Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Diversity Without Division

The United Methodist Church is not divided, it is diverse.

This distinction is crucial to understand in these weeks leading up to February's General Conference session. The practice of ministry looks very different from one region to another, from one town to another, even from one congregation to another in the same town, and even within one congregation!

And in this diversity of ministry, we are still the United Methodist Church. I am not sure when "diversity" became a bad thing, but among many it seems to be so. We are a beautifully, frustratingly diverse church; some people celebrate that and others dig in their heels against it.

Among the things we do very differently across the denomination are some practices that comprise the very heart of Christian discipleship: worship, Holy Communion, mission and service work, small group processes. Our buildings are diverse, our staffing structures are diverse, our administrative processes are diverse. We are a diverse denomination. (Or, as I have said before, we are a "holy mess.")

So, let me get to my point. In the United Methodist Church today, there are pastors who officiate at same-sex weddings, congregations that host same-sex weddings, and ordained clergy who are gay and out. And in the United Methodist Church there are pastors who will not officiate at same-sex weddings, congregations that refuse to host them, and conferences and bishops who would never ordain a person if they are gay and out.

That's the reality. That's what is happening now. And some look at that reality and see "division" whereas some see "diversity."

In addition, there are already a processes in place in our denomination to respond to all of that. We have processes by which we seek a "just resolution" to conflict. Paragraph 362 of our Book of Discipline says, "This review shall have as its primary purpose a just resolution of any violations of this sacred trust, in the hope that God’s work of justice, reconciliation and healing may be realized in the body of Christ."

The just resolution process allows for dialogue and relies on relationship. It means that one case may look very different from another, and be resolved in a very different way. And while that frustrates some, I would much rather have a flexible system that can be contextualized easily than a rigid system of automatic responses that we try to apply to every case everywhere, for all time.

Beyond that, there are already processes in place by which an individual member, a pastor, or a congregation can exit the denomination. There are connectional, structural, and financial implications in those processes, of course, and relationships that need healing and restoration as a result. Nevertheless we already have these processes in place. Those processes are utilized every year, as people and congregations decide to not be United Methodist any more.

We are "Methodists;" we have methods for doing everything we do!

My point is saying this is simply this. In practice, not a lot is going to change after this upcoming General Conference, no matter what happens there.

Pastors will continue to marry same-sex couples - the question is are we going to change our denominational policy to formally allow it.

People who are gay will continue to be ordained - the question is are we going to change our denominational policy to formally allow it.

For some, the answers to these questions will be a hard NO. For the "hard no" people on the right, it is a matter of Biblical obedience. But there are "hard no" people on the left as well, for whom just "allowing" it is not enough; it is a matter of Biblical justice and therefore our denominational policy needs to "mandate" it. This reflects the polarization in which we live these days.

If I may offer an unpopular opinion - the far right (and maybe the far left as well) will leave the United Methodist Church no matter what happens next February. And then in 2020 at the next General Conference we'll address the new reality and look toward the future.

And listen Linda, if we think the decision made at General Conference 2019 is going to "fix" the church once and for all, we are naive and short-sighted. There is no one easy way to "fix" our brokenness; salvation is a life-long endeavor.

But one thing we can do toward that end is to understand the distinction between divided and diverse, and to reclaim diversity as a healthy, beautiful characteristic of the church.

CLICK HERE to see my sermon about the Trinity in which I explore the idea of diversity without division and unity without uniformity.

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