Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Will History Repeat?

With all the talk of schism from those on one side of the church and talk of schism from those on the other side of the church brought up a deep memory from my church history class.  I don’t know why it because my current church has been on this lot of land for 111 years and was founded as a Methodist Episcopal Church, South.  This congregation was founded in a denomination started as a result of the first schism in American Methodism. 

There is great article on Wofford College’s website that was written by Phillip Stone in 2013.  It appeared in the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate in February of that year.  In it he says the following,
“For nearly 100 years, the Methodist Episcopal Church was divided into northern and southern wings.  Sixteen years before the southern states seceded, the southern Annual Conferences withdrew from the denomination and formed the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.” 
Click here to read the whole article and I hope you do.  It is a good reminder of our past, my church’s past, my conference’s past.  I have only served MEC, South congregations during my ministry in the Western North Carolina Conference.  What is interesting is that I have been the only one that has really noticed our history.  The laity seem to not remember nor really care.  I don’t write that as flippant, but as a pastor that piece of history is more important to me then those in the pews. 

I find it important because it is our past and when we forget our past sometimes it becomes our present.  The past will rear its ugly head again if we are not careful.  The idea of schism seems to be tossed out like candy at a parade, not really caring where it lands.  There are people who are passionate about it.  There are brothers and sisters within my own conference that are in the 80 clergy/theologians who are pushing for it.  I am sure there are others on the other side that would love for it to happen as well.  It is a touchy, passionate subject, which is why I went back to 1844.

I would say that in hindsight, we understand now 170 later that the south got it wrong.  Slavery is wrong.  Treating another human being like property is not seeing them as a child of God.  However, I have no clue how I would have felt   Today I am not living in a society where there is an open slave trade and slaves are part of everyday life.  My current culture doesn’t match the one that was here on these farmlands of North Carolina 170 years ago.  So honestly, I don’t know where I would stand if I had a vote in 1844.  I wish I could but I can’t place myself in the midst of that mindset enough to know if I would stay in the south as an MEC, South pastor or if I would go north of the Mason Dixon Line to seek an appointment among the MEC.
about it 170 years ago doing ministry in the Old North State.

In Frederick Norwood’s The Story of American Methodism, he writes,
“When this long general conference [1844 GC which lasted 6 weeks, the longest in American Methodist history] finally adjourned on June 11, the church was not yet separate, but provision had been made for lawful separation if the South should so decide.  There was little doubt of that decision.  The process of implementing the separation plan was filled with frustration, misunderstanding, and ill feeling.  The wounds, instead of healing, were left to fester.  They produced deep scars which took a hundred years to heal and have not yet disappeared.  All too accurately, the experience of the church foreshadowed what was about to happen to the nation.”
The part that hurts is “the wounds, instead of healing, were left to fester.”  My gut tells me history will repeat itself if we are not careful, prayerful, and willing to do the hard work of understanding each other. 

James Howell said it well in his blog post I referenced in my last post…
“God wants us to be holy.  God wants us to embody the Scriptures.  And holiness in those Scriptures tells me we keep our promises, and love.  I want to be right on every issue.  But love and personal commitments trump in over being right more than we’re willing to admit.  I wonder if that’s the holiness test before us today.”
100 years from now as some scholar is writing a complete history of Methodism in America, I wonder what they will write about the this time and place. The time and place I have a vote, I have a voice, and where I do understand the culture.  Will we listen to each other, respect one another, and love one another?  Will we come out of this issue a stronger church more ready to make disciples for Christ?  Will we have transformed anything within our world?


1 comment:

Jamie Westlake said...

After many years of disagreement and public strife, the plan of separation was well received by the 1844 General Conference and easily negotiated. By a vote of 148-10 the General Conference agreed to the equitable division of all property belonging to the church. Each pastor and each church was to decide to associate or “connect” with one of the new organizations. At the time of separation in 1844, the minority Southern party stated this
“Separation is not schism, it is not secession. It is a state or family, separated into 2 different states of family, by mutual consent” and for mutual benefit. This might be a good perspective for Jurisdictions, Conferences, churches, and Bishops who feel unable to institute the changes they seek in our official policy related to human sexuality. Of course, history shows all was not well in our nation or the Methodist Churches after the
overwhelming agreement to separate into two denominations. At the 1848 General Conference in
Pittsburgh, many Northerners were dissatisfied with the agreement that had been made so overwhelmingly, therefore they declared the plan of separation “null and void,” and this led to a great deal more anguish and pain. All kinds of arguing, legal battles, negative press, and a negative witness to the transforming power of God’s grace ensued. Perhaps we have as much or more to learn from the General Conference of 1848 as from 1844. There are many not so hidden dangers we face in any option we choose in moving forward. If separation is to take place, it must be in a spirit of charity and love for the greater purposes each side (and folks in the middle who wish agreeing to disagree was a viable, long-term solution) feels for reaching out in the name of Jesus Christ. Perhaps reunion between the northern and southern branches of the Methodist Church would not have taken until 1939 without all the legal wrangling and acrimony that hung over discussion of reunion after the Civil War. Perhaps those in the middle will present an as yet unidentified “third way” that will allow progressives the freedom to pursue what they believe is their calling from God and also allows orthodox evangelicals in the UMC to be faithful to their calling from God without so much confusion and arguing. Standing pat, however, and continuing to ignore our current covenant or becoming an “American church” that creates a "win" for progressives won't work for a large group of UMs. We must acknowledge the division that already exists, so we can move toward a better solution. Perhaps the time has come for us in the UMC to consider a specific “plan of separation” that honors the desires of both groups and treats no one badly in the process, because this may be the best solution we can come up with at this time or it may spark creative thought that leads to the "third way" that has eluded us for 42 years.