This is the question haunting my beloved United Methodist Church: what kind of church will we be? As the delegates from our worldwide UMC connection meet as a General Conference over the next four days in St. Louis, MO, this is surely the question of the hour. After their work is through, what kind of church will we be?
It’s almost too painfully cliché to ask this question, let alone write (yet another!) blog post on it. So why bother?
Well, I am still stunned— in awe, really— that the most compelling visions for what the United Methodist Church can be and should be are so incredibly disparate. Many are struggling for a church that is fully inclusive of LGBTQ people, in marriage and ordination, especially. Many others are struggling for a church that upholds biblical authority, particularly as it pertains to traditional understandings of human sexuality. These are two different visions from two very different starting places of concern.
And yet, I find a glaring irony behind these disparate visions: we would be loath to find any General Conference delegate who does not cherish both an inclusive church and a church formed under biblical authority, no matter their starting assumptions! That may seem incredibly obvious to all who have been deep in the conversation, but it’s clear from the pre-General Conference rhetoric I’ve seen that many of us still don’t really appreciate that about each other. One group believes that they possess the most genuine vision of what real inclusiveness is all about. Meanwhile, another group claims to have the true, faithful grasp on the Bible’s teaching regarding human sexuality, that they are the ones who truly uphold biblical authority. Yet we all claim to walk as inclusive, biblical Christians, obviously with varying understandings of what this means!
So it’s now a tug-of-war between which vision of inclusiveness and biblical authority will garner the most votes. And again, as it has been since 1972, this fight will result in winners and losers, all equally claiming to be in the right, on God’s side, of course. Except this time, there is the strong gumption, on both the progressive and the conservative wings of the church, to part ways, if their respective vision of “what kind of church we will be” does not prevail.
It’s deeply troubling for me to even imagine splitting apart like that.
I have to confess, I do not know what will come of things, and that has me feeling quite anxious right now. I know I’m not alone in harboring this kind of fear. If you’re still reading this and have a stake in what’s happening, you’ve probably got some share of the anxiety bug, too. Just admit it!
So I offer both myself and you a biblical thought that just might ease off the anxiety and lead to the best future for the United Methodist Church, come what may.
“…we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
1 John 4:16-18
John Wesley quoted from the biblical book of 1 John a lot, especially when talking about being perfected in love. Deeply profound passages like this one certainly explain why.
We all know it, and yet we easily forget it. At the end of the day, and in the great Right Now of our lives, it all really does boil down to love, or a lack of it. If we want to understand love, then go deeper in God. If we want to understand God, then go deeper in love. Daring to surrender ourselves to this intimate power of Love, a Love we all hunger for, forces our shadows of fear, judgment, and rejection to simply fade away into the nothingness they really are. All that’s left is the bond of God, made known in God’s love for us, our love for God, and our love for one another, gathered within the sacred “love dance” of the Triune God.
The presence of fear, suspicion, anger, accusations, side-taking, ideological banner-waving, and self-righteous crusading, is the conspicuous absence of love. I know that sounds so naïvely obvious. Yet for Christ’s sake and ours, could we not pause long enough to call out all this shadowy behavior for what it is— the rejection of Love for the expediency of power— and reclaim God who is Love, and Love who is God? Could we claim Love to effectively exorcise our demonic tendencies to glorify our positions, stances, and political tactics to the detriment of our brothers and sisters? Let’s try it.
Looking at things again as I bring myself back down from my lofty “love” perch for just a moment, it may very well be that a unified church is simply not possible. If we’re honest, we don’t have a “United” Methodist Church now. I have desperately wanted us to remain one united church. I still do. I’ve prayed and worked for it.
If it’s simply not possible, we may be forced to painfully admit it and own up to our failure. It may very well be a sober admission of “it is what it is.”
But no matter where we find ourselves, even between the most gaping ideological divides, we still have the opportunity to be the living incarnation of Love towards one another. If that alone could happen— if we could truly grasp the depths of Love for one another— it would be a powerful witness. And then, the crucified Christ who embodies our collective sin and failure could be glorified in our midst, even if his Body is still broken on the cross of our shortcomings.
If we simply let it all go, rest in Love, and unconditionally give this gift to one another… If we could put flesh to the presence of God who is Love among us, then maybe… just maybe… we could all discover the glimpses of a compelling vision for what the whole Church could be, no matter what becomes of our beloved United Methodist Church.