A Sad Separation

Many have reached out to Bishop Willimon in the weeks following the release of the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation” to find out what he was thinking. The long wait is over: the Ministry Matters quarterly periodical The Circuit Rider has now released his essay “A Sad Separation.” Here is what he said:

As a young pastor I had a couple in my congregation who told me that though they were going to divorce, it would be “friendly.”

“We don’t want to hurt each other or the children. We just want to be separate.”

This sounded nice to me until one of their lawyers, a member of the congregation, snorted, “Yea, that’s what they all say. It’s the lie they tell themselves to deal with their guilt. A gracious divorce can’t happen—if they were ever in love. Pastor, don’t aid their mutual delusion.”

Ouch.

So now the church called “United” is going public with our friendly separation*. We’ve been here before. In 1844, Methodists in my part of the world decided that we were fed up with a decade of debate over whether or not Methodists could own slaves.[1] We separated, giving all sorts of elegant theological justifications for the split. The Methodist Church South was at last rid of fellow Methodists whose disagreements made us uncomfortable. Safe in our Methodist Episcopal Church South, devoid of debate, our delusions continued for decades (and was overturned a hundred years later by reunion long after the Civil War).

After the ill-considered, ill-led 2019 General Conference, here we are again. The bishops decided once-and-for-all to settle the complex of questions surrounding the place of LGBTQ Methodists (unsolved by five General Conferences in succession) by having a special General Conference and forcing the same people who deadlocked at the last General Conference to vote once again. Publicly, while there were prayers for divine guidance, privately the factions had already decided where they stood. Positions became more entrenched. A series of dense questions were reduced to simplistic labels: left/right, liberal/conservative, progressive/traditional. Strategies were devised for how to coerce others into whatever point of view they had before we started praying. Surprise! A more punitive polity narrowly passed by about the same margins as the previous General Conference. Cost? $7 million.

A denomination with a chronic condition of debate and disagreement over issues related to sexual orientation and identity acted as if our condition were a problem to be fixed through a once-and-for-all vote. The majority silences the minority and calls it “holy conferencing.”

All that the 2019 General Conference did was make a chronic condition into a life-threatening crisis. The Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation[2] is not so much an agreement as resignation to the inevitable. The Protocol to be set before the 2020 General Conference (will we ever learn?) punts the crisis to Annual Conferences and local churches. Now the battle that defeated the 2019 General Conference is taken to the local level.[3]

My heart goes out to the pastors and congregations. It’s hard to believe that the separationists will be content to take their $25 million, turn in the keys to their churches, and leave quietly.[4] In the conference I once served, I’d estimate that two-thirds of the pastors are loyally UMC, in spite of the issues, whereas half of the congregations are sympathetic to the WCA. Pity the UMC pastor who must lead a WCA congregation through the process of voting to stay or to leave.[5] The last General Conference wouldn’t have been so damaging if we had had a knock-down, no-holds-barred debate, sung a hymn, and gone home. Voting produced no solution, just winners and losers. So now that biblically indefensible process is going to be taken to the local church?

What will be left of the UMC after some of our most vital congregations and their vibrant pastors walk away from the rapidly shrinking UMC? Irreparable damage will be done to our institutions such as the publishing house and our world-wide mission organizations. Few of our current seminaries can make it without the Methodist Education Fund. There’s no way the $39 million set aside for “communities historically marginalized by racism” will make up for all that these communities will lose in a diminished UMC.

The one budgetary item that we agree to preserve at all cost? The clergy pension fund. That makes sense; most of the secessionism is clergy-driven, though how long the laity will sit for a clerical dismantling of their church remains to be seen.

Can you feel my sorrow?[6] All of us UMC leaders are stewards of a church we did not create and beneficiaries of a mission of a centuries-old institution that none of us earned or deserved. Every pastor talking so freely of leaving The UMC was educated, appointed, and sustained by The UMC. And yet, after a scant four decades of debate (not a long in church time) we are disposing of a church that is not ours to give away.

Is that why Jesus is never mentioned in the Protocols?

Separation–paring down the church to those who think as I do–won’t work because: 1. The nature of the Body of Christ and 2. The nature of Christ. 

