Dividing the Family Inheritance (thoughts on the lectionary and disaffiliation votes this week)

The gospel lesson from the lectionary this week is ominous, given that votes to disaffiliate begin this week among us.  In Luke 12:13-21, we read where someone wants Jesus to go tell his brother to divide the family inheritance between them.  Jesus refuses and makes it clear that this is not kingdom work. Jesus then takes the opportunity to tell a parable where successful persons focus on building bigger and bigger barns for themselves, with no thought of others, and in the process risk their own souls. 

The analogy does not work exactly because those seeking disaffiliation are not talking about dividing the inheritance in a fair way but rather want to take it all. As one pastor has said, and I paraphrase, “This is a huge deal.”  For only (x dollars) we can “own the whole block and control our own destiny.”

It is easy to see why one who has this desire would think this is a good deal. On the other hand, this is not a good deal for those who believe that faithfulness is about something more than controlling our own destiny. This is not a good deal for those who honor our connectional covenant together and believe that congregations hold property in trust for the larger church. These congregations would not have beloved pastors without the commitment of the larger church to confirm callings, provide training, and develop systems for appointment, support, and shared mission. These congregations are who they are because of a shared commitment to the apostolic faith that has been passed down through many faithful souls.

It is not a good deal for those who believe that the Holy Spirit is at work among us, keeping us aligned in God’s love as a whole, even as some stand on the prophetic edges that make others uncomfortable.  That is a constant dynamic in the church.  To use isolated examples of a few who stand at the edges as a reason for schism only works if it is believed that the new church will never have people inspired by new thoughts and new insights for how to invite all into lives of faithfulness and love.  It works only if the Holy Spirit will no longer be in this work at the edges, even as the Holy Spirit also works among those who feel called to hold fast to views found on the inside.

Perhaps we cannot read too much into it, but it is interesting that this scripture from the lectionary popped up for this week.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit will use this – as the Holy Spirit does and often through the scriptures– to transform hearts.  Perhaps the better way through this tension is to figure out how to share the inheritance that we have all been given and to do so in a way where all are honored.  That would be kingdom work!  

2548.2 “If You Know You Know” or “History with an Eye to the Future”

The adage is true about being doomed to repeat history if we are not aware.  Thanks to a recent podcast hosted by Dr Ashley Boggan Dreff, our General Secretary of Archives and History, light has been shed on how paragraph 2548.2 in the Book of Discipline developed and how it has been used.  As one person said on the floor of the 1948 General Conference, “We all know what this is about,” even though the purpose was never specifically acknowledged. As “white flight” became a reality, this paragraph was added to deal with property where there was no longer a thriving “white” congregation.  Thoughts of revitalization and building diverse communities of faith may have been seeds in the hearts of some but were not a part of the collective hope at the time.  The only lens through which solutions were sought was the lens of segregation and a desire to maintain separation of races.

This paragraph authorized the United Methodist Church to be able to deed property to Pan-Methodist denominations or to other evangelical denominations.  In addition to the UMC, there are five other denominations within the Pan-Methodist Communion, all formed specifically for African Americans.  The largest of these is the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).  While there may be elements of goodness in the motives, this goodness was also mixed with a complicity to sin.  Relational dynamics are still complicated in this way.  What can we learn and how might be grow in ways that glorify God?

Once again, the struggle is between inclusion and separation, only in a different context.  At issue is how we relate to certain persons who want to be a part of the church, who want to make a commitment to the values of the church and want to grow with other in the love of Christ and who might consider themselves a part of the LGBTQ+ community. On one side are those who believe we must approach matters of human sexuality with more humility and less judgment and, when it comes to marriage and relationships, focus on the virtues and values that are life-giving for all. Those calling for separation, want to draw much harder lines around traditional definitions of marriage, not only in terms of the values of faithfulness and love, but also in terms of gender and sexuality. Limiting relationship in this way is not seen as exclusion but as giving witness to what is truly good for all.

Concerning leadership, the lines are similar.  When discerning leadership, some want to focus on call and character, while others want provisions that could keep conversations about calling and character from ever being considered.  How a person looks and identifies is where the first line is drawn.   

Calls for separation come from those who cannot faithfully stay within a denomination that allows others to cross this line.  It is claimed that separation is needed so that all can practice faith in ways that are comfortable for them.  I can hear the line I heard often growing up, “They worship differently than we do.” 

To support the call for separation, some claim that this need for separation is about more than human sexuality.  It is popular to claim deep theological differences, often by highlighting extreme examples and then generalizing these examples to implicate the whole.  It is also interesting how extremes on the other side are ignored.  As we engage in this struggle at Annual Conference, we all need to be assured that there are not major attempts to change our core doctrine.  Doctrine is not what this is about. 

It is interesting how advocates of separation/division/schism have gravitated to this paragraph with such a morally complicated history.  This should give us all pause – first to reflect on what is right – and then to also notice the many other problems with using this paragraph.  Concerning the legislation built upon paragraph 2548.2 that we will likely see at Annual Conference: 1. The paragraph deals with transfer of property from one denomination to another. It does not create a process for congregations to disaffiliate.   2. The legislation binds the authority of the bishop, cabinet, and others listed in the paragraph.  Even if these parties agree, they cannot be bound to act in particular ways by legislation.  3.  The GMC as a denomination is not yet organized.  How can we approve a denomination before it exists and before we know if there will be any mutual recognition? We’ve heard representatives of the GMC say that they cannot enter into a communion agreement with the UMC until they have had a general conference that can make such a decision.  4.  The legislation will likely call for a simple majority vote as a possibility, relying on this paragraph that calls for a majority vote by both denominations (not local congregations).  The Judicial Council has already ruled that any disaffiliation must include approval by a 2/3 majority. (Decision 1379).  This is the standard for important decisions that have such effects on people.  One could point to the GMC Book of Doctrine and Discipline to see how this threshold is used for important decisions. In that book, the threshold of 3/4 is used for some decisions.

As United Methodist we live together under a trust clause that calls us into covenant together and is deeply rooted in our Wesleyan tradition and in scripture.   With this connection, each of us can go into any UMC and say, “I’m a part of this.” “This is my church.”  May we be careful and conservative about how we change this sense of trust and allow our churches to be transferred to another.   With this move we risk leaving whole communities without a United Methodist presence and perhaps without a congregation that represents the values we hold dear. Let us support those, in all congregations, who desire inclusion or are willing to live and worship together in a denomination that supports inclusion – the United Methodist Church. Let us all pause before we give this away.   What is this all really about? 

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