Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Grace through separation? Maybe...

So, when is "coming apart" a good way to hold something together? If it's a car engine you are working on, it may be better restored to health by taking it apart, replacing and/or re-machining some of its parts, and reassembling it. Isn't this kind of what surgery is? Psychoanalysis is a kind of "taking apart" in order to reassemble one's head, too. I'm sure if we thought about it for awhile, we could come up with many other examples of times when breaking something down is a way to put it together better.

Unfortunately, this is also what happens in some divorces. Oh sure, some marriages break apart when one party or the other is unfaithful, or if physical or emotional abuse is involved, but the leading cause of divorce is something called "irreconcilable differences." Two people may just come to a point where the reasons they got together in the first place have been eroded by life, or they just change in divergent ways. In order for the bonding power of relationship to be renewed, a separation from the current partner becomes an inconvenient truth and a pathway to future happiness. Long ago, the majority of Christian denominations, while supporting the sanctity of covenantal relationships, came to recognize the possibility of divorce as the beginning of healing for some of their people, and stopped discriminating against or disparaging divorced persons. While rarely something to celebrate, it may be affirmed, in many cases.

While I have never heard the expression "grace through separation," I can see its potential efficacy. Recently, a group of United Methodist leaders representing the key factions and organizations embroiled in the denominational controversy over how the church treats LGBTQ persons and their pastors, got together for a professionally facilitated/mediated series of conversations. The results of this deep rumination is something called "Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation." What is being proposed is a divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences, and a separation that may allow both parties to "get on with their lives," so to speak.


What it is:

--a road map to a benevolent separation that could create two or three new denominations in the Wesleyan tradition that may cooperate on services such as the Board of Pensions (Wespath, as it is known) and UMCOR (our relief and disaster response agency), as well as our United Methodist related colleges and seminaries

--a plan that would leave most of the current United Methodist agencies under the larger "centrist" church, while a collective of traditionalist churches, pastors, and possibly Annual Conferences split off, receiving $25 million of shared resources to help structure and solidify this new traditionalist denomination; $2 million would also be made available to it if a third more progressive expression of Methodism formed

--the centrist denomination would continue as The United Methodist Church, while the traditionalist denomination would choose its own name (Wesleyan Covenant Church?), as would the more progressive body, if it chose to separate

--presumably, the centrist United Methodist Church would, at a future conference, vote to remove all prohibitive language regarding "homosexuality" and LGBTQ persons from their Book of Discipline, while the traditionalist group would maintain and/or enhance its restrictive stance on this issue; the centrist United Methodists could choose to adopt a stance similar to the One Church Plan advanced to the specially-called General Conference of last February--permitting but not "requiring" pastors and churches to be fully inclusive of our LGBTQ siblings--while a more progressive posture could be adopted by that group, should they, too, separate

--the protocol also calls for both (or all three) new denominations to contribute $39 million to dismantling racism and supporting other justice-related efforts central to the theology of all in the Wesleyan tradition; I believe this element was introduced to keep the necessary laborious task of forming and rooting these new denominations from totally derailing our common work for justice

What it is NOT:

--it is NOT legislation, in itself; now that the protocol has been advanced by this committee, legislation must be written to be presented to the May 2020 General Conference

--it is NOT a done deal; General Conference must approve suspending the rules to allow this post-deadline legislation to be considered; the Judicial Council (U.M. "Supreme Court") must be willing to make a declaratory decision as to whether the plan meets U.M. constitutional muster; and a majority of the 2020 delegates must approve it

--it is NOT, like any divorce, something to be celebrated, as it results from a failure in our ability to find common ground that would allow for a unified denomination; it may offer the same kind of grace we pray for when a loved one is seriously ill or dying

--it is NOT a solution to theological diversity of thought and even widely differing opinions on matters ranging from biblical interpretation to human sexuality, as these will continue in all camps, even after the "split"

--it is NOT a solution for LGBTQ persons who "live" within the traditionalist camp because most of their theological views are conservative, in spite of their sexuality, and it is NOT a balm for the harm children and youth may experience growing up in the traditionalist denomination, but who discover themselves to be other than cisgender


As one whose theological views on biblical interpretation, authority, and christology compel me to be fully inclusive of all persons, including LGBTQ siblings, and to minister to all persons, including my willingness to perform same-gender weddings, and advocacy for LGBTQ ministerial candidacy, this protocol offers hope. Judging from their willingness to participate in this process, and in their support of the protocol, it appears those on the other side of the theological spectrum find hope here, too.

Separation may be inevitable; exceedingly abundant grace is available; the protocol may be acceptable; that we need any of it over this issue is lamentable. But forward we must go, or continue to be paralyzed as a church.

Let us be in prayer for all parties, for the power-brokers and delegates, and for any who may become caught in the vice of schism. May we use this imperfect tool to, with God's help, find shalom.

What's Next?

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