By Rev. Elizabeth Ingram Schindler
May 18, 2016 | Portland, Oregon
For the last 48 hours, all the talk, the rumors, the underlying current at General Conference, has been about schism. Monday night, I went to bed already anxious about what would happen yesterday. Before rolling out of bed yesterday, I checked my social media feeds, which didn’t lower my anxiety level at all. As I went about the motions of getting ready, I kept thinking, “This could be the day that marks the beginning of the end of the United Methodist Church.” As I got dressed, I thought, “These will be the clothes I wore on the day that the UMC decided to split.” Every action seemed filled with much more poignancy than usual.
And all the way through, I kept thinking, “If today is the day that the UMC decides to split, what will I tell my church?” During the course of the day, several options were offered, and finally the body of the General Conferenced pleaded with the Council of Bishops to tell us what to do, to lead us on a way forward. Essentially, the General Conference asked the Council of Bishops to offer a plan for separation, to tell us how the church might be divided in the future. And again, I just kept thinking, “What will I tell my church?”
There are certainly parishioners at Faith (Issaquah, WA) who are following along with the actions of General Conference, but there are many, many more who are not. The vast majority of the parishioners I serve has no idea of the level of tension present in the Oregon Convention Center, or the feeling of utter despair present in so many delegates, who fear that we have no way forward, that we simply cannot agree on how we will live and work and relate as United Methodists. Many of them are much more committed to our local congregation than they will ever be to our denomination as a whole: they are a community of Christian disciples long before they are a community of United Methodists.
And so I wondered, If the UMC decides to split into “progressive” (or “dissenting,” as some proposals say) and “conservative” (or “non-dissenting”) wings, where will my church go?
Just last week, members of our church community gathered, in preparation for whatever news might come out of the General Conference, to talk through the major scriptural texts that reference human sexuality. We talked about the ways different people interpret these texts, and how all of those different interpretations still allow for biblical authority: the people in the room saw Scripture on a scale that ranges from inerrant to inspirational, but all agreed that the Bible holds special authority in our lives and serves as a guide for our life and faith, particularly in what it tells us about the person and work of Jesus.
During our gathering, we had discussions about where each of us stood on these various scales of biblical and spiritual diversity and admitted that we are not of one mind. And most importantly, we talked about how we might love each other in the midst of our differences.
Ours is not a church that can be labeled “progressive” or “conservative.” We have a significant number of members on both sides of nearly every social and theological issue of our day. There are Bernie supporters and Trump supporters, libertarians and tea partiers. We do not fly a rainbow flag, nor do we shut our doors to those who do. We don’t try to convince each other that one opinion or another is the “right” way or that others are unfaithful. Instead, we believe that God is still speaking, that each of us has a legitimate and trustworthy experience of God, that all of us are called to use our reason, experience, and tradition to faithfully interpret the Scripture that guides us. We believe that our call from God is not to agree on everything, but to show the world what it looks like to live together in love.
In a culture where people are constantly tearing each other apart, where the norm is to personally attack people with whom we disagree in hopes of shaming or discrediting someone’s character so that they will not be believed or trusted, who will teach the world how to reconcile, how to live in peace, how to love one another, if not the church? If we are all forced to choose sides, where is the place for those of us who choose not to do the easy thing, who choose not to only affiliate with people just like us, who choose not to attack those with whom we disagree?
If the UMC decides to split into groups that are more closely aligned on social issues, if we choose not to love each other despite our differences, where will the witness of the Gospel go?
And what will I tell my church?
This morning, the Council of Bishops gave us their report, calling us not to division, but to prayer; not to separation, but to conversation. Perhaps those who were pleading for a way forward are disappointed with this outcome. Perhaps many have lost hope that a way for unity exists. Maybe it won’t work. Maybe the conference won’t even be willing to enter into those conversations or those prayers, and instead will entertain further proposals for schism. But I, for one, am grateful for the Council of Bishops’ leadership. I’m grateful that they see the way forward as the more difficult way: the way not to agreement, but to conversation; not to unanimity, but to love in the midst of difference. It’s not a perfect plan, but perhaps it is an opportunity, a crack deep enough for the light to get in, a place for deep faithfulness to blossom.
This is something I can tell my church.
Rev. Elizabeth Ingram Schindler is the United Methodist pastor to Issaquah & Sammamish, WA (USA). A graduate of Southern Methodist University and Duke Divinity School, Rev. Schindler was ordained elder in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference in 2010.