Unity with Schism, a Mea Culpa

I have made abundantly clear in social media – sometimes to people’s frustration and often too harshly – that I am in favor of schism for the United Methodist Church. I’ve held that view in part because I believe the church to have been hijacked by lobbyists who have pushed political agendas of the far right into a mainline denomination. I’ve held that view in part because even the progressives I usually agree with seem more interested in maintaining dying structures under the guise of ‘unity’ than they do in pursuing a justice that’s as swift as I’d like for it to be. And I’ve held that view in part because I, like many of you, am tired of being hurt by church and am tired of seeing those I care for be hurt by it – and that extends beyond social issues and as much into everyday brokenness and bureaucracy of the Church. It’s something every institution does to us; I’m just burnt out with this one.

This morning, however, I was challenged by an email from, strangely enough, a priest – a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement – who is the former Vatican Representative to the World Council of Churches and has been a part of the envoy for the UN’s peace process between Israel and Palestine. These are his words, and I found them worth sharing:

“Hi Philip, I see the United Methodist Church is going through the inevitable east-west, north-south tensions that so many churches have been experiencing recently. You are not alone. When the Catholic Church had the recent synod of the family, the Africans were opposed to any changes while the Europeans were in favor of them. Sometimes I wonder if we might have a too restrictive notion of what church unity means, something derived from the European experience of kings and emperors, where everything -and I do mean everything – gets “standardized.” The church(es) of the New Testament and post-Apostolic times were far more diverse, often experiencing conflicts between one church and another. Yet it wasn’t until quite later that a juridical notion of unity – as opposed to the more organic notion of communion – began to take over. Unfortunately we live in a world of zero sum everything where compromise is a forgotten art and virtue.”

The good padres’ email forced me to raise important questions about what unity really is, and as someone who can break bread with Muslims and Christians and Jews and Hindus and Atheists and who longs for the unity of one world, it seems bizarre that I’d no longer wish to break bread with parts of my own spiritual ‘family.’ It’s more complicated, I guess, when we are tasked to do more than merely break bread together but also live under the same roof. Especially when our time under that roof has involved intense emotional and sometimes physical harm.

I know I’ve contributed to that harm, and for that I’m sorry. I know I’ve played into the zero sum game at times and that doing so is, quite literally, asking an entire continent, if not hemisphere, in places the West once colonized to adhere again to our values. We don’t acknowledge this enough when we get on our social media, social issues high horses; we don’t acknowledge just how complicated these “east-west, north-south tensions” are, but if we wish to remain united in earnest, cultural sacrifices become inevitable. And while I’m inclined to say as a Westerner that equality as a moral good and human right should trump culture and tradition, I’m not sure I’m in a position to say that; I’m not sure any of us privileged Westerners are in a position to tell Africans, for example, once more what they should do. But I’m also not willing to sacrifice my values, either. And therein lies the problem.

So, we may find ourselves sometimes needing to part ways, temporarily. We may find that sacrificing our cultural values is something we just can’t do. But perhaps we can “part ways” and yet still be united? That is, the unity I hope for may indeed be schismatic – but less like warring schism and more like brothers and sisters who throw temper tantrums all day long yet still love one another when it comes to it. Can we act differently, function under different rules and still seriously call ourselves one institution? What rules are so sacred to us that they are uncompromising? And what rules can we allow certain conferences or churches to fudge on? In the past, I’ve claimed that this kind of unity renders our faith meaningless, that to stand in solidarity with all viewpoints is to have none of our own. But the good friar’s email reminded me that, maybe, it’s okay to differentiate between the rules sacred to our unified identity and the rules sacred to our diversity.

