I am a Baptist, but I went to a Methodist seminary, so I have many professors and colleagues, people I count as friends, in the thick of things this week. Church in the Cliff is an affirming congregation; we definitely have feelings about the relationship between the Church and queer folx. So, while I’m not in the thick of things, I’m hardly a disinterested observer. Nevertheless, this is something Methodists have to work out for themselves, so I’ll limit my comments from the cheap seats. It has gotten me wondering about the point of uniting, of binding ourselves and our churches to these institutions.
I love my denomination, the Alliance of Baptists. Part of what I love about it is that they take seriously the Baptist value of local church autonomy. I don’t have to have this fight because I don’t need the Alliance or any other church in the Alliance to agree with me.
Yet, we are all very progressive. One of the reasons we bind ourselves to one another is that we all, for the most part, want to do the same work. Certainly, the contours of that work have changed over time and change brings both resistance and impatience. However, because we are autonomous, we don’t have to wait for others to catch up. We can watch each other’s experiments and see if we want to come along.
For the most part, we do. In the decade or so I’ve been involved in the Alliance, it has become more queer. It is working hard to be more anti-racist. It has birthed Equity for Women in the Church. It is working on an environmental justice initiative to cross Baptist denominational lines. I’m proud of the way that the Alliance responds to questions of justice, usually by asking, “What more can we do?”
But the Alliance has a great deal of anxiety about whether we even want to understand ourselves as a denomination. We emerged out of a power struggle in the Southern Baptist Convention when the Fundamentalists wanted to enforce doctrinal purity. We rejected that and left, but many of us still feel like our denomination was stolen from us. It was hijacked by an authoritarian right-wing. It was not just the specific things they demanded we believe, but the fact that they would demand anything at all.
Autonomy is the enemy of authority, not unity. Paul counsels us in 1 Corinthians to be of the same mind and the same purpose and cautions the Corinthians against appealing to any authority but Christ crucified. He continues, claiming that the power of the cross is found in overturning the implicit authority of the privileged and powerful. Thus, the “same mind and same purpose” is not birthed by the command of authority, but in the humility of listening to the marginalized and disempowered and choosing to die to our own privilege. The entire question of who to allow in our churches is a fundamental betrayal of the Gospel because the Gospel is an invitation to overturn the very authority that would seek to exclude.
So the fact that this question is even being asked says that there is no unity. It is not a United Methodist Church. The institution may not survive, but the Good News is that God’s work will continue. Those who are united in mind and purpose will find one another – as we already do. When issues arise in the real world that demand a faithful response, it is not the United Methodist Church that does the work, but a coalition of Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, UCC, and Disciples – not to mention Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. There is one Spirit and one body, but it is not synonymous with any church or denomination or religion. It is defined by our commitment to the same work, not by the names we give ourselves.
Regardless of the voting and the Byzantine polity, the UMC is not coming out of this as the same institution it was. Even if we believe that is for the best, it will still be felt as a loss for those who have worked so hard to maintain it. It will be felt as a loss for the queer folk who have fought to be a part of it. (Imagine an institution more willing to dissolve itself than let you be a part of it!) So let’s grieve alongside our siblings in Christ and pray that everyone finds wholeness for themselves, even if they can’t find it together. Finally, let us pray that those who do wish to be the gatekeepers to God’s love will be convicted, shamed by the foolishness of the cross, and repent.