When I was ordained in the early 1970s in South Carolina, the bishop could find no congregation for me that wasn’t full of people who were wrong about race. When I complained about the low quality of Methodists, the bishop said, “Why do you think God called someone like you into the ministry? You are free to allow God to convert all of them.”

I’ve been pastor and bishop to hundreds of churches, and I’ve never served a church where the congregation was in full agreement. Most of Paul’s letters are addressed to divided, sometimes bitterly split, churches. Why do you think Paul talked so much about unity and love? It’s what pastors do. Unsurprised by Christian differences, we preachers keep working for the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer “that they all will be one” (John 17:21). We keep muddling through, surprised by how much good God can do in a congregation in spite of our disparities, deeply grateful that Jesus said, “Follow me,” before he said, “Be of one heart and mind.”

To the second point, it’s of the nature of Jesus Christ to save people with whom I disagree, many of whom are unhappy that Christ saved and called me. I’m grateful for their obedience to Paul’s command to put up with me in love (Eph 4:2). They thereby remind me that we’re in the church, not because we are so open-minded, biblically faithful, loving, and inclusive but because Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, put us here.

On most Sundays I’m glad for the church’s Jesus-induced diversity. I’ve grown in my faith and learned much about Christ from people who are wrong about many things. Sometimes, I’ve tried to set them straight only to have the Holy Spirit intrude and prod me to say words I would never have said on my own: “I guess I was wrong.” What if they had walked out midway through my sermon?  

Separation is tragic because we thereby shut out some of our most challenging interlocutors and thereby shut out some of the most fruitful work of the Holy Spirit. When the IRD (in those rare moments when they talk theologically) tells me that I am soft on scripture, God help me, they are right! Who among my progressive buddies is going to challenge my biblical interpretation and push me to be a more faithful hermeneut? (And who will the IRD have fun kicking around once I’m gone and they are hunkered down with their boringly homogeneous buddies in Good News and the WCA?)

Go ahead. Get your church all cleaned up. Have everyone swear to your cherished ideology. What are you going to do about Jesus? Our Lord won’t stop reaching out and bringing in the “wrong” people, making my church more complicated and tougher to lead than I would like it to be. Just wait until the progressive UMC pastor discovers that she’s got folks in her congregation who are just as sexist, racist, and homophobic as the people who walked? Go ahead, covert them out of their homophobia; next Sunday Jesus will demand that you tackle their greed.

If I know anything about Jesus, he’ll show up with the nicest same-sex couple and their two children at the inaugural Sunday of the doctrinally-sound, Bible-believing, WCA-certified congregation. Then what? Separate into the Even More Faithful Methodist Church?

Speaking of Jesus (whom we should be talking about), our church once greeted the social, moral challenges of the world with a robust conversionist theology based upon our conviction that Jesus changes everyone he touches. Nothing is fixed and final, no matter how many voted it into the legalistic Book of Discipline. My thoughts about LGBTQ issues are different from what I thought just ten years ago. I know no Methodist whose views on race are unchanged from the way I was bred to think. In every church I served, people thought they knew where they stood on any number of issues—until they heard my sermons. How did that happen? Jesus.

For me to eagerly say goodbye to you and your slanted take on the gospel is to say that Jesus Christ has ceased to work in your life and mine, ceased converting us, transforming us, opening our hearts, moving us to repent. Because of Jesus, I’m not free to refuse to witness to you nor are you free to storm out and form a church more to your liking so you can stop talking to me.

Michael Vazquez, program director for Religion and Faith at The Human Rights Campaign, has already noted that, “The Church’s decision to split leaves many LGBTQ Methodists who want to be fully included in the life of the Church in limbo, trying to determine their place in a Church that has still not embraced them.”[7] No matter how many homophobic Methodists we progressives drive out of the discussion, even the most ideologically pure UMC will still have somebody who lacks my open-hearted, enlightened views. Blame it on Jesus’s determination to love and connect with people before they are able fully to embrace him. People like me, for instance.

When somebody threatened to leave my congregation because they disagreed with one of my sermons (or had become incensed by something they saw in the Social Principles), I considered it my pastoral duty to beg them to stay, arguing, praying with them, negotiating. As they pulled their car out of the church parking lot, I clung to the door handle, shouting to them one more reason why we needed them to stay in The UMC and put up with our congregation. Sometimes, by the grace of God, it worked.

