On the Third Day

The third day is foundational for Christians, and the significance of a three-day gathering was not lost on the 2019 General Conference. In his opening sermon, Bishop Kenneth Carter reminded us that we came to St. Louis divided, but in these three days, Jesus could resurrect us into one body. During the Committee on a Way Forward report, openly gay pastor Brian Adkins told us that day one may have been dark and full of brokenness, but on day three, love conquered death. Those hoping to preserve unity in our beloved church believed in God’s power to make it happen. And we know what God can accomplish in three days’ time.

But the thing about the resurrection is that it was unexpected. While I hoped for unity, I came prepared to see the Traditional Plan passed, and a door opened for the rest of us to depart. I fully expected that one way or the other, by today things would be settled and our future sealed.

But the unexpected happened. The One Church Plan, our best hope for union, failed not once but twice, and the Traditional Plan and a disaffiliation plan were approved. However, that legislation must be sustained by the Judicial Council, and we know that many portions of the Traditional Plan are still in violation of the UMC constitution. Clearly, this is not the victory that the Wesleyan Covenant Association expected. 

Along the way, those who were “defeated” came to life. Centrist and progressive delegates unmasked the exploitive tactics and hypocrisy of traditional United Methodists. They called for an ethics investigation into rumors that money was exchanged for votes. They disrupted the traditionalists’ attempt to amend their plan with points of order and amendments of their own. They tried to add language to reject candidates for ordination who were divorced and remarried, which is equally contrary to scripture. They spoke in favor of the exit plan, and invited traditionalists to leave. They proclaimed boldly that this is their church and they would not go.

The LGBTQ community and their allies were visible throughout, responding to the passage of the Traditional Plan by singing “This Is My Story” and leading a call and response litany between those gathered within the body of delegates and observers in the stands. Presiding Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey called a break and allowed it to proceed. When delegates marched to the front of the room with a cross, stepped onto the platform, and sat in silence, they were allowed to stay. As we departed the Dome, there was joyful singing, and queer clergy served communion. They did not go away, but boldly proclaimed God’s inclusive love. 

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The powers of hate and division thought they had won. Fear appeared to have prevailed, just as Jewish leaders and the Romans thought they had put down the Jesus movement. But on the third day, life and love overcame death and division. I have no doubt that there will be a Methodist body that comes out of this that can share God’s love with this diverse world and offer everyone a home where they can live out whatever form of ministry God calls them to.

God will show us the way forward. On the fourth day, the disciples were confused about what this all meant. A week after the resurrection, they were still hanging out in the Upper Room. But while they awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the risen Christ was with them. 

The Holy Spirit is already here, and was clearly at work at General Conference. The risen Christ is with us as we figure out what all this means. As Protestants, we know that reform is messy and sometimes means bringing something new into existence. 

In Acts 5:34-40, the Pharisee Gamaliel cautions the high council against trying to quash the emerging Christian movement, warning that if it was a movement of human origin, it would fail, but if it was of God, they could not stop it and may find themselves fighting against God. 

Traditionalists may have thought that the rest of us would just go away, but when a movement is of God, it will not die. God’s love and the radical inclusion of Jesus Christ cannot be strangled by restrictive legislation and punitive policies. The people called Methodist will continue to offer ministry that includes all God’s people – it may just take time to discern what that looks like.

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General Conference 2019, Day 3

It was a long day in the Dome at America’s Center, as General Conference delegates worked as a legislative committee to advance the petitions that it prioritized yesterday. In regular General Conference gatherings, different legislative committees review petitions in specific areas, before sending them to the plenary body for possible adoption. Because this is a special session that is only three days long and all the petitions relate to the church’s policies on sexuality, the full body of delegates served today as a single legislative committee, and tomorrow will be convened as the plenary body to vote on which ones to enact.

The morning was devoted to the Traditional Plan, and proponents of the plan were engaged in making a series of amendments to the plan in order to skirt the numerous elements that have been ruled unconstitutional by the UMC Judicial Council. The body called for a vote in the middle of this process, and although the plan passed, large parts still do not comply with the UMC constitution.

The committee then passed two different petitions dealing with disaffiliation, despite speeches pointing out that this special General Conference was not called to dismantle the church, but to find a “way forward” together. After lunch, the body turned to the One Church Plan, which was not approved to come before the plenary tomorrow – a huge disappointment for the many who saw this as the best chance for remaining “United” Methodists, and for the Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) members who put so much of themselves into crafting it. (For details on these plans, see previous blog post.)

