One of Methodism’s strengths has always been its ability to hold within itself diverse beliefs and political views. Whereas many denominations tilt left or right, Methodism includes people across the theological and political spectrum. Overriding beliefs have held us together despite internal differences.
Methodist unity is facing its greatest test since the 1840s when the Methodist Episcopal Church split into northern and southern bodies (MEC and MEC South). The most visible cause of that fracture was slavery, specifically a slave-holding bishop in the south. But, as is often the case, there were deeper issues, including the relative authority of the bishops and the General Conference, with bishops holding more power in the south, and General Conference being the dominant body in the north.
Racism ran deeper than the ethics of slavery, and abolition did not bring the two sides together. Another 75 years passed before Methodist bodies reunited, following decades of debate about the place of black Methodists. The solution was a segregated structure that guaranteed no black pastor would serve a predominantly white congregation.
Today we once again face regional differences over inclusion of a historically marginalized group, and once again, deeper issues are at stake. Many US Methodists follow the larger society in affirming the full involvement of LGBTQI persons, especially in the north and west. Others, mainly in the southern US and Africa, advocate restrictions on their leadership based on more conservative cultural understandings and views of sexuality.
Centrists urge unity around the essentials of faith such as the saving power of God’s grace and our common mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That strong core should allow for the acceptance of difference on social issues such as sexuality.
But for those on either end of the issue, it is not just about sexuality. For conservatives, allowing gay marriage and ordination violates their reading of scripture and the covenant relationship embodied in our disciplinary policies. Progressives defend the overarching ethic of God’s love, which is available to all with no limit. For them the current policy puts God in a box of our own making. For conservatives that box defines who we are as a church and articulates boundaries we cannot cross and remain faithful to God’s word.
In his 2016 book What Are We Fighting For? Coming Together Around What Matters Most, Bishop Thomas Bickerton claims that such differences need not divide us, writing: “[In] the midst of great diversity, the foundational point upon which we explore and come to a deeper appreciation of one another is found when we are able to embrace a simple concept. People who think differently are not necessarily wrong. They are just different.” (p. 107)
Bishop Bickerton and other centrists hope that the two sides can meet in the middle and arrive at a flexible policy or structure that allows for regional differences. But that can only succeed when the polar opposites are willing to bracket what they see as ultimate truths. Successful mediation of conflicting beliefs depends on each side admitting, with humility, that they may not be 100% right, nor is the other side 100% wrong. Negotiation cannot succeed when both sides cling to non-negotiables.
In a recent talk, a member of the Commission on a Way Forward pointed out that the Commission reflects more clearly the diversity within the denomination than does General Conference. The Council of Bishops was intentional in drafting Commission members who represent the regional, theological, political, racial, gender, and ministerial composition of the church. The General Conference, on the other hand, is a more polarized body, because it is the product of a highly political election process.
Given the Commission’s diversity and its focused and prayerful attention to this issue, many hope that it can craft a workable plan for moving forward as a unified denomination with regional flexibility. Such a plan would still need to pass the special General Conference session called for February 2019. For that to occur, conservative and progressive Commission members would need to persuade like-minded delegates that remaining together is a win for everyone, even if they don’t walk away with everything they had hoped for.