God dreams a new thing into being
This week the United Methodist Church voted to adopt what is called the "Traditional Plan" for moving forward into this century of its history. The plan entrenches the position that gay people can't be ordained or married, and opens the door for further discriminatory measures to come. (There's been plenty of coverage of what unfolded which can easily be googled, in case you want more detail.) I wrote these words on the day this unfolded:
We left a Methodist Church last year because we couldn't tolerate our pastor's opinion about whether being gay was sinful, or her focus on congregational unity over justice. Since then we've joined a Presbyterian congregation where justice is a central theme, preached directly from the Bible. Our new pastor mourns with us from the pulpit when mass shootings take place in synagogues, addresses police violence against unarmed black people, and calls out the reality of sexual assault against women.
This is being church. These are the things Jesus did.
The message of justice and mercy rings out from the Hebrew scriptures and echoes down through the centuries to Jesus and eventually to us. Jesus didn't walk around smiling cheerfully and avoiding controversial subjects. He stirred up so much controversy those in positions of religious and political power determined he needed to die.
United Methodist polity is not unlike our nation's. It's a representative republic, with elected delegates who make decisions on behalf of their constituents at the regional, state, and national level. During the UMC's recent General Conference over 800 delegates from around the world met in a dome large enough to hold football games and monster truck rallies. It was like a United Nations meeting on human sexuality, with headsets for translation, motions and petitions, points of order, and requests for judicial review of this or that detail. At times it felt as poisonous as the congressional hearings with Michael Cohen which are airing even as I type these words. My beloved and I watched this unfold, sometimes in the bleachers overlooking the convention center floor, other times live streamed in a conference room or at home. As I watched I tried to compare what we were seeing to the church described in Acts. I wondered how Jesus would view this gigantic political beast, knowing how deeply he loved each person who participated and observed.
I think he would think it's gotten too big. I think in trying to be a single worldwide unit the UMC fails to meet the needs of the individually participating regions. In parts of Africa, being LGBTQI+ is punishable by death, and we can't inflict inclusive views of sexuality and gender on the churches there. In parts of Russia, LGBTQI+ people are persecuted and prosecuted. And these aren't the only regions, or the only issues, where creating worldwide policies simply doesn't work.
The United Methodist Church in the USA is actively fracturing, shaking apart as an earthquake of change roils beneath and within it. Some LGBTQI+ people and allies will stay and continue to try to reform the mammoth unreformable corporation. Thinking of these warriors fills me with a sense of futility and sadness. I pray God will strengthen and direct them in that work.
But there's other movement afoot.
There are a million beautiful things about the church John Wesley dreamt of and created. He began it all after observing social inequity which prevented some people from being able to participate in the life of the church. (Sound familiar?) That same Spirit of God is pouring out among us now, kindling hearts in the same way; a recognition that we must do better. We must be a church which includes every person born in the incredibly diverse image of our Creator. We must be a church which acknowledges past wrongs of colonization and oppression, and works to redress them. We must be a church which cares for refugees of all kinds. We must be a church which stands up against political tyranny. We must be a church which looks like Jesus, with dirty feet, dripping blood, and endless, compassionate love.
I believe this church is being conceived in the hearts and minds of the LGBTQI+ clergy and laity who are still nursing the fractured places created by what was said and done at General Conference. Even now, as they mourn what has died in them and in the United Methodist Church, a new thing is whispering to their souls.
Methodists aren't known for asking the saints in heaven to pray for them, but I'm no longer Methodist. I'm therefore going to ask John Wesley to pray for this nascent denomination, the first cells of which are busily multiplying in the body of Christ. May his prayers and ours reach the heart of God, and may the new thing I see coming be a reflection of God's will for the church, born of the ashes.