In-Sight: Beyond Separation (1)

When stating my resistance to schism in the Church, and particularly in The United Methodist Church, I am often asked, “So, what do you think we should do in order to avoid it?”  Behind the question is another question, “Do you have a plan?”  This is an appropriate question because a number of proposals have been put on the table in the last year.  It is not unusual for people to think I might have one too.

But I do not, and the reason is simple: for me to add another plan to the existing collection violates my call for holy conversation.  I can only have a plan after talking with others, hearing a variety of views, and considering options that are larger than my single mind can conceive.  Therefore, I can only speak of a plan after a round-table process.

But I can speak of principles which I think should guide us when we gather for Christian conferencing. I can share what might be called “principles before a plan.”  I will begin writing about such principles, sharing two today which I believe are crucial.

First, re-frame General Conference 2016, moving the end-game from deciding whether or not to separate to discerning how to remain united.  The psychological shift is essential if we are to avoid schism.  Delegates should be elected to General Conference who are committed to the preservation of unity.  Because this could happen in more than one way, delegates could span the spectrum of opinion.  Their electability would hinge on their commitment to keep the church united.

Those delegates should be required to read and absorb wisdom literature related to unity, beginning with the Bible, and then moving into the Christian tradition with insights from ancient and modern unity advocates.  This would include, for example, insights from the Wesleys and from Pope Francis’ excellent encyclical, ‘The Joy of the Gospel.’  The point here is that there is an existing body of literature that can help us develop a bonafide unity mindset, which can lead to the creation of a mature unity plan.  It would be sad to divide the denomination based for failure to study how unity can be preserved.

Second, create a “how-then-shall-we-live”  Round Table to accept the responsibility of coming to the 2020 General Conference with “A Plan for a United Church.”  Some will balk at such an idea, trying to convince us that “we have been at this long enough,” but in the larger span of time, 40 years is hardly a long time. There are many issues in the history of Christianity that took a lot longer than that to discern and implement.  It would be wrong to divide the denomination under the artificial hysteria that alleges,  “we have to do it now!”

This allegation is fueled more by a North American “quick fix” business model than by a biblical wisdom mindset.  And in some cases it is an expression of a “last-ditch effort” freneticism by older, weary folks–not the ingredient that leads to good decisions.  There is nothing–absolutely nothing–that requires us to make a final decision in 2016.

Moreover–and this is significant–key factors are in play that were not even present in 2012.  It would be a shame to use outdated information to divide the denomination.  Across the belief spectrum on the issue of human sexuality we have fresh biblical, theological, cultural, legal, and scientific information that can guide us.  We should not make any decision based on old information.

Furthermore, 40 years having passed since we first began debating human sexuality means that a new generation of church leaders exists, so rather than using an “old guys rule” approach, the UMC should invite those who will have to live with whatever decision is made to have the key hand in discerning and proposing the plan.  This means an intentional election of lay and clergy delegates who are younger.

I will add other elements next week, but for now suffice it to say that the election of delegates who are committed to the preservation of unity and who are younger than might normally be the case would be two good pre-requisites to the proposing of a good plan that would enable us to avoid schism.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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