Friday, May 10, 2019

Can UMC Learn from SBC?

I first learned of Dr. Nancy Ammerman during the SBC implosion of the late '80's. This was the height of the fundamentalist takeover, and I was a seminary student in Louisville KY, and anyone who was moderate, independent, or not vocally fundamentalist or "drinking that Kool Aid" didn't have a place in the new regime. Eventually, lines were drawn which forced choosing a side. Even if one enjoyed the middle- that's me! as it allows room to go right on some issues and left on others, plus room to follow Jesus and continue to respond to Holy Spirit- soon found there was no more middle ground.

Dr. Ammerman looked at the SBC Holy War from the perspective of sociology of religion and was a helpful voice to assist many of us in understanding what seemed unbelievable and so destabilizing. There were others who would view the large group fighting and fracturing from perspectives of regionalism, hermeneutics, social political culture wars, and one outlier strand within the tradition rising to long term power to name a few other key markers.

Since then it is easy to see that one religious war merely led to others within the group. The SBC has declined similarly to all US religious groups. Despite all the rhetoric of righteousness, holiness, true belief, right interpretation, and drawing a line in the sand, the decline has been steady. And using biblical language and an "either you follow my biblical interpretation or you are an enemy" approach creates an adversarial climate which is challenging to deescalate. A generation of clergy, and diversity of congregations and people, was lost as the SBC moved more in lockstep with each other in a winner take all venture. Once a new normal takes hold it can be almost impossible to return to a previous state of normalcy.

Dr. Ammerman recently posted some tweets that I found helpful in considering the current UMC situation. While there are some differences in time and place there are plenty of comparable issues that are noteworthy. I've mentioned to some that if it took the SBC a decade or more to fracture I'd expect a denominational, connectional body to take even longer if we break up. Being a centrist, I continue to attempt to hold together a middle that may become more and more difficult to keep together. Personally, I find the traditionalist plan unMethodist, draconian, unconscionable as an attack upon the human rights of LGBTQIA, as well as detrimental to the witness of congregations in a great variety of contexts who stand for the vulnerable of society and for those children of God. We'd be much better served to strike the restrictive language from the Book of Discipline rather than continually play out this decades long fight that weakens us rather than strengthen our love of God and neighbor (as we love ourselves). Recalling the wide variety of people Jesus would spend time with in community reinforces a better way for a Christian and congregation interacting with the neighbors. 

Personally, I think the various strands of tradition within the UMC are stronger together as the holiness tradition, peace and justice tradition, mission tradition, revivalists, congregationalists, and others all need each other. We can go our separate ways, fracturing into various Methodist smaller bodies, but even after that it will take a decade or two to find some strength and clarity. If we track like the SBC, the greater likelihood is that we would only know how to fight, would continue to weaken, and after 20 years nothing turns out as expected. The old fight, of one older generation, drags on and on and is of no interest to the next generation, so is only a drain and distraction. God help us if the 60-70 year olds are making the biggest Church decisions that won't be clearly revealed for another 20 years! Better at that point to let folk in their 30's-50's drive these decisions so important to the emerging church.

I'd rather help create a church and Church that is for our neighbors, for the next generation, for people of color, for the indigenous, for LGBTQIA, for people unlike me, rather than known for sounding and acting like an angry religious crowd who are judgmental on some issues and turning a blind eye to weightier issues of vital biblical faith.

Whatever might be new and emerging from current UMC conversations and decisions would do well to learn from the mistakes of other religious groups and not make the same errors. May our prayers, conversations, and votes have the long view in mind for a vital UMC witness that our children and grandchildren will gladly receive and continue to grow.

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