By Rev. Kelly Dahlman-Oeth
After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return and visit the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted
them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. – Acts 15: 36-41
There has been a great deal of news and some misinformation from reporters outside the connection about an imminent split in The United Methodist Church over the question of full inclusion or exclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the church.
To be clear, at this point, nothing is certain about a split of any kind. At the special General Conference in May 2019, the most punitive sanctions we have seen were adopted (e.g. bishops are banned from consecrating, ordaining, or commissioning “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” even if they have been elected or approved by the appropriate church body; churches are prohibited from approving or recommending them as candidates, as well; clergy who officiate at same-sex weddings could receive a minimum one-year, unpaid suspension, and a second offense could result in removal from the clergy).
Those sanctions were effective January 1, 2020; however, a recent proposal from a 16-member group of United Methodist bishops and others outlines an amicable separation for “traditionalist-minded congregations” to leave the denomination and form something new. The traditionalist congregations leaving the denomination would receive $25 million in
funds and be able to retain church properties.
Thus, some news outlets have reported that “The United Methodist Church is splitting.” Again, this is a proposal that will require adoption at the next General Conference in May 2020. Still, many in the denomination see this as the most likely resolution to the often contentious, hostile, and injurious debate that has gone on since 1972 when the language about homosexuality was first introduced to The Book of Discipline (our book of polity).
Whether this is the best, fairest, wisest, most faithful… outcome or not, I am not prepared to say. I trust that time will be the judge. Instead, I want to weigh in on some things I’ve heard and read from those within the denomination. I have heard some celebrating the potential “divorce” in the denomination, saying “we finally won!” But as one of my good friends pointed out, “there are never winners in a divorce.”
While we may be grateful that a split may finally and formally allow congregations to completely affirm and welcome with full inclusion our LGBTQ+ siblings, the separation deserves solemnity and humility before God.
There are also those on both sides who have lamented that this is a deliberate and thus unchristian decision to “break the Body of Christ, called the church.” To those, I would caution that the Body of Christ has been broken every time a woman who is called by God and possesses the gifts and graces for pastoral ministry is rejected solely because of the gender of
the person she loves.
The Body of Christ has been broken every time two people are told they cannot commit to their wedding vows before God and their friends and family in a church because they are both men.
The Body of Christ has been broken every time a faithful and effective pastor has been charged, tried, and stripped of their ordination because they were willing to share openly about the structure of their family.
Indeed, the Body of Christ has been broken every time groups within the denomination have come together to discuss and debate the “issue” of inclusion without including those who are being discussed and debated.
As a cisgender heterosexual male, I recognize that even now, I am writing “about” my siblings from a place of privilege.
Some have already begun to ask, “if there is a split, what will it mean for Ronald United Methodist Church?” Briefly, if the proposal is adopted as it is, our congregation will not see any immediate impacts. We would remain a reconciling congregation in The United Methodist Church in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference.
However, all congregations that remain in The United Methodist Church will almost certainly be impacted in ways that will not be seen for some time. It is impossible to know how and when the rippling effects will impact each congregation as traditionalist churches (and possibly annual conferences) leave the denomination, and the structure and financial holdings of the church changes.
It is also important to know that should the proposal be adopted and the church splits, it should finally mean an end to the long theological battle that has not only cut a deep wound in the church but more importantly, it has shut out and driven away so many people who have seen the church as a place of hostility.
As the church moves closer to a possible split, it is my prayer that we would neither celebrate nor despair, but that we would approach God humbly with the words of Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone in hearts, “[God of us all,] help heal the harms and conflicts within the body of Christ and free us to be more effective witnesses to God’s Kingdom.”
Kelly Dahlman-Oeth serves as pastor of Ronald United Methodist Church in Shoreline, Washington. This article originally appeared on the church’s blog.