The United Brethren-Evangelical-Methodist-Wesleyan movement has witnessed, and endured, more than 25 separate divisions and mergers in its 236-year history. We can look to various causes for these actions, which include slavery, holiness, pew taxes, bishops, laity, the ordination of women, and more. The first major division came in 1784 when the Baltimore Christmas Conference concluded with the birth of a new denomination – the Methodist Episcopal Church – created separate and apart from the Church of England. John Wesley’s work to bring spiritual and social holiness alive to the members of the church eventually evolved to the point that the Church of England was unable to hold the Methodists in place, and a new church came into being.
It seems more positive and joyful to claim the image of birth, than the images of schism, separation, and division — even though all those images carry with them the presence of pain and struggle as a new thing comes into being. In each occasion over the last nearly 240 years, a new entity has been birthed, either by the movement of part of the church to leave the larger body, for whatever reason, or the movement of separate parts of the Christian church believing they could serve Christ more powerfully if they were to come together as a new community of faith.
It appears that God’s holy time has come to The United Methodist Church. A protracted and intractable issue is rising to the level of a dynamic and dire situation. Years of debate and legislation fail to bring the church closer. Significant segments of our denomination have intentions that do not reflect either the purpose of our life together nor the foundation of our life in Christ. Large portions of our church have decided to fight with one another and to place our energy into working to see how we might “win” in this significant family issue. We have experienced efforts to condemn one another, to place our will over one another, to defame the other person who disagrees with our belief and to ignore or demean the honest theologies and faith decisions of those on the other side. All these actions and intentions, all of them, are our shame, and have broken the ties that bind us, and have denied our hope that we would indeed be the people of God who know how to love one another. In a real sense, we have striven against one another like Jacob and Esau in the womb. As they fought one another, the Lord said to Rebekah, “…two different peoples will emerge from your body…” (Gen. 25:23).
As we admit these things to be so, perhaps at this point in our history and lineage of leaving and joining, it may be helpful to envision our church as preparing for birth. For whatever reason or reasons that we have claimed as near-essential for our life and governance, perhaps it’s time to bring new life into being. Perhaps it is time for us to recognize that the battle in the womb of our church means that we have run out of room, and it is time for us to claim our separate places as God’s people in this world. It is time for us to live no longer as one body, but as the newly birthed churches of a great tradition, always to be connected by our common history, but now free to bear witness to our faith with the path each of us will take. This is more than an amicable separation—this is the time for us to claim an intentional new life, and new lives as sibling denominations of the larger Methodist movement.
With any impending birth, much preparation is needed. The details of when and where and what may come next can all be answered and worked out in love. The structure and leadership of our current denomination will undoubtedly change, but perhaps, in love, we can find the ways to save each other’s dignity, and still allow for mission and ministry to be shared as appropriate. Certainly, the mundane work of organizing conferences and leadership must be answered, but perhaps we can employ holy imagination as we work to set up new homes in which to live out our faith. This becomes easier, so long as each of us no longer needs to win.
Of course, we recognize that as exciting as birth can be, it still includes the pain and the sense of loss of a former way of life together. We experience death, even with new life, but perhaps with humility and prayer, and employing God’s creative power and love, we may witness that this has become the Way Forward that we had hoped and prayed for – still preserving the unity of God’s church, yet living with God’s promise to do a new thing, and freed to share the essential love and good news of the Jesus Christ to a world in need, as God leads us in these new paths.
Drafted after a meeting and discussion convened by Bishop Bruce R. Ough, August 2019:
Rev. Ray Baker Rev. Sara Nelson
Rev. Derek Baum Rev. Ross Reinhiller
Rev. Thom Bowsher Rev. Bob Ruedebusch
Rev. Randy Cross Rev. Rebecca Trefz
Rev. Karl Kroger
Affirmed by the Dakotas Conference Common Table, September 20, 2019, for distribution to the members of the Dakotas Annual Conference.