no mere affection, no familial presence, but a deep care for the Other we learn from God--it's not erotic, familial, filial or anything of the sort, it's AGAPE. As long as we let each other be who we are, and love each other enough not to directly impinge on one another's deep convictions, while working on how to be united in living out Christian faith, there's hope we can agape in the same house. Once that mutuality reaches a point where it's gone, then we need to consider if the only way to maintain agape is in separate denominations.
While my level of mutual accountability to other United Methodists is greater than my Congregationalist, Baptist, Lutheran, Nazarene, Episcopalian, or Roman Catholic friends, my agape for them isn't. Some of us live together, some apart, but our agape ought to be the same in the Church of Jesus Christ, whether we share in one communion or not. In fact, it's easier to live out agape across those bounds at times than within one part of the Body of Christ, in part because the decisions of another part of the Body are less likely to impinge on my deep convictions directly--we can focus on a common identity as Christians without being constantly and directly impacted by our differences.
We've argued, we've wept, we've disagreed--but I had believed that all sides acted out of mutual agape at least most of the time until now. I have Conservative, Moderate and Progressive friends (and many who would prefer other labels or none), and most (if not all) genuinely seemed to love Jesus and want to follow where he leads. The United Methodist Church might not be united in all the finer points of Christian living, but at least all clergy are asked if we've studied the Church's Doctrine and if we will uphold and teach it, so at least we're all good with our Doctrinal Standards, right? We're far from in complete agreement, but at least we have common ground!
I'm not pretending I've never heard either side malign the other--I've heard Conservatives call Progressives apostate and Progressives call Conservatives hatemongers and homophobes. I've never wanted to believe either was true, and I've seen much evidence to the contrary over time. Sadly, I began to wonder during Annual Conference last year.
I'm theologically orthodox, a thoroughly Nicene Christian in the company of the Wesleys (as I've heard Eddie Fox say). During the entirety of Annual Conference we had the text of The Lord's Prayer placed before us, but it was never the prayer Jesus taught the Disciples based on any Bible I'd ever seen. Apparently, the words he gave us weren't good enough--we had to learn a new (presumably better) way to pray. As we were encouraged to pray in our own languages, I prayed the prayer that has shaped me, that continues to shape me, and went on with the work of Annual Conference. Only during the actual Laying on of Hands in Ordination did anyone ever use the Trinitarian Name of God from the "pulpit" during the entirety of our Conference together--we heard many names used, but here and here alone the God named in Article I of both the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith.
Perhaps I was being oversensitive--these are challenging things for me, but our metaphors describe the God revealed in Scripture and the Incarnation, and there was at least some reference to the God I know. Perhaps there's room for worship that speaks obliquely of Scriptural Truth, especially at Annual Conference--we assume all of these leaders of the Church ought to be converted already, right? Yes, this is MY church, the place of my membership, but it's a shared space with all the others present as well. Sure, I there were some prayers I couldn't pray authentically, so I stopped, and prayed silently that God would be with me and all of us. I'm open to letting church be church for all of us!
This was a first for me, that most of worship at Annual Conference felt more like a political show than worship of the Triune God, but I was open to this being my own false-perception. That broke down during the hymns in the ordination service. At that point, I experienced real hate from some of the Body in a way that nearly drove me to leave the service--hate and vitriol that has stuck with me ever since. The thing is, it was directed at me and those who needed the heart-song we were singing, telling us just how unwanted we really were. While singing "Victory in Jesus," some voices among the clergy began screaming over the text every time we sang of Jesus' redeeming blood. Even now it moves me almost to tears. Something that to me is an essential affirmation, that Christ died for us, ALL OF US while we were yet sinners, was desecrated. This was no disagreement over gay marriage or sexual ethics, no divide over secular politics or even theological minutiae--no, for me this was an assault on the CORE of the Gospel (how are we freed from the power of sin but by the blood of Jesus? I can't find another way--and at least my reading of Hebrews 9:11-10:18 seems to indicate the same).
I don't know what the intent was--but the message I received was clear: we're done with Jesus' blood, and you probably should be too. I'm glad we didn't sing "And Can it Be?" I think I might have been driven to walk out, or perhaps cried out to the Bishop to stop the singing had the Methodist Hymn of Hymns been treated in that manner.
I've never really wanted division within The United Methodist Church. I want to hope that somehow, someday, we'd find a way forward through acrimony and division to a better place. I'm finding that harder and harder these days.