Rather than work for a friendly divorce, why don’t we expend some energy obeying Ephesians 4:2 and run The UMC the way any competent pastor leads a congregation, asking, “How far can we go toward Christ together? How can we do church in a way that helps Christ to keep us together?

It’s a heck of a way to be the Body of Christ, yet from what I’ve witnessed in five decades in the UMC, it’s uniquely Christ’s way.

*Disclaimer: Because I’m a bishop, I’m prohibited–theologically and historically–from aiding and abetting church separation. Thus I write as one consecrated to “serve in the ministry of reconciliation” and “to seek the unity” of my church. Whenever talk in the church turns toward exclusion, separation, schism, or divorce, I’ve promised to talk togetherness. It’s my job.


For more from Bishop Willimon on the Protocol, see the interview he did with the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast.


[1]Sometime earlier, white Southerners had talked our fellow Methodist Episcopals into thinking that Wesley was wrong. So the church declared that enslavement of others was a personal choice. Abolitionist Methodists disagreed.

[2] Isn’t “separation” what you get when you fail at “reconciliation” and “grace”?

[3] Among the many inexplicable anomalies in this proposal is its encouragement for individual congregations to vote on whether to leave or to stay. Nothing in the history or present polity of Methodism supports this sort of rampant congregationalism.

[4] I’ve yet to meet the Methodists who put money in the offering plate to subsidize the formation of a separate denomination.

[5] Come on, all you folks who say you are for “biblical authority.” Where in scripture do you find justification for church governance through majority vote?

[6] Anger?

[7] Sanchez, Ray. “United Methodist Church proposes historic split over gay marriage and LGBT clergy,” CNN.com, January 4, 2020. 

14 thoughts on “A Sad Separation

  1. Serving a congregation which is divided on the issue of full inclusion of LBGTQ+ individuals in Representative Ministry of the Church has been a struggle. It should be! The first thing I did is to set the record straight. We had a two hour polity class following worship which went well. Heck, they paid more attention to that presentation than my sermon that morning! That polity “conversation” led into a discussion about how much they truly loved one another despite their differences. Right now, they’re not quite ready to give up on the church. We ended our discussion by reading together 1 Corinthians 13! They never realized that that text was about a church fight! That’s not quite true! They just liked it better as a wedding text.

    Stay tuned!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Len,
      One again, you are a model for how it ought to be done. Good leadership. If you can make polity interesting, more power to you. Wish I had you teach me polity in seminary.
      Will

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Bishop Willimon,

    Your characterization of this separation is disappointing. Especially coming from a Bishop who claims to “write as one consecrated to ‘serve in the ministry of reconciliation’ and ‘to seek the unity’ of my church.” Your words here are neither reconciliatory nor unifying. You write with dismay about the UMC’s separation, then refer to WCA-sympathizers as “separationists.” If you intended your characterizations throughout this piece as anything short of snide toward those with whom you disagree, I think you misunderstand how they come across.

    You lay the bulk of the blame at the feet of “separationists” who cannot tolerate a few decades of debate and disagreement. I would note that these groups you show such disdain for have engaged in the debate and disagreement without a hint of leaving for decades now. They are at the brink of leaving not because of the debate, but because of defiance. The punitive measures passed in 2019 were a (failed) attempt to require our Council of Bishops to uphold the standards of our denomination. Instead, the Council of Bishops has participated in, and at some times led the way, in the defiance. When an organization is led by a group who look with such scorn on its majority, a separation is inevitable. And so, likely, is the continued scornful view that the other side is to blame.

    Your description of yourself as a holy pastor sent to a racist congregation is unsurprising. Throughout this piece, you characterize yours as the righteous position, the separatists’ as the wicked position needing conversion. That “separatist” position has been a part of the official UMC position––the one where you were educated, appointed, and sustained––throughout your ministry and episcopacy. Though you are not obliged to agree with or support that position, it seems disingenuous to express such outrage about it after willingly accepting the mantle of Bishop in which you agreed “to guard the faith, seek the unity, and exercise the discipline of the whole church.”

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Come on man, I believe the UMC should stay together, for the simple fact that unity is more representative of the kingdom of God than separation. I also believe that Scripture plainly states that God calls who God calls, and anytime we try and tell God who God should or shouldn’t call, things go awry very quickly.