As it was late in the day, a delegate moved to reject all the other petitions, which included the COWF’s Connectional Conference Plan, more proposals for disaffiliation, and various petitions related to human sexuality. Dorothee Benz, a lay person and LGBTQ activist, pointed out that the Simple Plan was the only one that caused no harm to queer people and offered an amendment to remove it from the list of petitions to be dismissed.

The Simple Plan is so named because it simply removes all the restrictive language about sexuality in the UMC’s Book of Discipline. The plan did not come from the COWF, but was submitted by the group UM Queer Caucus. Even as delegates admitted that the plan would be defeated, they agreed to discuss it, allowing for impassioned pleas from LGBTQ delegates in favor of the plan. They also filled the queue to speak against it, claiming it did not go far enough. These emotional speeches gave visibility and a hearing to LGBTQ United Methodists, who are, after all, the subject of this special General Conference.

If this had been a movie, the Simple Plan would have been approved, and the underdogs would have won the day. The supporters of the Traditional Plan, who have been so confident in things going their way, would be left standing, jaws dropped, wondering what just happened. The love and inclusion expressed by those speaking to the Simple Plan would have triumphed over the fear and division promoted by traditionalists. But this is not a “feel good” movie, and, as expected, the Simple Plan was defeated.

So, what happens now? The Judicial Council was asked to make a declarative ruling on the constitutionality of all the legislation that was passed today and will be taken up by the plenary body of the General Conference tomorrow. It is likely that a good deal of the day will be taken up with amendments to the Traditional Plan, with the hope of leaving this session with something in place, even if it not what many had hoped for.

That doesn’t mean that defeated petitions are dead in the water, because they can be re-introduced tomorrow as minority reports. However, given that it is the same body of delegates that voted them down today, they would be unlikely to succeed tomorrow. Progressive and mainstream caucuses are engaged in strategy sessions this evening to explore ways they might disrupt the process and steer the proceedings to a different outcome, while conservatives are no doubt planning how to get the Traditional Plan past both the delegates and the Judicial Council.

The longer term implications are unclear. The disaffiliation plans that were approved cannot begin to address the chaos that will ensue throughout and at all levels of the denomination. More on that will be forthcoming, as whatever 864 delegates pass tomorrow becomes the lived reality of 12 million United Methodists around the world.

General Conference 2019, Day 2

For [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall,
that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:14)

Bishop Ken Carter preached on this text in opening worship, reminding us that while we may have erected barriers, Christ has already reconciled us to one another through the cross. Our narrative is controlled by God’s story – a story of creation, not dismantling, of inclusion, not exclusion. 

Following worship, members of the Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) reported on their process and the plans that emerged from it, but also on the relationships they formed. Clearly this was a transformative experience for all involved, where people felt heard, valued, and included, and they were able to envision us moving forward together despite our differences. If our future was in their hands, we might be headed in a different direction. 

But it’s not. 

The COWF was intentionally created to represent the diversity of the denomination. They were also required to be open to the future of the UMC together, not apart. They worshiped and prayed, and they operated by consensus. However, nothing that came out of the COWF will take effect unless approved by the General Conference delegates, a body that reflects the political, often polarizing process through which they are elected. 

The first sign of how those petitions might fare came through this afternoon’s process of prioritization. Delegates rated each petition – both those from the COWF and those submitted by others – as either high or low priority for consideration. The results were telling.

Of highest priority were petitions that recommend changes to Wespath, the UMC’s pension system, that would accommodate the departure of congregations or individuals from the denomination. A close second was the Traditional Plan, which retains restrictions on LGBTQ inclusion with stricter accountability and harsher penalties for disobedience. The plan was not initially part of the COWF’s report, but was added under pressure from conservatives. The third and fourth priorities were petitions submitted by two different individuals on disaffiliation, which articulate how those who wish to leave the UMC may do so without losing their property. 

Number five was the One Church Plan, which many, including the vast majority of bishops, recommend as our best chance for remaining united. Far down the list was the Connectional Plan, the COWF’s other proposal for going forward as one body, albeit segregated according to policy on sexuality.

