To Whom It May Concern:
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the future of the United Methodist Church, the only sect of Christianity that I’ve known. I’ve written this letter at least a hundred times in my head. I’m motivated to write it now because the closer we get to the special session in St. Louis in February, the more intense each side has become about the future of the church and homosexuality.
In 1972, four years after the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and The Methodist Church, the new denomination (The United Methodist Church) set out to establish its Social Principles as a response to the societal changes in the United States and around the world. The original document, presented at the ‘72 general conference, stated that homosexuals are people of sacred worth. A last-minute amendment added the now infamous “incompatible" phrase. For forty-six years that church has struggled with this public position.
There are those who support the current position of the church. Over the years, they have tried to enforce this position with consequences because they see the other side as covenant breakers. Organizations have sprung up to advocate not giving in to the other side. They send out monthly mailings and hold conferences to defend their position. Over the years, their position has shifted toward the enforcement of rules. These are conservatives. Although, conservatives vary in their thinking, feelings and behavior.
Those on the left, progressives, also have organized. They too mail out their position and organize training for individuals and congregations to advocate for a change in the denomination to fully include the LGBTQ community. The strategy of the left has been protesting and civil and biblical disobedience. They have been advocating for a simple plan that removes what they see as discriminatory language in the Book of Discipline. Like conservatives, not all progressives are the same.
The denomination behaves like a family. All families have major disagreements. Some manage disagreements better than others. We are all challenged by a force that moves people to have the same thoughts, feelings and actions. This force creates agreement, but it can also fuel rebellion. There is wide variation on how individuals and families respond. One factor that contributes to this variation is the ability to evaluate objectively one’s fear. When families, even denominations, are afraid people are compelled to agree. Disagreement is perceived as a threat to the survival of the group. Compliance is seen as the only way forward to escape danger. Families and even denominations can treat a perceived threat as real.
The idea that some disagreements are inherently more threatening than other is a matter of opinion, not facts. Some ideas are “hotter” than others because of this togetherness force. As people pile on and take sides, the intensity grows. The further disconnected each side becomes from each other, the more intense and extreme their positions become. Mature engagement moves the conversation in a more productive direction.
It is possible for people to stay together without agreeing on anything. Individual beliefs are based on thinking and not relationship pressures. In my experience, when society labels something as a “hot topic” families find themselves thinking differently, feeling differently and behaving differently without disrupting the relationships in the family. It requires a mature family leader who can manage themselves and guide their thinking based on core beliefs and principles through the tension and anxiety as it pops up in the family without cutting off or impinging on others. Good leaders know how to navigate an intense, reactive relationship system without contributing to or causing division.
Such is the state of our nation and perhaps the world. It has become close to impossible to think differently about a subject matter and still stay connect at the same time. Respect for the other’s thinking and beliefs is in short supply and is being replaced with “you are wrong,” “you are either with us or against us” and “your ideas are evil.”
It’s helpful to be factual during times of intense anxiety and reactivity. The fact is, we do not agree. The denomination has not agreed in several decades. But when has the church ever agreed? When has a family ever agreed? Disagreement and diversity are part of the human experience. Beliefs are what help us manage disagreements not create them. It would be better for the special session of general conference to vote on the fact that the delegates do not agree. This push for an agreement, what we ought to be, should be, or could be, are all fear-based reactions. Diversity is what is real; a denomination of individuals who think differently about a diverse array of subjects and beliefs while still calling themselves “United Methodist.”
I could make a list of the major disagreements I have with family members, close friends, congregants, elected officials, and with God. Yet, I do not have the luxury to cutoff or distance from any of them. A mature person understands that they and the family are better off if they lean into the challenge and find a way forward. There are a number of useful steps one can take, but it would take too long for me to explain them here.
I am progressive, so I welcome the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community. I will be praying for a way forward for the church I have participated in since my baptism. But whatever decision is made in February, I will move forward and so will everyone else in some shape, form and fashion. I may be a part of the denomination’s future and I may not. It will depend on the decision of a select few at the special session. I’m confident that conservatives, progressives and everyone else will do well whatever the outcome.
I found myself in the midst of this conflict a couple of years ago. It was just after then President Obama visited Japan to participate in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. President Obama spoke about reimagining a way forward that does not lead to war and annihilation. I can best summarize his speech with words that are familiar to me that are attributed to Dr. Murray Bowen, “We can all do better.” Not long after President Obama spoke, I started to wonder if 71 years from now our grandchildren will look back and wonder why we battled each other so fiercely. I’ll be long gone, but perhaps by then we will have learned that “we can all do better.”
I can do better.