The good friar’s email reminded me that on some level, unity is a lie. Anyone who doubts this should attend a United Methodist Church in Tennessee and another in New York. Geographical differences govern us more than our holy texts do, because the way we interpret them will always be influenced by our social location. Perhaps it shouldn’t work that way, but our cultural and experiential differences will always run much deeper than disciplines and dogmas no one reads. And yet, those geographical differences, as well as the dogmas, can be honored so long as we can decide what essence of our identity must be retained. That is what the United Methodist General Conference must decide now: what is non-negotiable to call ourselves one entity. And then, the hard question this church is facing won’t be whether or not we should split but whether, if we really believe in unity, we should not also reunite with the Episcopal Church, and from there, the Catholics? After all, if, indeed, this church splits, that is not the end, and to believe as much with such intense fervor is to deny everything Christians claim to believe about resurrection and reconciliation. But reconciliation should scare you if you’re committed to unity: it might make us all Roman Catholic again.

As for me, for now, I will continue attending a United Methodist church in New Jersey where I live. I am not member of the United Methodist Church, having forgone my membership in 2012. I don’t at this point intend to rejoin. Nor will I continue to attend this church simply because it’s United Methodist. Instead, I attend because of its harmony as a church with over 20 countries represented, one of the few exciting aspects of attending a church ten miles from New York City. I’ll attend because it’s where I’m building meaningful relationship here at the moment. And I’ll attend because in a church so diverse, I might just learn something about how to live together when we disagree as much as we do.

Some Thoughts about the Upcoming United Methodist General Conference 2016, or Why This Church Should Just Give In and Die Already

Not all that long ago, a band of conservatives within the United Methodist Church were floating around the idea of an “amicable separation” over the issue of ordaining or marrying LGBTQ+ individuals. The majority response among moderate and liberal Methodists was a resounding ‘no’ favoring unity above all else and citing that Methodists should agree to disagree but remain in communion with one another. Since then, a few silly ideas have popped up. Chief among them included a suggested change in polity which would have allowed Conferences or even churches to determine for themselves what stance they would take on social issues rather than a larger body making that determination for everyone. Therefore, instead of an “amicable separation” of just two theological factions within the church, this silly idea would result in hundreds of new churches leaving nothing “united” to what it means to be a “United Methodist.”

In the meantime, the New York Annual Conference, among other northern conferences, have forged ahead in an effort to uphold equality. Many pastors, as well as a Bishop, are actively marrying gay couples against the current doctrine of the church. While I applaud their efforts and think they are doing the right thing personally, I also find it incredibly disingenuous to willfully disregard church doctrine while simultaneously claiming that you favor “unity.” In that sense, I think the liberal end of the church is a bit two-faced; at least have the dignity to acknowledge that you favor a schism and are moving ahead with the new direction the church should be and will ultimately take. Don’t cower behind the lie of “unity” while acting in discord.

Personally, I’m not in favor of unity at all. If the issue at stake was merely equal rights for gay couples or ordaining gay pastors, then I might still be arguing that this is something Methodists could, prayerfully, work through. But the issue is an entire worldview whereby, too often, those who stand against gay rights, are spouting the same conservative one-liners that – in addition to being homophobic – are also harmful to just about any minority position or person you can imagine. This is often referred to as “intersectionality,” or the notion that all forms of oppression are interconnected. That is, systems of injustice often stem from the same roots and can’t be discussed singularly. I’ve always considered it a shame that gay rights, for example, became the singular issue that nearly split the Methodist church, when it could easily be argued that the church should have split years ago over the conservative position that “poor people are lazy,” a position that’s as racist as it is a slap in the face to those facing financial hardship in a country that rewards the rich and punishes the poor. Of course, no legislative position claiming a disdain for the poor was part of the Discipline, which explains why it never became a major church issue, but certainly, such a degrading attitude remains deeply ingrained into the Methodist system, especially in the Southern states where bigotry is more blatant (though not necessarily more prevalent) than the North.