It was disheartening to realize that the highest priority for the delegates who will determine our future is how to divide the property after the divorce. I had heard it said that the only things that have held the church together to this point were the trust clause and the pension fund. Dating to founder John Wesley, the trust clause in UMC deeds articulates that if a congregation leaves the denomination, its property reverts to the UMC. A delegate today claimed that pension holdings of $4.7 billion represent the church’s largest asset. There is clearly a lot at stake for those who contemplate leaving. 

It’s tempting to look at today’s priority rankings and conclude that the marriage is over, and most of our delegates wants to get on with divvying up the property. Conservatives are already claiming victory, as Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of the advocacy group Good News said, “We’re very happy the Traditional Plan received the majority of the votes. In spite of all the efforts of the groups and the bishops, the church remains committed to a scriptural understanding of sexual ethics.”

But it is still early in the process. Today’s vote only identified priorities for perfecting the legislation. Votes on adopting any plan are still down the road, and the plans could go through significant revision before those votes occur. 

For more details on the day’s proceedings, see this UM News release.

General Conference 2019, Day 1

The United Methodists have gathered in St. Louis, and the atmosphere is heavy with expectation about what the next four days will mean for our denomination. The church’s future is in the hands of 864 elected delegates, half clergy and half laity, who represent UMC membership around the world. Thousands more have gathered knowing that history is in the making and wanting to be first-hand witnesses. We want to take in the nuances, the side conversations, and the activities that are not captured in the live stream or the official record. And we want to live into and live out our connectional nature, not just in the legislative process, but even more so in the friends and colleagues we encounter and process with.

Today I’ve seen friends from my current home in Western Pennsylvania, as well as West Virginia, Illinois, Oregon, Ohio, Tennessee, and elsewhere.  Some images from today:

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LGBTQ United Methodists and their supporters singing outside the Convention Hall.

 

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Protestors across the street warning of eternal damnation for straying from God’s truth.

 

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Therapy rabbits brought in by the Love Your Neighbor Coalition to provide healing at a stressful time.

This was a day of prayer before legislative sessions begin tomorrow. United Methodists around the world have been praying for this process since it began almost three years ago, and our best hope for remaining “united” Methodists is that this permeation of prayer allows us to find common ground. As deeply as I want to believe in the Holy Spirit’s power to soften hearts, factions within the church claim competing truths that are unlikely to change.

Many believe that the Christian church is in the midst of another reformation, and homosexuality is the flashpoint issue that masks deeper division. At times of great social change, as this is, there are two opposing responses: embrace the change or resist it. Those who embrace it welcome and value the cultural, racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, and, yes, even the theological diversity that the church is experiencing.

Those who resist change see it as a threat to the authority structures and power relationships that have defined institutions such as the church and the family. For them, we are already in schism, and just need to make it official. In addition to the three plans crafted by the Commission on a Way Forward, delegates will consider dozens of petitions submitted by individuals or groups that offer other options. Among them are proposals to allow United Methodist bodies to make a “gracious exit,” should they want to leave following the outcome of this process, and others that call for dissolution of the church altogether, including detailed timelines and processes for allocating assets.

Throughout this day of prayer, bishops appealed to unity, and the liturgy made repeated use of the refrain: “We are the Body of Christ, baptized in his name, redeemed by his blood, filled by the Holy Spirit.” Yet the setting did little to convey such unity, with bishops seated onstage and delegates at tables across a vast stadium floor, and observers high above in the stadium seats. (I understand that monster trucks will move into the space the day after the UMC departs.)

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The Body of Christ is deeply divided and badly bruised. In just a few days time we will know whether the prayers of this day and the months preceding will keep us united, or whether we will emerge in formal schism. But the Body of Christ, including the body of Methodism, has experienced division before, and should the UMC not survive intact, the passion and commitment on display this week means that Methodism will continue in some form(s) well into the future. It just may be a bumpy ride getting there.

Out of Africa

As noted in my last post, the Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) has completed its work, offering three options for how the United Methodist Church (UMC) may resolve its long-standing division over inclusion of gays and lesbians. Even as the Commission’s report was emerging, conservative United Methodists were already discrediting the process and claiming with confidence that General Conference will continue to uphold traditional values, as it has in the past.[1]

What they rarely disclose but clearly count on is that General Conference no longer represents mainstream American values, as it has through most of the history of American Methodism. Conservatives can boast of upholding traditional values for one reason alone: Africa.

