GREG HARTON: The search for unity

Methodists struggle to align with all its members

Posted: July 9, 2018 at 1 a.m.

One Sunday back in March, members of the First United Methodist Church in Louisville, Miss., took a vote. The outcome reflected what its 12-million member denomination isn't.

The United Methodist Church isn't united at all.

Members of the Mississippi church voted 175-6, with one member abstaining, to leave the denomination and continue as the First Methodist Church of Louisville.

"It will forever be a Methodist church but not a United Methodist church," Pastor Mike Childs said.

The issue? It's a long-simmering debate within the denomination. Some members feel the church has strayed from teachings of the Bible and the United Methodist Book of Discipline. But the most intense part is over how the church faces the question of homosexuality as society changes its views.

I've been a United Methodist my entire life, raised up at Geyer Springs United Methodist Church in Little Rock and now a member of Central United Methodist Church in Fayetteville.

That Mississippi Church isn't the first to move away from the denomination over concerns about following Scripture. That question looms large over the denomination, which is governed by its General Conference of delegates who meet every four years. For many years, a campaign to remove the Book of Discipline's statement on homosexuality has been waged, along with resistance to it. The Book of Discipline declares "the practice homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching." So self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions are not to be performed by Methodist ministers or within United Methodist churches.

The church welcomes anyone into membership, and those aren't just words. I've never gotten a sense of antagonism toward any group or individuals. The question the church faces isn't about church membership, the availability of God's grace to all people or whether the church and its members view homosexuals as anything less than what they are, which is children of God of infinite worth. It's whether the church's members can remain true to their faith while accepting, even embracing, homosexuality as an acceptable characteristic of its leadership and as an integrated part of its church practices, such as marriage.

The gay rights movement's success in changing attitudes has rapidly advanced. Young people today will find it hard to believe that as recently as the mid-1980s, the American Psychiatric Association still included language in its diagnostic manual that treated homosexuality as a potential mental disorder. Today, the psychological approach isn't about changing homosexuality, but on helping people accept their own sexual identities or preferences.

Not many years prior to the Supreme Court's ruling that legalized gay marriage, people in the U.S. would have hardly predicted the turnaround was eminent. A lot of people in the workplace today can still recall the days when being discovered to be gay, or even suspected of it, was enough to ruin a career.

It should come as no surprise that the United Methodist Church would respond slowly. Any Methodist can attest to the sometimes excruciatingly slow pace of the church's processes. The church can move faster than the Catholics, but that's not really suggesting rapidity at all.

A special General Conference meets in St. Louis in 2019 and will consider a submitted plan for "a way forward" for the church. The Council of Bishops has recommended what it calls a "one church" plan. Ironically, the plan, if adopted, is likely to make the United Methodist Church feel even less like one church. Why? It attempts to give the smaller annual conferences, their churches and pastors flexibility to decide for themselves how to "reach their missional context while retaining the connectional nature of The United Methodist Church."

That will mean a United Methodist church in Arkansas might hardly resemble a United Methodist church in Oregon.

In a sense, the 50-year-old United Methodist denomination is already split. Despite the prohibitions, some churches have backed pastors who officiate at gay weddings or who are gay themselves. In 2016, one conference elected a married lesbian as its bishop in direct contradiction to the Book of Discipline. Other churches are firmly against changes to the Book of Discipline.

The bishops have devoted themselves to finding a compromise that, above all, preserves the "united" church founded 50 years ago. The question for members will be whether that goal is paramount. While the United Methodist Church is the largest part of Methodism and has done incredible national and international work for social good, the history of Methodism is filled with various, separate church organizations -- the Methodist Episcopal Church; the Methodist Protestant Church; the Methodist Episcopal Church, South; the African Methodist Episcopal Church; the Southern Methodist Church.

If the United Methodist Church's General Conference can manage a firm resolution of this ongoing issue, it seems unlikely to be done without some members, and maybe more entire churches, splitting away. That will be sad, but perpetuation of an organization -- even one as beloved by its members as the United Methodist Church -- isn't the most important issue. For people of faith, it's about how they respond to the biblical call on their lives and how they put that call into action.

When an organization's values are, or become, misaligned with those of its members, a realignment is a necessity. It's painful. Unity of a denomination at all costs should not be the goal. In matters of faith, remaining true to one's spiritual walk with God is far more important.

Commentary on 07/09/2018