The decision is in. While I was hoping for a different result from the Judicial Council, I don’t believe we can blame the messenger. I do wonder if they grieved over this decision, knowing that it would contribute to the schism that is likely to come.
Before General Conference, I wrote about Wesley’s view on schism. Now I find myself revisiting his advice from a different perspective. At the end of his sermon, “On Schism,” Wesley acknowledges that leaving a church, or forming a new church, can mean multiplication rather than division. It can be good for the body of Christ, as long as this move is not motivated by condemnation or personal comfort. Withdrawing into “like-minded camps” is generally not the best way to glorify God.
In this sermon, Wesley actually defends heresy. It is a bit shocking – and very relevant for us today. Different perspectives – even factions or heresies – serve a positive purpose within the body of Christ. A variety of perspectives teaches us how to love and how to break bread together. There is likely some level of “heresy” in all of our stances and opinions. Acknowledging this in humility leads us into life-giving community. On the other hand, claiming right belief, and making this the focus of what it means to be the church, only breeds self-righteousness and creates “a present hell for those involved.” That’s Wesley’s take.
So where does this leave us? We are in a strange place where those who advocated for biblical unity are in the minority. After this ruling by the Judicial Council, the green-light has been given to a plan that moves us from unity in love to uniformity by law, with strict mandatory penalties, strengthened definitions that cause harm, and accountability taken away from bishops and the annual conferences. (If you are following the process, this is all old news). I am glad that the provision for requiring oaths to serve in certain leadership positions was ruled unconstitutional, but it was still the will of the majority at General Conference. On the issue at hand, there is no room to do ministry from a different perspective. Those who want to make this room are being asked by many to “just leave” – or be subject to the new “inquisitional court” that will be established. That is where we are.
So, what’s next? As we work through our grief, my hope is that we will join with others and focus on the calling God has given us – to bear one another in love and seek true unity of spirit (Eph 4:1-6). Let us increase our resolve to make room for all, including those with traditional, centrist, and progressive perspectives, as we seek to listen and learn together, in respect and grace (that is possible and truly glorifies God), and in light of our current conversation, especially work to honor the gifts of our LGBTQ+ siblings and make room for them. Let us promote a high(er) view of scripture where we honor the whole and seek God’s intended message in our time, using the royal law of love as our guide. Let us affirm Wesleyan Holiness, defined through the virtues of humility, patience, and gentleness, as oppose to holiness defined by judgment of others, and zeal for our own righteousness. Let us promote a strong sexual ethic rooted in the values of monogamy, faithfulness, and the virtues summed up with the word love. Let us work towards policies built on a shared ethic of calling and character, as opposed to policies that make judgments around personal identity. In sum, let us join with others to form a church that glorifies God.
Yes, some sort of division or “branches” is likely at a denominational level. I hope that this possibility will increase our witness to the values we share. I believe that this is the calling we are being given, in this time, as we stay open to God’s work through us.