Against Umbrella Methodism

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While depressed millennials found themselves falling down the Bo Burnham Inside rabbit hole of solidarity last year, I jumped head-first into AJR’s album OK Orchestra. I love good social commentary music, especially when it’s flavored with a touch of shared distress and trauma. And after the past several years, we deserve to allow ourselves the vulnerability to let music like Inside and OK Orchestra speak for us when we are exhausted, gaslit, and have no more words to offer to describe the chaos of our lives in this world. 

One song, in particular, on that album has me in a vice grip. “3 o’clock Things” has a bit toward the end that I can’t get out of my head:

Stay out of politics, stay on the fence

Stay out of all of it to keep half your fans

Isn’t this obvious? Am I insane?

There might be two sides to everything that you say

It’s all a bit cloudy but there’s one thing I know

That if you’re fucking racist then don’t come to my show

As a small, rural, church pastor, this bit really tickled me because last year we put up a sign outside our building. Even though we weren’t using the space because of COVID, our building was still there and it still had a voice, a presence. So, we put an antiracism sign up: “Racism is a Sin.” Short. Sweet. Simple. And, not surprisingly, we lost some people who found it a bit much. Only one family was bold enough to share their displeasure with me to my face though. To which I laughed and asked if they ever actually took in the words and message of Christ; being antiracist isn’t a foreign concept to the gospel. They accused us of calling them racist and left. I haven’t seen them since. Part of me hopes they are well. Part of me hopes they found ways to continue being challenged in their faith, held accountable for how their actions and beliefs affect others.

I never understood the politics of being a pastor. Staying on the fence to keep everyone happy, keep your donors and high pledging members sated. Shrugging away accountability and hard lessons out of fear that more people are leaving the church. Frankly, I find it a bit pathetic. 

 You see, I joined The United Methodist Church in 2012 as the argument over homosexuality reared its ugly head to the point of schism being spoken about like a reality.1 I was 19 and not yet quite out as a queer woman. What I found at my campus’s Wesley Foundation was a faith expression that gave words, direction, and resources for things I felt but couldn’t find anywhere else around me. I found ritual and grounding. I found a challenging respect of history and a community that incorporated beautiful traditions. I discovered what critically sitting with Scripture can look like through a lens of grace rather than guilt and shame. It was an expression of faith that felt familiar. That familiarity grew the more I allowed myself to get involved, and the more others let me get involved. It was a dream. 

 Surely, yes. It was a dream. One that quickly shattered when I left for seminary in 2015 and realized that we were imploding. Finally, it all made sense–my mentors knew before I did, encouraging me to switch conferences, to leave and be cautious as I continued to follow my call. What surprised me most were the leaders and lay Methodists who affirmed my call with fervor, not knowing I’m queer, still encouraging me in the faith and in my call.

It was amazing to watch the change as I slowly started coming out. Suddenly, instead of a bright and beautifully called child of God, I was an unrepentant sinner leading others to sin and death…simply because I decided I wasn’t going to live inauthentically. In my first semester of seminary, I met my wife, and the stakes got so much higher.

Around this time in 2015, I started hearing our bishops and leaders using “big tent” and “umbrella” language in an attempt to keep the warring sides together. I think it was well-intentioned. We are one body in Christ, and the infighting keeps us distracted from doing the work of Christ in the world–to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and needy. But there is a fundamental problem with this “umbrella” language. For us to share a space like that, together, there has to be a unifying factor. I have no doubt that the grace of God is enough to hold us together, but I do have doubts in our ability to stay civil and united together under this umbrella of grace. 

I can be under an umbrella with a colleague who thinks that a rock band is praise and worship. I can be under an umbrella with a fellow Methodist who practices outside of the liturgical seasons and calendar for a pop-culture sermon series to be cool and relatable. I cannot, however, be under an umbrella with others who fundamentally believe that I and people like me are, by nature of our God-given existence, the biggest threat to the faith and to our practice. What floors me, in conversations with people aligned with the Global Methodist Church, is the deafening silence that follows when I bring up the Scripture passages that speak about fruit in our faith and work, that the sin of Sodom was their individuality and lack of hospitality, and so on. It seems to always give way to an astonishingly quick change of topic.

“Isn’t this obvious?” I wonder. I really feel insane more and more nowadays when I’m guided and directed to continue seeking peace and covenantal union with others who draw such rigid lines in the sand where even compromise isn’t an option. I get it, you’re convicted. But we are not the same. And I can’t share a space where I will absolutely be harmed. I can’t share space where I would be complicit in aiding in unnecessary harm toward others. 

I love the idea of this big tent/umbrella. But it’s unrealistic and will only continue to lead to harm. And I wish our bishops and leaders would stop clinging to a mission of unity; this “peace” is a vision only of bishops and has not touched the hearts of the schismatics. I’m tired. I’m not yet 30; I’m not yet ordained. And I’m so tired. But I refuse to stay on the fence. I refuse to perpetuate harm and oppression in whatever forms they take, even in the forms of my neighbors and colleagues. Jesus took sides. The Triune God takes sides.

None of our mess will magically go away once the separation plan(s) go through when we can finally gather for General Conference safely. We still have quite the journey ahead of us. But I do think it will be a slightly less harrowing journey if we can stop trying to cling to others and beliefs that cause harm for the sake of unity or because it’s what we know and are used to.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a chapter for a book on the sacredness of liminal spaces and how we should nurture those willing to learn and grow out of the toxic theologies they’ve known. Especially those who haven’t had someone to guide them. I stand by that. For those so steadfast in cultivating harm and division though, under the premise that God wills the harm or that harmful gatekeeping is justified as “Christian love” to “save” you? Bye.

So if there’s one thing I know: Those who are racist, homophobic, or ableist must do their work before we can share unity with them. Marginalized people are exhausted from doing the work of awareness, education, and resource-proving for them to only respond with out-of-context Bible verses and oppressive social norms. Especially in worship and faith spaces, we must build sanctuaries of grace and peace but prioritize mercy and justice for the marginalized.

  1. The language “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” was added to the UM Book of Discipline in 1972. It has been hotly debated since that time.

Amber Mitts

Amber Mitts (she/her) is a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church serving in the Mountain Sky Annual Conference. She lives for some controlled chaos and challenging conversations. She’s a founding member of #WMT as the patron Saint of snacks.

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