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Commentary


"Plan of Separation" - UM Pastor Writes of Irreconcilable Differences


The "United" Methodist Church today faces ever-widening divisions. Syndicated columnist, Cal Thomas, recently wrote that United Methodist Christians who disagree with the decision of the Rev. Karen Dammann’s church trial have only one option available to them now: "The only course for those who still care what God thinks is to follow the instructions of Paul the Apostle: ‘Come out from among them and be separate.’" Surely Mr. Thomas is wrong in this assertion. I can’t believe this is the only option available. This is not the first time we have faced such division. I believe it could be instructive to look at another time and a different controversial issue when the church was faced with its greatest divide- the issue of slavery.

Let me state my deep regret that this historical reflection, by necessity, relates to the issue of slavery. Obviously, and quite correctly, history has vindicated the forces representing anti-slavery. The southern Methodists clearly went in a direction that John Wesley never intended. He was a champion of ridding the planet of the practice. Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke intended a Methodist Church in America that banished slave owning. At the Christmas Conference in 1784 a large contingent desired to "extirpate this abomination from among us." Within 12 months all Methodists were to free any slaves. Those who declined were free to withdraw or they would be expelled, but the Methodist movement in the South was growing. Southern states had laws that didn’t allow for the emancipation of slaves, so the ruling was overturned 5 months later. Many continued to make moves at General Conferences to exclude pastors from owning slaves, and there continued to be great difficulty and verbal conflict between the Northern and Southern regions of the Methodist Church. By the 1844 General Conference, the Methodist Church agreed to separate after 70 years of deep division. The issue was related to slavery, which was the "hot button" issue in the nation. The Northern majority of delegates demanded Bishop James O. Andrew cease functioning in his office until he no longer owned slaves. He "inherited" slaves through marriage, so he was legally responsible for their care, even though he never sought to own slaves. The Southern delegates objected to what they felt was the inappropriate exercise of power by the General Conference in relieving Bishop Andrew of his duties, but, of course, the underlying issue was the deep disagreement about slavery. The Southern delegates quickly drew up and presented a "Plan of Separation." Many Northerners agreed it was time to amicably separate. After many years of disagreement and public strife, the plan was well received and easily negotiated. By a vote of 148-10 the General Conference agreed to the equitable division of all property belonging to the church. Each pastor and each church was to decide to associate or "connect" with one of the new organizations.

Keith Pohl, a former editor of the United Methodist Review, has spoken of the current "southern captivity of the UMC." He says given the membership and representation at General Conference in the South Central Jurisdiction (1.8 million) and the Southeastern Jurisdiction (2.9 million), the North Central (1.6 million), Northeastern (1.8 million), and Western (443,000) Jurisdictions have little power to effect changes in policy in the midst of disputes that often times have a distinctive regional perspective. This trend appears to be moving even more in that direction for the future, so I agree with his assessment.

Every four years at General Conference since 1972 there have been groups within the UMC that have attempted to change the standards we have set on homosexuality. Every four years the church has maintained our gracious, biblical, orthodox standards. General Conference will be here soon. I suspect there will be lengthy discussions, debates, and disagreements accompanied by plenty of negative press coverage, and, in the end, we’ll reaffirm our position. Perhaps we’ll make a few changes that will amount to rearranging the deck chairs, rather than fixing the leaks before the ship goes down. We are a "democratic" church, so we have all the problems and joys of any other democracy. In the church trial of the Rev. Karen Dammann, it does seem, however, rather disingenuous for an Annual Conference (the Bishop reluctantly filed the charges, the prosecutor was glad he lost the case, and not one peer found Rev. Dammann in violation) to disregard an established church policy. If one does not agree with the established position of the UMC, one can keep working to change the standard. Hopefully, with prayer and the desire to make more and better disciples of Jesus Christ, we will have such controversial discussions in Pittsburgh in a spirit of love without shooting ourselves in the foot too badly. But the press loves a good battle, and we’ll probably find a way to give it to them.

Here’s our problem in the United Methodist Church. There is no compromise position on the issue of homosexuality and biblical understanding. In that way, and in that way only, it is similar to the issue the Methodist Church faced in 1844. I am not making a point about who the forces of "anti-slavery" and "pro-slavery" are in the current situation. I have my deeply held beliefs, so do others on the opposing side of the issue. We’ve endlessly debated the question with no end in sight. Since there is no compromise that will be acceptable for either side as it relates to the issue of homosexuality, perhaps the time has come for the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, and any other conference from minority jurisdictions, to draw up a "Plan of Separation" as the minority Southern Methodists did in 1844 that will be agreeable to all parties concerned. Each pastor and each local church could decide to "connect" with either of the new bodies. Both sides have strongly held positions in a deeply divided church and nation. At this point in our history, separating could be the most loving and graceful thing to do. It may help stop the hemorrhaging the UMC has experienced in losing members since 1968. It could well prove beneficial for both groups. Those who are pushing to change our current position on homosexuality speak of it as an "exclusionary" policy, but if they succeed in ordaining homosexuals and changing the United Methodist Church’s understanding of homosexuality as "incompatible with Christian teaching," then evangelicals will be excluded. If that were to happen, I believe there would be a mass exodus of evangelicals from the United Methodist Church, instead of the slow trickle we now experience.

Many critics of our current policy say history will judge those of us who oppose the change as narrow-minded and refusing to be open to the "new movement" of God. We are not being "progressive" enough. History may well judge us harshly, but many of us believe standing on this principle is vital to the survival of an orthodox, biblically sound, and grace-filled United Methodist Church. Who knows what might happen after separation? God may well draw us back into union with one another in the future. At the time of separation in 1844, the minority Southern party stated this "Separation is not schism, it is not secession. It is a state or family, separated into 2 different states of family, by mutual consent" and for mutual benefit. This might be a good perspective for the Jurisdictions that feel unable to institute the changes they seek in our official policy about homosexuality.

Of course, history shows all was not well in our nation or the Methodist Churches after the overwhelming agreement to separate the Methodist Church. At the 1848 General Conference in Pittsburgh (how ironic!), many Northerners were dissatisfied with the agreement that had been made so easily, therefore they declared the plan of separation "null and void." This led to all kinds of arguing, legal battles, negative press, and a negative witness to the transforming power of God’s grace. Perhaps the more powerful Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions can learn from the 1848 Pittsburgh General Conference as a cautionary tale about the dangers of being in the majority. Separation must take place in a spirit of charity and love for the greater purposes each side feels for outreach in the name of Jesus Christ. Perhaps reunion between the northern and southern branches of the Methodist Church wouldn’t have taken until 1939 without such legal wrangling and acrimony that hung over discussion of reunion after the Civil War. The time has come for us to strongly consider a specific "plan of separation" that honors the desires of both groups and treats no one badly in the process.

Rev. Jamie R. Westlake
8570 Cypress Lake Drive
Ft. Myers, FL 33919
jwestlake@angelfire.com

 
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