First United Methodist Church - Wausau Wisconsin
Monday, August 21, 2017
Live and Share God's Love

Conference & Connections

Something of Our Past, and of Our Future

Jerry Morris

In the torn and troubled years before the Civil War, American Methodists were caught in the middle. They were a national church, with congregations both in the abolitionist North and in the slave-owning South. Every time the church met for General Conference, the spectre of that huge disagreement hung over their debate, and dominated every conversation.

For those in the North, ending slavery was a clear moral issue and they could not accept any compromise. The Southern Methodists, however, pointed out that the Bible never condemns slavery and in fact seems to take it for granted. The idea of dividing the Methodist church into northern and southern denominations cropped up periodically, but it needed a shake to get started. In the 1840s a slave-owning bishop from Georgia gave the church that shake. Northerners, who at that time held the majority, voted Bishop Andrew out of office, and the southern churches split off to form their own church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

Other American denominations split over the same issue at about the same time. (For Baptists the precipitating issue was whether it was all right to send a slave owner as a missionary to Africa. Southern Baptists saw no problem with the idea and formed their own Convention.) Unlike those other denominations, though, Methodists eventually re-joined to each other. It took a while (until 1939), and it was still a little messy (the southern churches only agreed to merge once a plan was devised for keeping black Methodists second-class members), but we did somehow manage to reconnect. (By the way, those discriminatory rules that disenfranchised black Methodists were quietly discarded in 1968, at the time that Methodists joined with the Evangelical United Brethren to form the United Methodist Church.)

All of which is to say that Methodists have seen their share of intractable arguments and even schism in their relatively brief lifetime as a church. Why do I bother with this history lesson? Because we may be heading down the same road. Today, as most of you know, the issue revolves around homosexuality, especially gay marriage and ordination.

Many United Methodists (especially in the Northeast and West) believe that we must foster greater openness for LGBTQ members, and reach out more intentionally to LGBTQ people outside the church, treating them as the children of God that they are rather than expecting them to change. Other Methodists (especially in the South, the Midwest, and overseas) point out that every time the Bible specifically addresses homosexuality, it takes it for granted that it is a sin, and these Methodists want to stand firm against a careless accommodation of the anything-goes attitude of modern culture.

We even have a precipitating event: in 2016, the Western Jurisdiction installed an openly lesbian bishop, in defiance of church rules, and this past April the Judicial Council affirmed that this action was indeed against our rules and therefore illegitimate. (It did not, however, remove Bishop Oliveto from her position, so no one knows exactly what to make of their decision.) In 2019, the UMC is holding a special General Conference in St. Louis to discuss the issue of homosexuality, and then our next regular GC will be in Minneapolis in 2020. Many observers are wondering if, after those two meetings, there will still be a United Methodist Church.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, first, because I realized that I’d be a little upset if my church split in three years and none of my leaders had ever mentioned that it might happen. But secondly, I want you to know this: a church split is an inconvenience, but it is not an end. Our individual congregations can continue doing ministry in our communities exactly as we have been. And, as we have seen, even a split isn’t always forever. The Church of Jesus Christ has weathered much worse than our current dispute.

Of course someone may in fact discover a “Way Forward” (the name of the 2019 special GC), and we may not split at all. That would be a relief, insofar as a divorce is always exhausting. But whatever fate befalls our global communion, we will be fine. The Spirit isn’t done with us yet.