Suffice to say, I do not understand the disdain for schism. Jesus himself talks about not wasting our time on people who won’t see eye-to-eye. The Methodist Church came into existence solely because of multiple schisms. Good can, then, come from “amicable separation” (though I think referring to it as “amicable” is also disingenuous when the division is as heated as it is currently). So, too, reconciliation can be a beautiful thing when the time is right. If you claim to uphold the good news that Christ is risen but forget or ignore circumstances of the broken body that lead to his resurrection, why bother calling yourself a Christian? Work through the inevitable of our brokenness rather than constantly shunning it. Fear of schism hinges on fears that a resurrected church can’t come to fruition, and as I’ve said elsewhere, it hinges on structural and financial fears that a church schism would make it impossible for the Methodist system to continue. Frankly, though, financial collapse may be good for a church that’s busy building or renovating unnecessary structures and housing bishops in million-dollar mansions rather than doing the work of God. Perhaps a broken Methodist Church is precisely what could birth a new spiritual awakening in America. Think of the Methodists who, in the wake of their understandable frustration with the pitiful state of this feckless church, have returned to either Anglican or Episcopal churches. The Wesley brothers, the founders of Methodism, would be pleased. After all, they never wanted a Methodist church to exist in the first place. Perhaps being reconciled to our Mother Church is but one step in the right direction of leaving behind what’s already dead and rotten. At least, that’s my ultimate hope for this Church and for this year’s General Conference.

Unity and Schism, or a Trip through Shiloh National Military Park

I’ve taken lately to trying to carve time away from the computer as a means of retreat – a time where I can just recollect myself before I get back to the grunt work of job searching. A few weeks ago, that came in the form of a trip to camp. Sometimes, it’s a trip to my grandfather’s farm. Yesterday, it was Shiloh National Military Park.

Shiloh is not unfamiliar territory to me. Just a little over an hour away on the Tennessee River, it’s the site of one of the deadliest battles of the Civil War, so I went there a lot as a kid on school trips, Boy Scout camp-outs, and family outings. The names and even the monuments are familiar – a copse of trees called the Hornet’s Nest where bullets buzzed by the Federal troops; an old wagon trail called the Sunken Road where weary troops marched like zombies to their eventual deaths; a Peach Orchard, a small blood-red pond, a wooden Methodist church house for which the battle was named. Weirdly enough, they’re sacred ground etched into my memory as a child. As a Boy Scout, I hiked the thirteen miles of park trails, sunk into the Sunken Road, and even played in a small creek there called Rhea Spring adjacent a mass grave of Confederate troops. One trip there was for my friend’s Eagle Scout project to pressure wash and clean the monuments, so it really is a special place in my childhood.

Shiloh

And yet, there’s something at least a little weird to me that we would take a place that was so bloody with it’s 24,000 casualties and turn it into a “park.” Places of great turmoil always end up being peaceful and pristine, don’t they? It made me think about visiting Armageddon (Tel Megiddo) in Israel and how you could stand on top the 26 layers of ruins and look out at lower Galilee at this endless stretch of green so perfect for battle but equally a place of peace. I remember thinking that it would be a nice place for the world to end. So, too, a couple of my friends have been to Auschwitz recently, a place I know I need to visit one day, and the pictures of their trip are humbling, if not silencing.

It’s just this fascinating dichotomy, war and peace or conflict and resolution. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about schism and how torn apart we are constantly – in our churches, our families, our friendships. There’s something normal and natural about that. After all, our human history is one of a kind of schism; we start out joined as zygotes, but it isn’t long before mitosis rips the cells apart. But in that division, there’s both newness and multiplication. And it’s crazy to me that story plays out again and again from the most basic of human biology to a war that divides a country and replaces it with something slowly better. How many countless thousands have payed respects to their history at Shiloh since those two bloody days in April?

When I was a child and thought like a child, there could be nothing worse in my mind than division. I valued unity more than anything else. Even those first years of college, I remember lamenting churches that might split over homosexuality or a couple of fraternity brothers who had a personal conflict with one another that seemed to divide the whole house. As painful as conflict can be, I live a more sobering reality now – that maybe there’s something healthy, if not replenishing and peaceful, in the necessity for schism. That’s easier said when you’re in the park 152 years later and not in the midst of the battle, but it serves us well to remember or ask why we fight, to know which fights are worth the cause. I say that as someone who knows quite well what it’s like to suffer through a rather tumultuous time (albeit not one quite as life-threatening as the Civil War, thankfully), but in the midst of chaos and calamity, I keep looking for the park and trust a sacred quiet joy does grow out of the present.

Cemetery