Ending the Cycle of Conflict in the United Methodist Church

Posted on April 14, 2019 by Gregory Stover

Dr. Gregory D. Stover

A draining cycle of conflict now grips the United Methodist Church. This past February that conflict was exposed in all its raw pain at the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference. As time distances us from the emotion of St. Louis perhaps we can see something more than accusations, recrimination, and claims of harm on all sides. Hopefully we can acknowledge that our conflict arises from the deeply held, yet contradictory, convictions of many people — all who claim the name of Jesus Christ. We may then be able to acknowledge that the potential separation we have feared and worked to avoid may be the best and only true resolution in our current circumstances.


How Our Conflict Has Grown


The conflict which brought us to this moment has been with us since the inception of the UMC. It has grown over nearly fifty years in the soil of doctrinal and theological pluralism. The founders hoped that this soil would nourish diverse understandings of Christian (Wesleyan) faith which could grow harmoniously together in a large greenhouse (or as is popular to say, a “big tent”). United Methodism has produced many fruitful missions and ministries across the globe, yet the vision of our founders has not been realized. Nearly fifty years after the merger which created the UMC, we find ourselves entangled in a messy and increasingly untillable garden. The plants seem to require different soil balance and environmental conditions for continued growth together. This tangled garden has grown from the interaction of different and conflicting convictions about the nature of revelation and Biblical authority, as well as the authority and interpretation of Scripture. These varying convictions result in understandings of the nature and mission of the church and what constitutes faithful ministry which are not well aligned. Out of this context our conflict over same-sex relationships has become the immediate cause which is bringing the UMC to the brink of division. The roots of our conflict grow in deep soil. Human sexuality is only one of the potential areas of conflict found in our large green house.[i]


United Methodists have labored diligently to find a way forward. We have studied, appointed special commissions, debated, dialogued, strategized for legislative solutions, and engaged three proposed ways forward at a multi-million dollar special General Conference. For twelve consecutive General Conferences and at the most recent Special Session, we have considered our response to LGBTQAI persons. Repeatedly, we have affirmed the basic response laid out in 1972.  We have prayed and plead for unity. Yet, unity now appears more distant than ever.


The Time Has Come for Separation


The time has come for United Methodist leaders across the theological spectrum to come together for honest and honorable conversation about how to accomplish an “amicable separation” in the United Methodist Church.


I am certainly not the first person to suggest that a separation provides the best direction for our denomination. Nor is “amicable separation” the only metaphor suggested. Many have spoken of “divorce.” Others label a potential division as “schism.” I have appreciated Bob Phillips’ suggestion of “mitosis” or cell division as a metaphor. We can view our current moment as an opportunity to engage in the kind of normal cell division which produces growth. Two or more Wesleyan bodies emerging from the United Methodist Church offers the opportunity for us to end the cycle of conflict, set each other free to minister respectively out of our deep convictions, and empower two or more bodies each of which are united by their doctrinal, theological and practical commitments.


The term “amicable separation” does address our need with clear and direct language. Many traditionalists, like myself, are determined to maintain the current language in our Discipline relative to same-sex marriage and ordination. We don’t like the idea of complaints, charges and church trials, but are willing to pursue them to bring accountability to our covenant community. Many progressives and centrists have made clear they will not uphold the Discipline relative to same-sex relationships — even if this  includes active disobedience and the risk of lost credentials. As one who supported the traditional plan, I believe this active disobedience breaks our covenant and creates chaos in the church. As Billy Abraham has written, “the United Methodist Church has become ungovernable.” If there is to be an end to the cycle of conflict, separation is required.


How we arrive at separation will greatly impact the possibility of future relationships. One possibility is that either traditionalists or progressives/centrists finally conclude “enough is enough” and depart leaving the UMC to the opposing side. Such an approach creates and magnifies “winners” and “losers.” As witnessed by other mainline denominations which have experienced division, such a division will likely result in years of litigation and millions of dollars in legal costs expended over property matters. Continuing the conflict until one side or the other prevails and the opposing side leaves will continue to drain resources from mission, further damage already strained relationships, and further expose United Methodism to negative press. Scripture encourages us to live at peace: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18)  “Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14)


An “amicable” separation requires a solution which, in the face of the deep pain experienced by persons on all sides of the conflict and the inevitable grief of dividing the church which has nurtured us, offers hope for a better future for all.


The Scripture and Separation


The Scripture has much to say about conflict and unity in the church. Scripture also offers a couple examples of how conflict was avoided or resolved. One is found in the account of Abram and Lot standing near Bethel looking over the land. Abram knew that the land could not support them both, so he offered Lot a way forward.


Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred.  Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left. (Genesis 13:8-9)  Abram’s willingness to bless Lot on his way forestalled what he recognized would be the probability of continued conflict.


Even more pertinent to our moment is the conflict between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41). Preparing for mission, Barnabas wanted to take John Mark. Paul was opposed because John Mark had deserted them on a previous mission. A sharp disagreement arose between them. It was a question of how mission would be carried forward and how personnel would be deployed. Paul took Silas. Barnabas took John Mark. The community commended them to the grace of the Lord. We often assume that Paul, Barnabas and John Mark remained in conflict which was never resolved. Yet, later from prison Paul writes to Timothy and asks him to send Mark to him because he is useful to Paul in ministry (II Timothy 4:11). Paul’s and Timothy’s readiness to go their ways actually seems to have multiplied their ministry and laid the foundation for a renewed unity in the future.


An amicable separation could include clear institutional separation into two or more new Methodist denominations, continued shared connection/cooperation through retention of a few of our agencies (e.g. Wespath, Archives and History, UMCOR), careful consideration of the needs and desires of Central Conferences so as not to destroy the global mission we have partnered in creating, and just and equitable division of remaining assets. Implementing amicable separation will be difficult. Each of the matters mentioned here involve complex issues which can be approached in a number of ways. However, we need to remember that our current conflict has proven intractable. No resolution will be easy or painless, but neither will it be unreachable.


A Hope for General Conference 2020


The 2020 General Conference convenes in approximately thirteen months. Traditionalists will work to strengthen accountability by enacting the portions of the Traditional Plan not passed in St. Louis. Progressives and Centrists will come determined to undo the results of the 2019 gathering. The cycle of conflict will not only continue; it will be magnified with more hurt all around, renewed vitriolic speech, additional recriminations and accusations, and continued defaming of the United Methodist Church in the press.


We can avoid this eventuality. United Methodist leaders across the theological spectrum can gather together and begin now to develop a well-defined process that leads to the birth of two or more new expressions of Wesleyan Christian faith. They could prepare the necessary legislation in advance and offer it to the church with one voice. They could ask the 2020 General Conference to make the discussion of amicable separation the primary agenda. The question is not IF these things can be done. The question is whether we will continue the cycle of conflict or seek to bless one another as we each respond to our understanding of God’s leading in our lives and ministry.


If we do the latter … we will be the first mainline denomination to find our way through these divisive matters without long, expensive legal battles … we will offer the world an alternative narrative about how Christians solve intractable differences of conscience … we will depart in relative peace and leave the door open for what God’s Spirit may bring in the future … we will offer God’s peace and God’s blessing to one another.


In preparation for the 2019 General Conference we heard a repeated refrain from our episcopal leaders and others across the church. That refrain was for us to open ourselves to the moving of the Holy Spirit. Implicit in that plea seemed to be the assumption that if we did open ourselves and were obedient to the Holy Spirit the institutional unity of the UMC would be preserved. But, what if the Holy Spirit is seeking to lead in a new  direction. Could it be that God is preparing to birth a new or renewed Methodism? I believe that is entirely possible.

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