Who are we now?

Given the fact that most of my longstanding readership is moving or has moved out of the United Methodist Church, I’m not sure who will read this or have any interest in this, but I feel a bit like the guy stranded on a desert island building a fire in hopes a plane or ship passing by might see it.

We in the United Methodist Church have a serious problem.

It is easy to look at the huge wave of churches and pastors leaving the UMC and say it is all about misinformation and animus. That would be a foolish conclusion.

The most effective argument, by far, in persuading people to depart the UMC is that our polity is broken. The argument goes something like this: our Book of Discipline is a “scrap of paper,” our accountability systems are arbitrary at worst and ineffective at best, our General Conference is pointless and toothless, and the meaning of what it means to be United Methodist depends more on who your particular bishop is rather than any shared tradition, belief, or covenant among us.

Again, you can pretend none of this is true, but if the UMC wants to convert this hemorrhaging into a total collapse, we will say those who left had nothing to say and we have nothing to learn from the last few decades of strife. Because here is the truth: Even as we lose members by the thousands we have thousands – perhaps millions – of members still in the UMC who have very little faith in the denomination.

I, honestly, don’t know how this can be fixed. Perhaps it cannot.

I don’t even know what the first step is.

I recall over the last couple decades how often someone has asked a question along the lines of “What makes a United Methodist a United Methodist?”

I was just talking about that with a person considering membership in the congregation I serve. I talked to her about universal beliefs we all share as stated in the Apostles Creed. I talked to her about this evangelical renewal movement started by John and Charles Wesley that preached ceaselessly about justification by faith, free grace, and the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. I talked about the movement that was so passionate about the gospel that it adopted whatever means it could discover to save souls, and in doing so transformed communities and nations.

My sense is that this story no longer is shared by United Methodists as our story. When we look for the things that unite us, too often, it feels like we look to the superstructure of the denomination rather than the power of our story.

If this is not “our story” any longer, what is our story? Who are we now? What is the vision of United Methodism that can give us the clarity and will to repair what is broken within our denomination?

I guess a better question really comes first. Do we want to be healed? Do we even think it is necessary?

The divided soul of Methodism

We have been reaping a lot of poisoned fruit in the division of the United Methodist Church.

John Wesley warned us this would happen.

In his sermon “On Schism,” he warned the Methodist societies of his day about the dangers of division within the church, which he argued was the true biblical meaning of the word “schism.” Such factions and parties, he wrote, bring forth evil fruit.

It opens a door to all unkind tempers, both in ourselves and others. It leads directly to a whole train of evil surmisings, to severe and uncharitable judging of each other. It gives occasion to offense, to anger and resentment, perhaps in ourselves as well as in our brethern; which, if not presently stopped, may issue in bitterness, malice, and settled hatred; creating a present hell wherever they are found, as a prelude to eternal hell.

To be clear, we were rent with division long before traditionalists started leaving the church. We fell into hostile camps long ago. When I write that schism is bearing evil fruit, I do not lay the blame at the feet of those currently disaffiliating. I lay the blame on all of us. I have no interest in parceling out blame or engaging in the sibling game of “he did it first.” I merely observe that the long division within the UMC, which is now leading to actual division from the UMC, has given birth to many of the things Wesley warned us about.

I have seen Methodists calling their brothers and sisters tools of Satan. We have spat venom at each other and given in to bitterness and malice so much that I fear it will indeed settle into a real hatred. We gather around the fires of our contempt and confuse the warmth we feel for the Holy Spirit’s flame. We who declare our tables open to all have, in too many cases, closed our hearts to each other. Not all of us, but far too many of us.

This began long before disaffiliation. We divided long before we started falling apart. The opportunity to stamp out this out when it was but an ember is long past. The trees like torches blaze with light.

We all need to be on our knees in prayer about this.

If we claim to be Wesleyan at all, we should heed Father John’s warning and work as diligently as we can to repent and repair the damage we have done to our own souls.

The pastor, his wife, and his girlfriend

I’ve been asking versions of the following question for about 10 years.

My understanding is that my clergy colleagues in the United Methodist Church who support what they call “full inclusion” are arguing that the denomination celebrate and solemnize same-sex Christian marriages between two people. I understand that my colleagues are sincere in their belief that such a stance is not only loving and biblical but also a matter of justice.

So help me out, please.

The City Paper of Pittsburgh recently published an anonymous article claiming to be written by a pastor of two UMC churches in Western Pennsylvania who claims to be bisexual and polyamorous. He writes of having a wife and a girlfriend and how his desire is for them to be able to all live together, but he knows if this arrangement were known, he’d lose his position as a pastor.

Since it is written anonymously, we cannot know if the facts provided in this article are true, but let us just assume for a moment that they are.

Here is where I need help.

My polyamorous colleague from Western Pennsylvania longs for the day when his polyamory will be affirmed and celebrated by the UMC.

To my centrist and progressive brothers and sisters in the UMC, I have a question and a request.

Is this the direction we are heading?

If it is not, please, please, please tell me the biblical and theological argument that stands in the way of his longing? I know the traditional argument about this, but that position has been deemed retrograde by most of my centrist friends and certainly my progressive ones. So without the traditional argument — or some version of it — how does the church answer the longing of this pastor and what I assume are some number of laity?

Back in 2013, I wrote to retired Bishop Melvin Talbert a similar question. At the time, he was leading the Western Jurisdiction’s resistance to the Book of Discipline and defying the Council of Bishops in pursuit of what he believed God required with regard to gay marriage. I wrote and I asked him if he could help me understand what arguments the church would have in the face of polyamory if we abandoned the one man – one woman definition of marriage. The bishop wrote me back to say he was only interested in the struggle that was before him not ones that might come later.

Well, later is here. It is unclear to me what resources the church has to respond to my anonymous and polyamorous colleague from Pennsylvania. Saying “Love is love” and “All means all” does not sound like a very strong argument to keep the girlfriend out of the parsonage.