What did I hear this afternoon, sounds of hope for a major Christian denomination (The United Methodist Church) that has been verging toward schism, or the death rattle of one whose vital signs are tanking?
Death rattle, n. : a rattling or gurgling sound produced by air passing through mucus in the lungs and air passages of a dying person.
Today our bishop, Mark Webb, met via online hookup with lay and clergy members of our annual conference (one of the basic geographic units that comprises The United Methodist Church – ours includes almost the entire state of New York) to respond to the worldwide denomination’s Feb. 26 action reaffirming its position that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching, continuing its ban on marriage or holy union ceremonies for LGBTQIA persons in its churches or by its pastors, continuing its refusal to ordain for ministry its LGBTQIA members, and making more stringent its prescribed punishments for those who violate its rules in these matters.
The bishop said some good things. He observed that the conversation we’ve been having in the denomination about these issues for almost fifty years has continued to produce the same results (which reminds me of Einstein’s definition of “crazy”: to continue doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results). He noted signs of our disunity in doctrine, discipline, and mission and called for a different kind of unity, not denominational but Christian. And he said the church needs to have a new kind of conversation about the issues over which we differ so deeply, one that doesn’t produce winners and losers.
I think he was right on each of these points, and in making them it seemed he tried to raise a sigh of hope. Others have also breathed sighs of hope, most notably Bishop Karen Oliveto, herself an openly practicing lesbian in a committed relationship, who recently wrote – eloquently, I think – about why she chooses to stay in the church.
But no words, as hopeful as they may sound, are able to alter the actions of the denomination. They no not alleviate the tension between the church’s words and actions, between its profession and its behavior. Yes, we need to radically change the kind of conversation we’ve been having for nearly fifty years, but for that same half-century we’ve had repeated opportunities to change the conversation and haven’t done so. This seems clearly one of those times when actions trump words. Despite the protestations of its members, action speaks louder than words, and the denomination has acted. (“What you’re doing is so loud, I can’t hear what you’re saying.”)
The United Methodist Church in which I grew up and which provided my faith foundations – the big-table church where there was room for everyone and where theological differences did not exclude, the church of “open hearts, open minds, open doors” – appears to no longer exist. I don’t know where it was lost or where my path and its diverged, but it sure feels to me as if what we heard on Feb. 26 was the death rattles of a once-great community of faith.