The United Methodist Church is described as a global denomination, but 98% of its membership is in the US and Africa, and the balance between those two regions is shifting rapidly. UMC membership has flourished in Africa, as it declines in the US. General Conference delegations represent the membership in each region, so African countries represent an ever-increasing share of General Conference delegates. Central Conference delegates, the vast majority of whom are African, increased from 13% in 2004 to 42% in 2016. Sexual ethics in Africa are generally more conservative, so the votes of African delegates are essential in retaining policies that restrict full inclusion of gay United Methodists.

While conferences outside the US are permitted to adopt policies that are consistent with their cultural context, the US church does not have the same opportunity. By voting down every plan to restructure the UMC that would have allowed that to happen, conservative delegates have retained and increased their majority, while making the church increasingly out of step with the American mainstream.

Medical and social sciences no longer view different sexual orientations as deviations but as normal variants. The Supreme Court has upheld same-sex marriage, a move that 55% of Americans favor, including 64% of Mainline Protestants and 73% of those under the age of 30.  An even higher percentage of Americans (62%) support the acceptance of homosexuality, including 66% of Mainline Protestants and 70% of Catholics.

This greater acceptance is not just among moderate and progressive Christians. Prominent evangelicals such as Jim Wallis, Eugene Peterson, and Jen Hatmaker have changed their thinking about homosexuality, including young evangelicals Rob Bell and Rachel Held Evans, while Matthew Vine, Trey Pearson, Julie Rodgers, and others have come out themselves.[2] On this issue at least, the UMC is increasingly at odds with the majority US culture and especially to its own young people, who have urged us to find a way to live together.

Yet US conservatives seem determined to prevent the rest of the American UMC from adopting policies that reflect this growing acceptance, and an African voting bloc allows them to do that. Methodism in Africa has roots in missionary activity by British, American, and African Methodists, and missionary churches continued until the 1960s and ‘70s. Many churches begun by British Methodists became independent bodies, but those that are now part of the UMC became Central Conferences within the UMC’s predecessor denominations, bringing vitality and cultural diversity, but allowing US churches to continue a paternalistic relationship with African Methodists.

Kalaba Chali exposes the tactics of the conservative caucus Good News as a form of Neo-colonialism in his article about a recent gathering in Nairobi called Africa Initiative UMC: Prayer and Leadership Summit. The gathering was convened by Good News to instruct Africans how to vote in the upcoming General Conference, a strategy they have employed for years. Chali writes that the summit ignored the many challenges facing African nations, just as Christian missionaries in the past turned a blind eye to their countries’ slaughter and enslavement of African people.

Conservatives themselves rarely acknowledge how much their dominance within the UMC depends on African delegates, or the tactics they employ to influence those delegates’ votes. Mark Tooley, of the the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy, made that explicit when he boasted that the UMC’s addition of one million members from the Methodist Church of Cote d’Ivoire in 2004 would make “any ‘pro-gay’ shift by future General Conferences increasingly impossible.”[3]

A look at our history reveals a curious reversal in conservative American Methodists’ view of Africans. A century ago, when considering whether to allow black Methodists a place in a reunified Methodist church, southern delegates argued that African Americans were not sufficiently developed to serve in leadership over white Methodists. Even so, delegates noted, they were more civilized than savages in Africa, due to the influence of slavery, because white southerners could boast “of the great distinction of having brought up a race from Africa through slavery into a wide and cultured civilization.”[4]

Conservative Methodists now tout African Methodists as morally superior to those who support the inclusion of gays and lesbians. Yet paternalism continues, as Good News instructs African delegates to vote in ways that benefit US conservatives, with little regard for other issues facing African Methodists themselves.

I have long maintained that US conservatives would not approve any restructuring plan or change in policy regarding homosexuality unless they see a win in it for them. Unfortunately, the COWF does not seem to have come up with anything that conservatives deem acceptable.

I hope that the prayerful process observed by the COWF and the Council of Bishops can continue through the 2019 General Conference and truly change hearts and minds. I pray that the African representatives to the COWF will provide leadership in their churches so that fewer of them vote in lock step with US conservatives. I pray that some previously unforeseen solution emerges from the General Conference floor next year that can allow us to continue as one body despite our deep divisions on this issue.

Should that not occur, the UMC will be the victim of what could be described as a hostile takeover. Conservatives warn of the mass exodus of traditionalists if there is any change of policy, while ignoring the hemorrhage of moderate and progressive members over the past four decades, especially young people, who represent the church of the future. I fear that hemorrhage is only beginning.