      But even you have to admit, the Good News/WCA they are crazy. They won the last GC very clearly, they won, and they still aren’t happy! Why aren’t they happy, because they only want things their way. How strong headed and full of yourself do you have to be to think that if this institution, that has formed you all of the sudden doesn’t do exactly what you want, even if it is 98% of what you want, then you are going to pack up your toys and leave.

      Goodness I sure hope none of the WCA folks get married, I’m joking of course. To tell the truth I don’t have a line firmly etched in the sand on this one, other than the line that I think if we are going to separate, it should be over something important. The UMC is dying and it isn’t because we can’t agree on issues of sexuality, it is because we haven’t been making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

      I serve a small community in rural North Carolina, where 1 in 4 children in the school system are hungry. That’s 25%! Now with the resources of a United Church, we can combat this issue. With the WCA wanting to take the resources for itself, maybe not, or we would have to join the WCA even though the church is pretty evenly split on the issue, so that we could continue in ministry. Goodness, I know this is not what was intended for our church. At what point did we get so polarized that we can’t even agree to stay together.

      I am so thankful for John Wesley and his theology, but we would do well to remember what John said to a group of pastors who were fighting much like we are today: “Even though we cannot all think alike can we not all love alike.” But the WCA seems to have its mind made up. They don’t want to be Methodist, they don’t want to live with those who don’t support their own interpretations of Scripture, and the light that the UMC produces to the world will dim, all in service of an idea that “we know better than God.” I pray the prayer I have been praying everyday since I was in Seminary at Duke many years ago, “Come Holy Spirit Come.”

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thank you Teddy! The sheer disdain and hate expressed in Bishop Willimon’s post is deeply disappointing, somewhat vitriolic, and largely incongruous with the office of Bishop.

      Like

  3. The UMC is now hopelessly broken. The debate was over the minute progressives decided they were no longer bound by the will of General Conference. There is no way to move forward because the decision making process has been rendered invalid–there is nothing left to hold us together. Everybody is free to do as they see fit. Progressives built the massive expensive superstructure, it will soon be up to progressives to support it. Traditionalists–who never wanted such a super structure in the first place–have been abandoning the UMC almost from the day it was launched. It is what happens when leadership tries to take its grassroots constituency in a direction it does not want to go.

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  4. The fact you think being faithful to the word of God instead of deviating from it to appease wordly social trends speaks volumes about your respect for the church you inherited and the faithful people who built it up amid great adversity.
    This isn’t a complex issue, what’s complex is the nonsense arguments people try to spin to ignore the plain words of Scripture, tradition and reason.

    Like

  5. Bishop,

    With respect, when you say, “The bishops decided once-and-for-all to settle the complex of questions surrounding the place of LGBTQ Methodists (unsolved by five General Conferences in succession)…,” that simply isn’t true. All of those General Conferences – up to & including the special session in 2019 – considered the options & chose to reaffirm traditional Christian sexual ethics. They DID solve the problem, and did so according to the processes we all agreed to follow. They DID settle the issue, and did so believing themselves to be both Biblically faithful & Spirit-led.

    I completely understand that a significant minority disagrees with the decision made by the Church. But to state that General Conference did not solve the issue is simply not the case; it’s simply that some disagree with the decision that was made.

    By the way – I am a big fan of your work & it has been very formative in my life & ministry. Thank you.

    Like

  6. Bishop Willimon – I thought I understood what you are saying until I read the disclaimer. I would love to read the version you might have written if you were not bound by your oath as a Bishop! Although I don’t care for the gratuitous shots you take at the various groups involved in the…um, scrum…I can’t find fault with your conclusions. Lord, help us all!

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  7. I have a lot of respect for some of your past work, Dr. Willimon. I find it sad that you used your platform to be oddly sarcastic about “the secessionists” (WCA) all the while pleading for unity. Also, to frame the conflict and division in the same terms as the historic split over slavery is disingenuous and historically inaccurate. As a doctor of theology you know better. Has it ever occurred to you that “the secessionists” are okay about parting ways because they are tired of having their attempts to be faithful to historic doctrine labeled as bigotry? Just a thought.

    Like

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