I’ve begun to really despise this word, even as I embrace it as a categorical good.
But as this word has been bandied about in United Methodist circles, whether by the left or the right, it has lost its meaning.
Let me explain. I was in a meeting with a number of pastors a few weeks ago where an exchange occurred which illustrates the problem.
A long-serving, veteran elder in the UMC, Pastor 1, lamented the looming schism. As a progressive, he clearly desires full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church. Yet he visibly winces at the pain of division; he has spent his entire ministry working in the UMC, has devoted his life to the network of relationships and connections in the denomination, working alongside conservatives as well as those with whom he agreed. He values the unity of the Wesleyan movement.
After his plea, another person, Pastor 2, spoke. He didn’t have long roots in any one church tradition, and he acknowledged that he didn’t have the same network of relationships. But his understanding of unity is different: “I just have to follow Jesus. Jesus didn’t exclude anyone, so how can I be part of a church which excludes gay people?”
For Pastor 2, unity had to do with being in alignment with the Gospel, with Jesus himself as much as possible.
I can sympathize with each pastor; in fact, since I was not raised in the UMC, I identify with the Pastor 2 a little more. I made my way to the UMC because of doctrinal and theological understandings.
But let’s be honest here; we’re Protestants. And this is the ultimate consequence of Protestantism.
Fragmentation is the actual, nuts-and-bolt consequence of Protestantism. It is the end-game of a Protestant ecclesiology.
When Martin Luther proclaimed the “priesthood of all believers,” it is only logical that eventually all believers began to ask, “Why do I need a priest then?” and “Why do I need to listen to the church?” and eventually, “Why can’t I start my own church?”
When the Bible began to be printed in the vernacular language in mass quantities, it is only logical that eventually believers began to read it for themselves and come to different conclusions about its interpretation than those who had previously read and interpreted it for them.
When Protestants began preaching in the American colonies, it is only logical that eventually people started their own versions of church, and even their own new religions — see Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, and L. Ron Hubbard.
In a nation that prizes democracy, human agency, and freedom, it is only logical that institutions such as the United Methodist Church eventually fragment. It cannot be otherwise.
The theology of Protestantism leads to notions of radical individualism and autonomy. United Methodists are children of the Reformation; John Wesley himself was a child of the Reformation. After all, what he did inside the Anglican Church was divisive; he himself caused a great deal of division inside that body.
He objected to the dominant religious body, and acted in ways that led to its fragmentation. His followers have continued in this tradition; that’s all that’s happening now. Traditionalists and progressives alike claim to be following in this Protestant tradition; we’re all claiming that we know best how to interpret Scripture, live a life of holiness, and experience God.
The only way to avoid this fragmentation is to move back to a Catholic ecclesiology, the true One Church Plan.
And I’m not doing that. I’m too much of a Protestant to want to do that.
But the alternative is to accept the fragmentation that comes with a bottom-up, rather than top-down, theology. It’s always going to be messy, divisive, and conflicted. That’s how we move forward in the Spirit.
I write this with some pain, because I wish it were otherwise, but I’ll be honest: I cannot conceive that Jesus would EVER say to a gay person, “You’re not living your best life until you become straight.” And I don’t want to be part of an institution any longer that communicates this message either explicitly or implicitly.
If that means that there must be separation, then so be it.
Let’s be Protestant about it, and get on with the fragmenting.