This week the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church has its Annual Conference. I’m not alone in already having disrupted sleep, messed up digestion, and anxiety gathering across my shoulders as we near the gathering.
Our first and thorniest business is to elect delegates to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, our denomination’s global gathering, which will be in Minneapolis from May 5-May 15, 2020. General Conference 2020 is so important because it will likely host the first concrete steps to dismantle the United Methodist Church as an institution. While there are an increasing number of people trying to frame yet another schism of Christ’s one Body as “mitosis,” there are several reasons why we cannot call it that. Reason one: this schism will end some local churches’ ministries due to splits within those local bodies. Reason two: this schism will kill some individual believers’ faith. Reason three: this schism will make the church less able to do works of mercy in the world. Reason four: by this schism we continue to witness to the world that the Church is no different than the world. (We do not love others as ourselves. We do not love across difference. We do not love our enemies. Christ has made no difference for us, so why would anyone want to join us in Christ’s way?)
Finally, mitosis is a term that denies our agency and responsibility. We are not automatically following genetic instructions inside a cell. We are human beings looking at one another and saying we have no need of one another, then deciding to walk apart from one another. The United Methodist Church is pursuing a divorce, and as we elect delegates this week we are deciding who will represent us in our divorce proceedings. Of course it’s causing us anxiety and grief (which may include, yes, anger).
In recent American Christian history, when churches have divorced, some have spent a lot of time and money in court. The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was decisively responsible for her denomination’s spending tens of millions of dollars in holding onto property. There are reasons to hope that the United Methodist Church will not follow the same path. But again, this makes it clear that this is not mitosis for the whole body’s growth. This is a divorce, and it contains the disputes that accompany a divorce. It contains massive conflict.
Even in 2016 (the most recent regular General Conference, which set the stage for the 2019 special General Conference), although it was clear that competing visions of Christian sexual ethics were going to be central, there was also a sense that the United Methodist Church was bigger than that division, that because of the context of our larger relationship to one another, our love for one another, there might be some hope for reconciliation within the body. In the 2015 Annual Conference, when we (well not me, since I wasn’t eligible to vote that time around) voted, we could and did send a group of delegates which we knew disagreed on human sexual ethics, and we did so with a clear conscience. Yes, there were progressives unhappily represented by conservatives and vice versa, but as a whole, we generally felt accurately represented in our United Methodist democracy.
This time around, however, battle lines seem to be drawn more clearly. The Traditional Plan is official United Methodist teaching. UMC Next officially rejects that teaching. In my Annual Conference, there is at least one major conservative group and one major progressive group trying to make sure they control who goes to General Conference 2020. That’s not what chromosomes do. That’s what people trying to gain the most favorable terms of a divorce for themselves do. That’s what people trying to win do.
We should consider, then, what our Christian faith says about divorce and then what our Christian faith says about winning.
Jesus’ teaching in Mark is that divorce is always a sin, and not only a sin but a sin which births other sins. But the United Methodist Church joins a long tradition (the other Gospels, the epistles, the teaching of the Orthodox Church) of setting Jesus’ teaching in Mark inside the context of Jesus’ whole ministry and teaching. When I recently preached on that teaching in Mark, for instance, I urged my folks to look at how Jesus actually treats the divorced people he meets (most obviously, the woman in John who has been divorced four or five times). With compassion and love, Jesus turns us broken people into those who proclaim our Healer.
Thus The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church 2016 can offer this nuanced approach to marriage and divorce:
God’s plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage. The church must be on the forefront of premarital, marital, and post marital counseling in order to create and preserve healthy relationships. However, when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness. We grieve over the devastating emotional, spiritual, and economic consequences of divorce for all involved, understanding that women and especially children are disproportionately impacted by such burdens…It is recommended that methods of mediation be used to minimize the adversarial nature and fault-finding that are often part of our current judicial processes, encouraging reconciliation wherever possible.¶161.II.D.
Although divorce publicly declares that a marriage no longer exists, other covenantal relationships resulting from the marriage remain, such as the nurture and support of children and extended family ties. We urge respectful negotiations in deciding the custody of minor children and support the consideration of either or both parents for this responsibility in that custody not be reduced to financial support, control, or manipulation and retaliation. The welfare of each child is the most important consideration…
Divorce does not preclude a new marriage. We encourage an intentional commitment of the Church and society to minister compassionately to those in the process of divorce, as well as members of divorced and remarried families, in a community of faith where God’s grace is shared by all.
Back in 1968, we United Methodists lacked some premarital counseling, even as we entered into covenant in good faith. In the decades since, we could have used some marital counseling for the ways we chose to relate to one another throughout the regular frustrations that come in every marriage. (Of John Gottman’s “four horsemen” which he claims from his research are the most accurate predictors of divorce, at least Contempt, Criticism, and Stonewalling were recently acted out on General Conference microphones, and Defensiveness has since joined the other three for regular rides across United Methodist blogs and social media.) But I am most struck by the Book of Resolutions‘ claim that there is also such a thing as “post marital counseling.” There is no such thing as post-mitosis counseling, because everything is just fine and both new cells are just fine and natural and even good. But if this is a divorce and we recognize it as a divorce, then we can choose to enter the divorce process grieving together that we could not figure out a way to reconcile. In this way we can end one way of relating with a blessing rather than a curse. We can choose the spirit (or Spirit) with which we approach the divorce process. Because of the Spirit this is possible even if you are mad, sad, and hurt as Hell by all that has come before.
Continuing with the Book of Resolutions‘ understanding, if we recognize what we are choosing to do as divorce, then we can be intentional in moderating its effects on the vulnerable people and groups and even institutions and agencies who will be affected by our decisions. As others have already pointed out, there are ways in which we can choose to support some of our important works of mercy, education, and more, even after the divorce is final. But we have to be intentional about that work. More damage is all that will be done if we do this swiftly, haphazardly, or if we assume things will just work themselves out.
This finally brings us to that theme of “winning.” What does our Christian faith have to say about our will to win? Jesus says the last will be first and the first will be last. Paul says that certain kinds of conflict we enter into with one another as Christians are losses for all involved. Luther helped clarify the vast gulf between the Way of the Cross and the Way of Glory. Trying to “win” at Annual Conference in order to “win” at General Conference is a game everyone loses.
So how do we seek the one and the ways of the one who took a cross as his throne?
1) We tell the truth. (This is a divorce. It isn’t mitosis.)
2) We grieve together with God. (We are breaking up because we are broken.)
3) We invest as much love in our divorce proceedings as possible.
This week, when we choose delegates, we are not choosing champions to battle and win for us (because we only have one champion, and He won by losing everything). We are choosing people we sense have been gifted and called by God for a particular kind of peacemaking, dreaming, and yes, loving our enemies.
Please pray, and as you turn to the Scriptures as part of your discernment, I’d encourage you to look not just for single Bible verses or laws or principles or precepts, but ask God to bring to mind particular saints of the Scriptures, people who show us how to grieve and to hope and to dream and to plan rebuilding even while the house is still on fire. Here are a few places to start: Abraham, Moses, Rahab, David, Esther, Ruth and Naomi, Ezra and Nehemiah, Mary.