Reflections on Nonconformity and the United Methodist Church

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For over forty years, indeed since the Spirit-filled birth of the denomination in 1968, we have been fussing with one another in the United Methodist Church over the issue of human sexuality. Well-meaning persons come at the issue from differing cultural backgrounds, with different sets of personal experience, with vastly different corporate experience (despite sharing the name Methodist), with different Biblical hermeneutics, and with different trusted sources of rational understanding. Therefore, it should not surprise us that we are not of one mind.

However, the chasm between the factions has widened significantly in recent years and the center which once held us together with a hodge-podge of “live and let live,” “don’t ask, don’t tell,” “love the sinner, hate the sin” attitudes is no longer able to do so. The center cannot hold any longer. The left, refusing to accept the often offered look-the-other-way partial inclusion of the recent past rejects the middle ground that only tentatively and oh so reluctantly embraces a broad understanding of God’s diverse creation. The right loudly refuses to be in communion with anyone who disagrees with their culturally-derived Biblical absolutes.  In a world that has become more polarized on ALL issues, the church easily becomes polarized on THIS issue. General Conference becomes like a family reunion for the Hatfields and the McCoys, and people get hurt whenever we try to come together.  (And yes, before you complain, I know I am writing from my personal perspective and my bias clearly shows. I love you, my more traditional friends, but I can no longer pretend to speak for you. You’ve left me behind in your drift into the fortress church you seek to create.)

Since May’s General Conference action of referring our shared future to a called “Bishop’s Commission” to meet in 2 to 3 years, the left has upped the ante with a series of annual conference actions declaring in various ways that the conferences will be “nonconforming,” rejecting the parts of the General Church’s rules that exclude gays and lesbians from full participation in the life of the church, and seeks to punish those who live outside of the rules. Those conferences which have taken nonconforming stands, which include my current conference here in the Pacific Northwest, as well as my home conference of Desert Southwest, do so, I believe, with great regret that as the us-them power continuum shifts to the left, our sisters and brothers on the right feel excluded. They regret this deeply because for so long they have been the “other,” the marginalized, the ignored, the feared, the one laying broken and battered by the side of the road, and they KNOW what that feels like. But in recent days, they have risen up from the place of otherness and, surprised by their numbers, have said in chorus, “No more.”

It seems to me that the call to non-conformity falls on more sympathetic ears than we realize. It seems to me that these recent actions are but the most visible part of the iceberg of change that is coming in the world of religion and spirituality. Many historians of religion will tell us that we are overdue for a new reformation, a new Great Awakening. But these are vast thoughts, beyond the horizons of the customary work of one pastor of one church in one town, in one state, in one country in a great big world. When I put my pen down today, I shall return to the work of visiting the sick and consoling the grieving, feeding the hungry of body and spirit, and praying for the reign of God to come in the world as disciples are formed one at a time by the work I am privileged to nurture in my church.

Nevertheless, as a teller of my church’s story, I think the non-conformity actions will result in the birth of a new church. I am more than willing to let the Bishop’s Commission do their best to hold the church together. That commission may be the well of living water that can restore life to this thirsty church, or it may be the anvil on which a new church is forged. In any case, it will only be by the work of God’s Holy Spirit that we will be moved from the present impasse. I am sure I don’t need to remind you that the Holy Spirit moves in frightening ways, filling rooms with change and newness, fulfilling the oft-repeated message of God, “Behold, I make all things new!”

So blow Holy Spirit! Blow away the detritus of the past and refresh us with new wind, refine us with new fire, and send us forth without fear into whatever it is that awaits us beyond the horizon of tomorrow. Reshape us as you will, reform us as we need, and reclaim us for your work, by whatever name we end up calling ourselves, and in whatever form we govern ourselves.