Why stay together?

By William O. “Bud” Reeves Special Contributor I recently visited the Lydia Patterson Institute, a high school run by the United Methodist Church in El Paso, Texas. It is a wonderful ministry. Seventy percent of their students walk across the bridge from Mexico to get an education. Ninety-eight percent of their graduates go to college. Over the years, thousands of families have ended the oppressive cycle of poverty through the ministry of LPI. Bud ReevesAs I stood in a chapel crowded with Hispanic teenagers worshipping enthusiastically, I thought how tragic it would be if ministries such as Lydia Patterson (and multitudes of others) were harmed by the division of the United Methodist Church. There has been increasing talk about the schism of the denomination over the issue of homosexuality. There are strident voices on either end of the spectrum within the United Methodist Church. So-called “progressives” want full acceptance of all people, including the ordination and marriage of gay and lesbian people. So-called “traditionalists” support the current language of our Book of Discipline: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” They believe the denominational stance is gracious and balanced. Many progressives have advocated for ecclesiastical disobedience, particularly in the performance of gay marriages, despite the protests from those who seek to uphold the Discipline. Lately voices have been raised saying that we should just declare the issue insolvable and split the denomination according to our stance on homosexuality. Some have said we are already divided along these lines; why not form separate organizations so we can quit arguing about it? Ironically, the calls for a denominational division have come more from the conservative end of the spectrum. Given the makeup of General Conference, the Book of Discipline is unlikely to change. Yet the ecclesiastical disobedience of progressive clergy and bishops has led conservative traditionalists to advocate schism, citing the brokenness of our covenant as a connectional church. In the middle I believe most United Methodists are caught somewhere in the middle of this decades-long debate. Bishop Scott Jones has characterized Methodists as occupying the “extreme center,” and we do. One of the beautiful strengths of the Methodist movement has been the ability to hold divergent opinions and live in community even when we disagree. We have never practiced unanimity—biblically, theologically or socially. I have always kind of liked that. As the convener of a task force directed to produce a resource that will allow us to have conversations on this topic, I have been intensively studying the issues surrounding homosexuality for the last two years. It has been an interesting journey with a wonderful group of people who were not at all in agreement. We learned to discuss the issues with respect for our differences and came to love one another in the process. The Wesleyan term for this practice is “holy conferencing.” This year at Annual Conference we will present a discussion guide called “A More Excellent Way: Holy Conversations About Homosexuality.” I hope you will gather in your church, your Sunday school class or your small group to consider the biblical, theological and social implications of our relationships with our gay and lesbian friends and neighbors. The landscape of this issue in America has drastically changed, even in the last two years, and we need to understand it better. What I discovered in my studying and in our discussions was that there are valid points on both sides of all the arguments. There is not an obvious “right side” and “wrong side.” Both progressives and traditionalists can produce quality arguments that make sense. In the stridency of the debate, however, what neither side seems willing to admit is that they might be wrong. As we see in our political and societal landscape, there is polarization and gridlock in the church. Bereft of love for one another, we flail blindly toward schism. Our deepest need What would it look like if all sides became humble before God, if we just admitted that perhaps we are not the owners of all truth? Only God has that. Can we find a way to co-exist as God’s children? If there is a possibility that we might be wrong, can we err on the side of grace? I am convinced we can talk to one another. We can have hard conversations in community, affirming our covenant relationship. We can disagree with respect and love for one another. I’ve done it, and it’s a holy thing. These conversations need to continue. I’m also convinced that this is not the main thing. Our deepest need is not a coherent position on homosexuality. What we need most of all is a relationship with Jesus Christ. What our churches need is not a social agenda; it’s a spiritual revival. Our mission is to make disciples who make disciples for the transformation of lives, churches and communities. Our mission is not to change—or keep—the language of the Book of Discipline. It would be tragic for ministries that accomplish our mission to be harmed, diminished or destroyed by the division of our denomination. Our relationships and ministry with our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is an important issue. We should talk about it. We should keep talking about it as long as it takes. We should not split our church over it. The Rev. Dr. Reeves serves as superintendent of the Northwest District. Email: breeves@arumc.org.