If You Cannot Be United, Be Holy

Photo by lil artsy on Pexels.com

I was in my third and final year of divinity school for the 2019 special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC). General Conference, as you might imagine, was the main thing on everyone’s mind at Duke Divinity in the run-up to that February meeting. This was going to be the big one: finally, many thought, the big-tent One Church Plan would be passed, and we’d begin to resolve the sexuality stalemate that had bogged down the UMC for decades. As it turned out, that’s not what happened. In between classes, United Methodist (UM) students gathered in an unused lecture hall to watch the livestream and saw as the Traditional Plan came out on top, maintaining the prohibition against gay, lesbian, and bisexual clergy and adding a mandatory punishment for clergy performing same-sex weddings. The despair was palpable.

Months before General Conference, though, an influential bishop came to speak to Duke Divinity’s UM students, to provide background on the ongoing schism and open the floor to discuss what was to come. After a PowerPoint presentation and some discussion about how we ended up where we are, he assigned us a small group activity: imagine the year is 2050. You are on a committee tasked with reunifying the traditionalist and progressive successors of 2019’s United Methodist Church, not unlike the 1939 (re-)Uniting Conference between the Methodist Episcopal Church’s northern and southern branches that broke up before the Civil War over slavery. Write up the articles of reunification that will bring these separated bodies back together. General Conference had not happened yet. Schism had not even begun in earnest, and in fact wouldn’t for a number of years, until it became clear by 2020-2021 that there would be no durable conservative victory since some American annual conferences would refuse to abide by the Traditional Plan. And yet here we were, already asked to envision reconciliation. Which “position” on LGBTQIA+ affirmation would—or should!—win out in this hypothetical 2050 wasn’t really even part of the question at hand; the important part was figuring out how to restore unity.

This particular bishop seems to have come a long way in the years since. I have a lot of respect for him, as one who has taken some bold stances in solidarity with LGBTQIA+ United Methodists of late. What concerns me is that the underlying principle lingers in the UMC: unity over and above holiness, the “big tent” over the narrow way that will, of course, alienate some. I suspect traditionalists agree, albeit from an utterly different angle. In this issue of Yet Alive, we are thrilled to publish a piece by Queering Wesley, Queering the Church author Keegan Osinski, beckoning mainline Methodists to fight through our squeamishness and niceness to reclaim our roots as a movement pursuing holiness, which she describes as “the perfect love of God and neighbor.” Holiness requires us, as Osinski insists, to figure out how to love contextually. Holiness—in our current context in the United Methodist Church—requires us to take a stance on the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people. Lukewarmness in the hope of ensuring the center will hold is not holiness. It is not holy, because it is not rooted in love of God and neighbor, but in institutional self-preservation. And, frankly, its pragmatic viability is long past anyway.

Lukewarmness in the hope of ensuring the center will hold is not holiness.

A new moment is here. The die is cast: schism is in full swing, and it will be significant and traumatic in many regions across the connection. It is time that the United Methodist Church decide to stand on a vision of holiness, without hesitating out of the fear of losing people and congregations on the fence. If we’re breaking up, let it be for something; let us welcome this window of opportunity to allow Methodists with incompatible visions of holiness to go our separate ways. What is unsustainable is the status quo for the post-separation United Methodist Church, even in the very near term.

For instance, we are about to have large swaths of the country, for the first time in a century and a half, without any United Methodist presence due to mass disaffiliation. We should undoubtedly seek to replant new faith communities in those areas, but our new faith communities must differ from the Global Methodist congregations that remain in more than affect. We can plaster “open minds, open hearts, open doors” on our signs and actively seek to welcome both LGBTQIA+ people and other United Methodists whose churches voted to disaffiliate and leave them behind. But what does that “welcome” really mean, if a United Methodist pastor appointed to a setting like this is still prevented from marrying a queer couple under the punitive terms of the Traditional Plan, facing a year of suspension without pay if they choose to do so? What does that “welcome” mean, if a queer youth who met Jesus Christ in that new faith community and hears God’s call to ordained ministry is still forbidden from obeying that call in the UMC? It’s ultimately no different from the Global Methodist congregation down the road.

It is not inevitable—or altogether likely—that the Discipline’s restrictions will be removed in 2024. Waiting another five years is not an option. Thanks be to God for those annual conferences, boards of ordained ministry, and bishops who have decided to live into the “contextual love” of full inclusion ahead of the Discipline, like those in the past (including my own Western Pennsylvania Conference) who chose to ordain women ahead of the Discipline, choosing holiness over unity. There are queer couples seeking to be married now, by their pastor in their church. There are LGBTQIA+ youth and clergy candidates who need the full support of their denomination now, especially in the midst of a deadly tsunami of transphobia. There are queer people and allies in our communities for whom our witness as the body of Christ is simply not credible so long as the status quo remains. We have asked LGBTQIA+ United Methodists to wait long enough. Holiness and perfection in love require us to decide what is right and pursue it with our whole hearts. Now is the time, recalling the words of the apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippian church, to forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, pressing on to the goal: toward the prize of the heavenly call in Christ Jesus.

Dylan Parson photo

Dylan Parson

Dylan is a provisional elder in the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the UMC, currently serving as senior pastor of a four-church charge in Pittsburgh. As an undergraduate religion student at Denison University, he became interested in theologies of liberation, particularly as they might be applied in postindustrial, postextractive communities like those that make up Western Pennslyvania and the greater Appalachian region. He received his M.Div. at Duke Divinity School, where he learned to love John Wesley and the Methodist tradition and to synthesize Wesley and liberation theology. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife, Stormie, and their puppy, Beans.

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