[1] See William J. Abraham’s essay “In Defense of Mexit: Disagreement and Disunity in United Methodism,” in Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness (UMC General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2018), pp. 1-28; see also Rob Renfroe’ s essays Respect or Contempt and Seeing the Future and other articles from Good News.

[2] There are a variety of interpretations of the handful of scripture passages that address same-sex behavior, and for many Christians, this issue is similar to slavery, polygamy, and divorce, which we now view differently because of our changing social context.

[3] Tooley, “Light from the Dark Continent: Africans’ Orthodoxy Steadies United Methodist Church,” Touchstone, Sep. 2004, p. 63.

[4] Methodist Episcopal Church South (MECS) delegate F. J. Prettyman, recorded in the MECS 1918 Daily Christian Advocate,  p. 98.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

June is annual conference season, and many conference conversations this year, both formal and informal, address the work of the Commission on a Way Forward (COWF). After wrapping up its work this spring, the Commission submitted to the Council of Bishops three possible plans for addressing the place of gays and lesbians in the United Methodist Church (UMC).

The Bishops recommended what is called the One Church Model (a.k.a. the “local option.”) Under this plan all language relating to homosexuality would be removed from the UMC Book of Discipline, allowing conferences, pastors, and congregations to make decisions about the ordination or marriage of gays and lesbians that are consistent with their own context.

An alternate plan, the Multi-Branch One Church Model (a.k.a. the Connectional Conference Plan), would feature a unified core and three US jurisdictions with different theology and perspectives on ministry with LGBTQ persons – progressive, contextual, and traditional.

Finally, the Traditionalist Plan would retain all current prohibitions based on sexuality and strengthen accountability for those who defy church law on this issue.

I talked with a number of folks about the plans at the annual conferences I attended, including:

  • A young couple who belong to the Wesleyan Covenant Association who insisted that neither of the One Church models would be acceptable because they would mean being in fellowship with those who are not obedient to scripture.
  • A woman who wished there had been a clear progressive option that affirmed LGBTQ inclusion, since that omission has caused the One Church Model to be branded as such.
  • A Circle of Grace conversation in which most members hope we can find a way to move past this conflict that consumes so much of the church’s time, energy, and resources.

As we consider the best way forward, it is instructive to look at our past. Interestingly, both of the One Church models, which seek to hold the UMC intact, mirror solutions to historic conflicts in American Methodism.

The One Church Model that would remove all restrictions is essentially how women gained full clergy rights in 1956, an issue that had dogged the church since 1888 when women first applied for ordination in the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC). The MEC granted them local ordination in 1924 so they could perform sacraments as missionaries and serve congregations during a shortage of male clergy following World War I. This arrangement resulted in a sliver of congregational polity within our connectional structure and left clergywoman with no guaranteed appointment and no representation at annual, jurisdictional, or general conferences.[1]

In the 1930s, the MEC was concerned with reunification with the MEC South, which was accomplished in a 1939 merger that also included the Methodist Protestant Church and formed the Methodist Church. Women continued to lobby for full clergy rights, and in 1956 the General Conference considered a petition to allow unmarried women and widows to apply for itinerancy, or the “traveling ministry.” Many resisted this move, fearing it would foist female clergy on unwilling congregations, an argument used today against ordaining gays and lesbians.

While debating the petition, one delegate proposed an amendment to strike the phrase “only unmarried women and widows may apply,” which was defeated. Later in the debate, an amendment to allow annual conferences to decide the matter was approved. The idea of local control was more persuasive than opening ministry to all women, although both amendments had the same effect.[2]

The Multi-Branch One Church Model would create three jurisdictions that cover the entire US, which is similar to the Methodist Church’s Central Jurisdiction that was formed in the 1939 merger. Whereas white Methodists were organized by region, the Central Jurisdiction included all black Methodists, regardless of geographic location. Many view this segregated structure as a shameful chapter in our history, but at the time, it was the only way the MEC South would agree to the merger. The concession they made was to allow African Americans to be part of the same church, rather than forcing them into a separate denomination.[3]

The Council of Bishops endorsed the One Church model, and many moderates and progressives favor it as well. Few like the idea of constituting yet another segregated structure, but that may be the best way to remain a single denomination.

I wish I could express more hope that one of these plans will succeed when General Conference meets in February 2019 to consider the issue of sexuality. Unfortunately, my conversations at annual conference and responses from conservatives lead me to believe that nothing will change, other than tightening the current language. This will most certainly lead to the exodus of progressives and possibly some moderates, a step that many had hoped the COWF could help to avert.

