Among the many wonderful experiences at the Uniting Methodist Conference held in Atlanta, Georgia (November 13-14, 2017), I submit this post to share a few highlights.
First, it has become a lazy argument that Unity and institutional survivability are interchangeable. Put another way, it is argued that if you desire for Unity then you really are driven by your fear of loosing pension, health care and salary. This misrepresents the Uniting Methodists in the same way it is said that the traditionalists hate LGBTQI+ community and that the progressives believe traditionalists are racist and homophobic. All of these lazy arguments are caricatures that do not represent reality. To continue to speak to one another as caricatures is not only un-Christ like but it is mean.
Rather, the Uniting Methodist feel God is calling the Church to uphold Jesus' great prayer in John 17:
"‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."
Jesus is not praying for an institution or a pension. He is upholding and elevating the value of unity in the face of pressure to easily dismiss and divide. Yes, centrists understand that those on the left see inclusion as a justice issue. Yes, centrists also understand that those on the right see the lack of following the Discipline as a justice issue. Yes, centrists also know that the both sides do not view these two justice issues as morally equivalent. Both sides view their justice issue as higher and thus morally more important.
Just as the right and left each have a rooting in the Biblical text, so to do centrists. Everyone places a premium on the authority of scripture. To say your side values scripture more than the other side(s) is the church version of the kid saying his dad is stronger than your dad. Can we all grow up? The Uniting Methodists movement is standing up to stop dealing in absolutes.
This leads me to say that one of the most heart stopping speeches that I heard at the Uniting Conference came from Rev. Vance Ross. Rev. Ross rose and stated that as an African American, he has witnessed years of systemic racism in the UMC. He cited two specific examples of how the structure of the UMC had been set up and continues to disenfranchise people of color. Rev. Ross was quick to point out that he is not trying to equate the African American experience with the LGBTQI+ experience only to point out that he has seen how the Church has worked (intentionally and otherwise) to keep people of color in the margins of the Church. He then said that the people of color have chosen to remain in the broken Church in order to bear witness to Love.
I interpreted his comments in a few ways. First to leave the church is a position of privilege. If you can leave because you have another place to go, then you are privileged. People of color cannot even go to the store without being met with suspicion, and so their local church is a safe haven (even in a systemically racist church). Second, if people of color left then it lets us anglos off the hook to face our failures. If we don't see people of color then we can ignore them even more than we do now. To stay and bear witness to Love is to be a presence even if the system says you are unwanted. Bearing this loving witness is a position of strength that just knocked me to the floor.
Rev. Ross' comments not only deeply resonated with me but convicted me. It resonated in that his witness of Love speaks to the Jesus I know who continued to be in relationship with the ones who doubt, dismiss and abandon him. He bore witness to love in the face of accusations from those who could kill him by standing silent before them. Rev. Ross and people of color are not Jesus. However, Rev. Ross' comment hit a bass note of God in me. To break apart from others I disagree with mean that I will always be blind to large portions of my sin. And, if I separate from those I feel are doing wrong then I will not have opportunities to practice forgiveness and reconciliation.
Rev. Ross reminded me once again of all that I need to learn and better understand in my own self. In order to become more like Christ, then I need to be in communion and relationship with those who expose in my the very things that I cannot see. Therefore, unity for the sake of unity is a shame, unity for the sake of Christ is the Church. But maybe I am remembering the song differently:
I am the church! You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world!
Yes, we're the church together!
The church is not a building;
the church is not a steeple;
the church is not a resting place;
the church is a people.
We're many kinds of people,
with many kinds of faces,
all colours and all ages, too
from all times and places.
Sometimes the church is marching;
sometimes it's bravely burning,
sometimes it's riding, sometimes hiding;
always it's learning.
And when the people gather,
there's singing and there's praying;
there's laughing and there's crying sometimes,
all of it saying:
At Pentecost some people
received the Holy Spirit
and told the Good News through the world
to all who would hear it.