By Ben Gosden and Jeremy Smith, Special Contributors…
As we write this article, Jeremy is in Portland, Ore., holding his 2-week-old daughter, Anjali. Ben is 2,000 miles away in Macon, Ga., holding his 8-month-old daughter, Olivia. We have a lot in common. We are both United Methodist elders under age 35—Jeremy is fully ordained and Ben is coming up for ordination interviews this next year. We are both associate ministers at our churches.
And we both want a better UMC for our daughters than the one we inherited.
We both came into our ordination right as the United Methodist Church began discussions of amicable separation over the debate on homosexuality. Jeremy was at the 2004 General Conference as an observer when the renewal groups called for an amicable separation and offered the progressive churches a farewell and their clergy pensions . . . so long as the traditionalists kept the property, boards and the ironic name “United Methodist.” Hardly amicable, was it?
It is now 2012, and the discussions have begun again about amicable separation over homosexuality, about throwing in the towel on this conflict and allowing the denomination to separate as it did over slavery in the 1840s. The Rev. Jack Jackson, a Claremont School of Theology professor, made his case for separation in the Oct. 19 Reporter.
As young clergy who will have 40 years of ordained ministry ahead of us (although the rising retirement age may be at 86 years old by the time we get there!), we do not find a valid reason for schism. We both hold that the church should resist this and redouble efforts to find unity in diversity.
Most writings on the subject of separation seem to model the church as a funnel, whereby all resources and formation go toward a common mission. Anything that distracts from that mission is dangerous, and thus the talk of schism is attractive and every conflict becomes an opportunity to dream of escape while the idea of covenant becomes an expendable virtue.
So where do we stand on this debate in the United Methodist Church? It seems progressives who want to split forget that the church they leave will continue to have gay children. And it seems traditionalists who want separation naively think separation will finally rid the church of the homosexual debate, as though gay persons will no longer inhabit our spaces of worship, formation and service.
Clearly, schism will not end the conversation before us.
If conflict ultimately destroys any hopes of a homogeneous church, what’s a more faithful model? We see the Eucharist as the sacramental and formative model for how we are to be the church. In the Eucharist, as the worldwide church gathers around the table, unity in diversity is at the heart of what it means to be the Body of Christ. This is why we can say with confidence and hope that the church’s unity is grounded in a reality more determinative than our good feelings for one another. The Church as Eucharist is a guiding model for our inclusiveness and for a demanding call for transformation—it’s what unifies us all as sinners in the need of God’s redeeming grace. The Church as Eucharist means we are continually called out of and sent back into the world as redeemed people.
Stanley Hauerwas writes: “The church, therefore, has rightly thought confession of sin, penance, and reconciliation necessary for the reception of the Eucharist. How could we dare come to the feast of reconciliation not in unity with our brothers and sisters? The name given to that unity is ‘love.’ The gifts of bread and wine must be brought by those at peace with God and one another. If we are unreconciled, we best not receive; we dare not dishonor the holiness of the gifts of God.”
By having the Eucharist as the central metaphor for the church, it serves as the corrective for both sides on this debate. It means we’re both radically inclusive and that we put the Body of Christ ahead of any individual, caucus or political camp. And it means that through our worship, our service, our lives, and yes, even through our conferencing together, unity is at the heart of it all. We may worship in diverse ways across our connection, and there may come a point where our polity is diverse as well (as it currently is in our worldwide church), and such diversity is not disconcerting in a Church with the Eucharist as its guide.
Quite simply, by seeing the church as the Eucharist, we become the means of grace to a broken world. In a world of polarizing politics, widening chasms between the “haves” and “have-nots,” demonization of the “other side,” what better means of grace could the Church offer than how to hold together unity in diversity, to welcome the varieties of the United Methodist experience around the Communion Table?
Through our liturgy, every time we gather around the Table we declare that we long to be made “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” Are we serious about this longing for oneness, or do we simply give lip service to the idea of unity? If we’re serious, then members of both the progressive and traditionalist camps will have to come out of their respective camps and join together—maybe at the Communion Table—and decide whether our identity as the people called Methodist is more important than any issue that could divide us. It won’t be easy, but no one ever said being the church was supposed to be easy.
This is why when folks like Dr. Jackson write, “If Christ’s mission is our goal, and if progressives and traditionalists love our church, then it is our vision of mission, not unity, which must be our prize,” we simply cannot fathom a church where unity and mission are somehow compartmentalized. If we are to be a faithful church, Eucharist means that unity in diversity and mission are one in the same.
We want our generation to be the last that has been broken by the homosexuality debate. We don’t know our daughters’ sexual orientations yet, and we want a church committed to relentlessly loving them regardless. Ben’s daughter was baptized in August and Jeremy’s daughter will soon be baptized. They will be named “Christian” by less than perfect churches who are a part of a less than perfect connection of churches. But our greatest hope and most fervent prayer is that it’s a connection that will seek unity—not because it’s expedient but because it’s difficult and ultimately faithful.
We want more for our daughters. We want more for your sons and daughters. And we still hold out hope that God is not yet done with the United Methodist Church.
We believe that the United Methodist Church, united in common mission, but not uniform in its expression of that mission, will serve a polarized world better than two Wesleyan traditions who took their toys and bitterly retreated to their respective camps.
The Rev. Gosden is an associate pastor at Mulberry Street United Methodist Church in Macon, Ga., and blogs at www.mastersdust.com. The Rev. Smith is the minister of discipleship at First UMC in Portland, Ore., and blogs at www.HackingChristianity.net.