While US conservatives are increasingly out of step with the US mainstream and many evangelicals on this issue, the growing body of delegates from Africa allows them to defeat legislation that would loosen or remove restrictions, or even allow local decisions. Even if the Multi-Branch Model passes General Conference, two-thirds of annual conferences would need to approve the necessary constitutional amendments, and that is unlikely to happen.

Ironically, African conferences are free to set their own policy around cultural differences, yet it is their votes that are preventing the US from doing the same. My next post will look specifically at the complex relationship between African and US United Methodists and the implications for the future of the church.

 

[1] For a discussion of this action, see my book We Shall Not Be Moved: Methodists Debate Race, Gender, and Homosexuality (Wipf & Stock, 2014), pp. 66-77.

[2] Ibid., pp. 77-83.

[3] Ibid., pp. 39-45. See also Morris L. Davis’s “The Methodist Merger of 1939: ‘Successful’ Unification?” in Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness (UMC General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2018), pp. 181-191.

A House Divided

The United Methodist Church (UMC) continues to struggle over the place of LGBTQ Christians in our church, and as the Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) resumes its work, the idea of schism lurks around that process. We see how the issue divided other churches, as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and the Episcopal Church all experienced breakaway denominations after approving the ordination of LGBTQ persons. We recall the splintering of American Methodism as dozens of groups at various times no longer found Methodism a comfortable home. We recognize Methodism’s larger fracture over slavery in 1844 that divided us into northern and southern bodies. Many fear we are headed to another separation; others believe we are already there and just need to make it official.

Before we rush to such a divorce, we should consider carefully what the impact will be at all levels of the church. Many individuals will feel conflicted, and members of the same family may be pulled in different directions. While there are progressive and conservative congregations that are clear about where they would settle, the great majority of local churches would find themselves torn in two. James C. Howell offers a vision of what a congregational split would look like, using the church he serves as the example. He details the loss of members, the division of property, the fracturing of families, and the loss of resources for missions.

Congregations are not the only groups that would be divided. A UM Deaconess said to me once, “What would happen to us?” A small group within the UMC, the Deaconesses and Home Missioners would become even smaller and lose their internal diversity – likewise with United Methodist Women, United Methodist Men, and college and youth ministries. Agencies would be divided, and mission efforts thrown into chaos.

Methodism would cease to be the “big tent” church that has proudly made room for disagreement that does not threaten our core identity. There are factions within the UMC that see our response to LGBTQ persons as representing deeper, core values, but most United Methodists do not see this as an issue that should divide the church. At a time when the needs of the world cry out around us, are we serving Christ well by devoting so many resources to an issue that has no easy resolution?

History tells us that we are stronger if we remain united. After nearly a century apart, the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), MEC South, and Methodist Protestant Church approved reunion to become the Methodist Church in 1939. But unification came at a cost – a cost that differed for each side. Segregationists who advocated for a separate denomination for African American Methodists lost out to those who argued for a single body. Those who sought union on equal footing saw the creation of a segregated institution that, for many, remains a point of deep shame. We like to think we’ve moved beyond racism, but our country clearly has not, and there are no doubt United Methodists who wish the color line was still in place. The institutional resolution did not resolve our differences.

Perhaps the most persuasive argument that brought the north and south together in 1939 was that a unified church could stand more strongly against fascism and other global problems at the time. We face equally daunting challenges today. Climate change has unleashed more frequent and more devastating storms, along with droughts and rising sea levels that threaten our most vulnerable communities. Vicious partisanship and outright hostility to racial and religious groups spawn hate speech and crimes. The recent tax bill will put more money in the pockets of wealthy individuals and corporations, while those in poverty see little benefit. The crisis of opioid addiction has been declared a national health emergency.

Methodism’s strong history of social justice includes disaster relief, ecological ministries, inter-religious dialogue, and global health programs that address those very problems. But we have less to devote to those efforts when our resources are tied up in an ongoing contest about the rights of LGBTQ persons. Just as in 1939, any solution the COWF offers will not resolve our differences. The question is whether enough of us share core beliefs to remain a single body that is better able to minister to a hurting world. Any compromise will leave folks on both ends of the spectrum dissatisfied, and many individuals and congregations may well leave, as they have at other such times. But will we, as Methodists did 80 years ago, realize that we are stronger together and can better achieve our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?