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The Difficult Work of Fellowship

As our sisters and brothers of the United Methodist Church consider their own version of “the great divorce,” we Anglicans are wondering what we might learn from their experience. The Council of Bishops of the UMC has received a proposal which, if adopted at the 2020 General Conference in May, will initiate an orderly departure of the conservative wing unwilling to accept changes to traditional teachings about sexuality and marriage. This would occur despite the fact that it was the traditionalist understanding of marriage that was upheld at the most recent meeting of the General Conference in February 2019.

Separation would occur under terms described in the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. Over the course of four years, the departing, traditionalist body (name not yet determined) would receive $25 million and a promise that its congregations will retain their existing assets. Should further splintering occur, another $2 million is earmarked for other denominations that may emerge. As the TLC editorial rightly observed, the entire affair seems quite amicable and tidy. Composed of a diverse group of 16 Methodist bishops and leaders of advocacy groups from around the world, the mediation team offering the Protocol has done an admirable job of suggesting a concrete way forward.

Or is it a methodology for moving backwards? To use an ancient Christian metaphor of the church itself: have they invented an efficient way to capsize the boat?

We Anglicans dare not cast aspersions upon our Methodist brethren in their troubles. Our own arguments and schisms over these same matters have brought us tremendous pain and litigation. Perhaps they learned from our suffering in order to create this new model of separation. There is always the hope that dialogue will continue after the separation. That in itself would be a victory, though a small one. And while Episcopalians and ACNA Anglicans may praise the efficacy of this UMC divorce, the fact remains that our two churches still have no official dialogue in place to deal with our disagreements. Here and there, we are reminded, the door is still ajar and a light still shines in hope that some spark of fellowship might be lit. But in the midst of it all, whether schism of the Methodist or Anglican type, what is being lost?

Whatever we may prefer to call it — communion, fellowship, community — it is difficult work. Let’s be honest about that. From the viewpoint of the world it is truly impossible work. Except for one mitigating factor that means everything: the promise of the Spirit. This is the same Spirit that is the gift of the Savior who prayed that we be one, the same Spirit sent to guarantee our unity. Spirit sent, but not received? Mutually agreed upon acts of schism are schisms nonetheless, and schism is always a sin because it’s a refusal to live a shared life in the Holy Spirit. It is a refusal of the difficult work of koinonia preached ever so fervently by the Apostle Paul as he encountered divisions just as painful as our own in the churches that he founded and to whom he preached.

If “a new generation will lead with more patience and charity,” Methodist or Anglican, how will it be so? What must change for this to occur? To begin, we must embrace the theological insight that unity is first and foremost not our work, but the work of the Spirit. Without the Spirit’s power, it’s impossible. And the power of the Spirit’s presence cannot be accessed by way of proposals, resolutions, or majority voting. It is accessed only by prayer. Schism is a demon that can be exorcised only through prayer. The way forward is through deep listening in prayer together, and building consensus, not constructing majority opinions. Majoritarianism is not consensus. It takes us to a dead end where some win and others lose, and the losers depart. These so-called losers are often decided by small majorities, a powerful indicator that consensus is lacking. The Spirit teaches through open-ended consensus that may take years, at times even decades. For such consensus to emerge, those who seek it must value communion even more highly than the effort to find the “right” answer. Otherwise, we aren’t living as the church, but as one more body of divided individuals willing to depart the room if we can’t have our way.

In the kingdom of heaven there is no holiness in agreeing to disagree. Holiness comes from surrendering the vanity that insists on its own way. It comes from recognition that God is the source of truth, and God calls us to unity. Any other option is too easy, and it represents the church’s refusal to be the church as it has been called in its catholicity. At its deepest foundation, the church’s catholicity is a recognition that it exists in accordance with the needs of all, not some. Dare we, progressives or traditionalists, argue for faithfulness while abandoning the very Spirit that guarantees our faithfulness? Methodist or Anglican, we are foolish to do so.

Theologian John Switzer serves as ecumenical officer of the Diocese of Mississippi and rector of St. Pierre’s, Gautier.


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