The season for annual conferences in the United Methodist Church has drawn to a close. The main order of business this year was dealing with requests from churches wanting to disaffiliate. The latest tally is that approximately 6,000 left. As the conferences approved their disaffiliation, there was a sense that we should grieve their departure. We’re losing congregations and pastors who’ve been a part of United Methodism, so mourning their loss is natural. “When we asunder part, it gives us inward pain,” as an old hymn goes.
Well, after all this time, try as I might, I simply cannot find much inward pain anymore. Taking its place is disappointment.
It’s unfortunately, and probably unfairly, easy to stereotypye the disaffiliating folks as Pharisees on the Sanhedrin. They’ve come across as enforcing iron-clad legalism rather than acting as believers at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) who read Scripture from the perspective of Jesus’ mission, message, and actions.
When people use the Bible legalistically, they generate a lot of pain. What they’ve produced in our church is similar to what the fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention have produced in theirs, when they decided to kick out any congregation that would ordain women.
So, disappointment trumps grief. Once I had hoped we could remain in fellowship within the same church structure, but that was naive on my part. You can’t stay together when some want to separate themselves from those who read Scripture differently.
On the bright side, though, disaffiliation has produced something positive. It has highlighted those who may have agreed with their stance on some issues of sexuality but decided to stay in fellowship within the UMC anyway. I appreciate them and their witness. They are partners in our shared discipleship. They reflect a spirit of humility and openness that is central to the gospel. They show that none of us is infallible in thought, but that all can try to be made perfect in love.
In the future, it’s going to be difficult passing churches and colleagues who no longer identify as United Methodist. Ultimately, grief is called for, but not necessarily at their departing.
Once, religious leaders were seeing if Jesus would heal someone on the sabbath, so they might condemn him. His response was amazing. “Looking around at them with anger, deeply grieved at their unyielding hearts, he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ So he did, and his hand was made healthy.” (Mark 3:5) Jesus grieved because the Pharisees had unyielding hearts that fractionalized the world.
We must share that type of grief.