I am a member of both my Annual Conference’s Delegation to General Conference 2020, and of our Conference Task Force exploring whether and how Methodists in New England might become a new and inclusive Methodist movement. Between juggling these roles and my own passion for the future of ministry in my local Methodist church and the wider Methodist movement, I’m having a lot of conversations and doing a lot of listening around where there is momentum, fear, energy, obstacle, hope, and tension in the Methodist connection. This past weekend, at the Bishop’s Day with the New Hampshire District, Bishop Devadhar asked me to say a few words and take some questions (as best I could) about the work of our delegation and task force. This is (roughly) what I shared.
In both my work as a delegate and as a member of the Open Spirit Task Force– especially on my Task Force subcommittee exploring the “options” for moving forward as a denomination or denominations, there are three main things I hear and I know, and I hold as I consider what’s before us. Two I hear loud and clear, and all seem to contradict each other at times, but all are held before me and within me as I wrestle with options.
1. We can’t wait. Methodists in New England are done waiting. Many of the pathways for next steps include passing constitutional amendments, seeking to ratify them, maybe having another commission or study, then presenting a plan that can’t be presented within our current constitution, and approving that, and rolling it out, so that in four or eight or maybe twelve years, we’ll have this all resolved. But Methodist churches in New England are dying on the vine right now. Our churches won’t exist in 12 or 8 or even 4 years if we keep doing what we are doing. We are diverting missional energy into alternately defending the sanctity of the Bible and of covenants, and defending the marginalized, oppressed, and harmed, while some of us are trying to stay alive and allowed in The UMC. In the mean time, addiction and an opioid epidemic are sweeping away a generation of people in our communities, mass incarceration is destroying our already tiny racial diversity, rural poverty holds children in a death-grip, ICE is raiding communities within 100 miles of any border or coast (most of our Conference), the climate crises is literally eroding our towns and cities… you get the drift.
Traditionalists in our Conference feel they cannot stand one more day in a denomination that will suffer a gay bishop, while queer people and allies cannot endure another day in a denomination that oppresses trans, POC, and queer bodies and lives with impunity. Incremental justice is not justice, not for those who become the collateral damage of oppression. We are at a breaking point, and we have an opportunity for that to break us open into new life. We cannot waste it. I hear this loud and clear; I know it in my bones. I’m not spending my energy on any long timelines or impossible, incremental legislation.
2. Despite what the rest of the Methodist world might think or presume about us, we can never assume that the New England Annual Conference speaks or votes with one voice. We are different. Really different. And the strange fact is that Methodism in New England has seemed to thrive through (not necessarily despite) this difference. My ministry is made stronger by the churches and lay and clergy colleagues around me who are much more conservative than I. I hope the same is true of those folks’ ministries and me. But these divisions are real and are deep, and drive a huge part of the urgency to take action now. That action, however, can’t assume a monolith that moves in a single direction together– doing so would isolate, exclude, or force churches and people who find themselves in a minority position, and I defend that minority position, because I believe that’s the demand of justice.
To my siblings in traditionalist churches and espousing traditionalist viewpoints and theologies: I see you. You are not invisible. Your ministry and your presence are valuable to me and to the kin-dom of God. I will not support or vote for a course of action that would leave you isolated on a traditionalist island amid a vast progressive sea, cut off from other churches and from a denomination that would support and equip you. I wouldn’t want that if the tables were turned (as they are in the world-wide connection), and I won’t do it to someone else. That doesn’t mean I’ll cede a single drop of this liberation sea, either. Any path forward must give each of us the opportunity to be set free but still be equipped in the living out of our calling from God.
This same difference that we name in our Conference? That’s present in every Methodist community in every level of our connection. No Annual or Central Conference is a monolith; no caucus speaks as one. There is no “Africa” and what “they” want, no “LGBTQ people” and what “they” need, no “Western Jurisdiction” and what “their” vision is, or “conservatives” and how “they” will block it. The early Methodists built a big-tent religion, and that’s what we’ve inherited.
And this same difference is true in every local church in every community in our and every Conference. There is no local church that speaks with one voice, from the most conservative to the longest-standing Reconciling congregation. Any pathway forward that requires of an Annual Conference, and/or of a local congregation, a vote between this Methodist denomination and that one will be forcing people to divide from one another. That doesn’t mean we can’t or we shouldn’t; our differences are deep and our urgency is real. And that doesn’t mark the end; the early church was– eventually– stronger after Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways for a time, so that each could spread the good news (and see this post for a suggestion of how I think we could ease a portion of this harm). But this is painful. I feel that pain, deep in my bones, deep in my heart, loud and clear. I hold it while I wrestle.
3. The third thing I don’t hear loudly and clearly, but in a way that is more still and small, which means it’s unwise to ignore. The third truth speaks with a whisper into the urgency of decisive action and the painful depth of our necessary division: is it necessary? Because the thing is New England Annual Conference has been doing this– imperfectly, granted– for years. We have been living side by side, doing ministry side by side, transforming the world side by side, seeking justice side by side. We do not bring one another up on charges. We treat one another with respect. We value the ministry of others, regardless of their sexual orientations or theological commitments. We don’t always get it right– beloved community is messy and we are fallible– but we stick with it and with each other. We sit beside each other as I did with a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association on the Task Force and say to each other I don’t want to be part of a Conference in which you are not welcome, and I believe we mean it. We stand across the picket line from one another– as a neighboring colleague of mine and I once did– on marriage equality, and beside each other on workers’ rights. We find that our little communities are indeed big enough for more than one kind of Methodism, and that our witness can work, even when it varies by context.
This little truth flies in the face of the big, unbearable urgency, and our deep, painful differences. But that doesn’t make it less true. So what does that mean for our future, together or apart? And if we, stubborn New Englanders as we are, if we can find ways to be church together, what might we have to model for the rest of the connection and the rest of the world?
Three truths. Three often-contradictory, always messy things I hold in my body, in my mind, in my heart. It’s a dance, a juggling act, a confusing trifold mystery.
Fourth truth: so is God.