GRIEVING FOR THE CHURCH
By Riley Case
For 61 years I have attended my annual conference. I am now attending #62. I go back so far that in one of my first conferences I was not sure where I was to be appointed. Like days of yore I was told you’ll know when the bishop reads the appointments. But “conference” has always been one of the highlights of my year. I would see old friends, hear great sermons, take part in spirited singing, rejoice in the victories of the past year and anticipate the challenges of the next year. In those days we actually discussed and debated reports (now all on the consent calendar). Churches dismissed their Sunday services so that persons could attend Sunday services at “conference.”
I admit I am, to use a term from many years ago, an “old croaker,” a term given at one time to retired preachers who longed for the good old days of long ago and complained about the present. Our conference is big and impersonal. Before mergers and consolidations seven different conferences operated in the place of the one. In our present day the cost of one banquet ticket ($48) would just about have covered the cost for a person to attend the entire conference.
I grew up in an Indiana county-seat Methodist Church. To the churches around, a county-seat church was “liberal,” or “formal.” It usually was one of the dominant churches in the county. The country churches were known for revivals; the county-seat churches were known for their organs. Our church did things by the “book” (as in the
and institutional policies). We used the official hymnal and the official Sunday school material and observed all of the conference approved special days. My family was so faithful I received the perfect attendance Sunday school pins for eight straight years. But my family had other influences: my mother’s fundamentalist relatives and some para-church ministries my family was interested in. So, I was well aware of the tensions between liberals and what we in those days referred to as “fundamentalists.” I remember debating the Virgin Birth even in our youth group and at church camp.
Somehow, I gained a reputation as a “conservative” before I even started preaching. The first questions directed to me from the Board of Ministerial Qualifications (now BOM) were: what did I think of Methodist Sunday school material? This was followed with: what did I think of the Methodist hymnal? (in addition to: “Did I smoke?”). I assume the committee must have thought that since I was attending a Methodist seminary my theology was satisfactory without examination. They seemed to know of my causes. My mother fought the Sunday school material for most of her years as a Methodist. The material was, as she well knew and let it be known, “liberal.” There was much more about being kind to others than memorizing Scripture. Jesus was never presented as hanging on the cross until junior high. One preacher explained we needed to use the official material because we were a county-seat church and needed to be an example to the other Methodist churches around us.
But we lived with that. Our youth program was a big part of my life. We had huge sub district and district rallies. The camping program was great. I never wanted to be anything other than Methodist. The liberal pastors I knew were always supportive. When I entered pastoral ministry there was a close fellowship among preachers of the spectrum of theological backgrounds.
That is not to say there was no theological push-back. The Good News movement started in 1968 to give voice to “The Silent Minority,” faithful Methodists whose evangelical convictions were not always recognized, let alone affirmed. Our conference evangelical fellowship was organized in 1970 and for years functioned more as a spiritual support group than political caucus. When we, on the national level as well as the local level, dealt with church affairs we addressed Sunday school material, the lack of theological diversity in seminaries, the doctrinal statement, the de-emphasis on evangelism in missions, Biblical language and the Consultation on Church Union. Of course, the critics of evangelical United Methodism were sure there were other sinister factors at work: a right-wing political agenda, a desire to split the church, rigid doctrinaire theology, a probable connection with South Africa, and racism. And then as the LGBTQ agenda began to sweep through American secular culture and had worked its way more and more into United Methodist institutional leadership, homophobia.
It always was, and still is, a mystery as to how a major group in the church in the United States and abroad (namely the evangelicals) which have affirmed historical Methodism, including Wesleyan theology, the doctrinal standards and the General Rules, should be accused of being disloyal or divisive or hateful. But we lived with that. The positives about United Methodism were always so much stronger than the negatives.
But the crisis is now greater than ever before (except maybe before the M.E. Church split over the issue of slavery). Word from various annual conferences already held this year tell of conflict and dissension. Claims that UMs are a people who live in unity based on love ring hollow. In our local churches discouraging stories are being told about individuals, families and in some instances, whole congregations leaving the denomination. For some of us these are people we have ministered to and with. In some cases these are family members. In many instances when our children leave home they are finding other kinds of churches. Some finding other churches are progressives who believe the UM Church is hateful and anti-gay. Still others are ordinary UMs who simply don’t want discord in the church. Others (and probably the larger number) are evangelicals who have become disillusioned with institutional progressivism which they feel has abandoned Biblical teaching.
But there are more problems. I spoke with a woman who is a delegate to our upcoming annual conference. I asked her if she wanted some voting suggestions. She replied, “No, because we are on opposite sides” (I did not know). But it was painful to be involved in talk about “sides.” Unfortunately, the lack of civility, the efforts to intimidate, the angry arguments that once were mostly limited to general conference are now finding their way into our annual conferences. What is particularly painful is that many of those now identified as “the other side” are, or at least have been, close friends. I have heard people speak of “enemies” in the church.
Can it get worse? It can. We are now facing wholesale defiance of that which has in the past held us together, namely our corporate culture deriving from our common
. The church, it seems, is waging war against its own people. Bishops, asked to guide us in a “Way Forward” by some strange twist of logic, proclaim they will not honor their own episcopal vows, will not accept the actions of the recent General Conference which affirmed the Traditional Plan, and are proclaiming the church’s
as anti-gay and hateful. In several cases bishops are said to be counseling churches who are withholding apportionments as a protest. The consequence is not “unity,” a value which in the past bishops seemed to worship as the highest value of the faith, but disunity and confusion. To what end? It is difficult to find anything positive in bishops, Boards of Ordained Ministry and conferences who are in rebellion against traditional United Methodism.
So, I go to annual conference with a grieving heart. Must we continue to bite and devour one another? Amicable separation is the only fair and equitable Way Forward at this point. The Confessing Movement has proposed this, or at least suggested this when other options have failed. If we love one another we do not need to engage in conflict until one side “wins” and the other “loses.” If love means anything it means that we respect one another as persons and offer others the freedom to pursue their own visions.