Here we go again. This time around, we are dealing with a completely valid news story linked to the local, regional, national and global divorce that’s unfolding in the United Methodist Church. While news headlines insist that this drama is about LGBTQ+ issues, alone, decades of debates show that it’s rooted in differences over core doctrines, such as biblical authority, salvation, the identity of Jesus, marriage, the Resurrection, etc.
At the local level, the divorce is causing pain in lots of pews, especially when local churches vote — either to defend the existing UMC Book of Discipline or to align with a church establishment that wants to change it — creating divided flocks.
When this happens, journalists will need to talk to people on both sides of the split to find out why they have made the decisions that they have made. Correct?
Well, apparently not, according to this Religion News Service feature: “Left behind by disaffiliations, Texas town’s United Methodists charter a new church.” In this case, it appears that there are “good,” evolving United Methodists and then there are “bad” Methodists, who want to leave church doctrines as they are.
The “good,” evolving believers are offered a chance to offer their views about the new realities in disunited Methodism — as they should. They are a crucial part of the story. However, what about those “bad” believers who disagree with efforts to change the denomination’s doctrines? Alas, there is no need to talk to the “bad” Methodists.
Let’s walk through this, starting with the overture:
AMARILLO, Texas (RNS) — Earlier this year, the seven United Methodist churches in this city in the Texas Panhandle voted to leave the country’s second-largest Protestant denomination over theological questions about homosexuality and gender identity.
This is, of course, the viewpoint of the UMC establishment here in the United States — that this divorce is about LGBTQ+ issues — period. There are millions of Methodists in America, Africa, Asia, etc., who say the tensions are more complex than that.
Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind. Readers interested in diverse points of view will want to consider this frequently quoted statement about the “bigotries and prejudices” of Jesus, as described by Bishop Karen Oliveto, the openly gay leader of the UMC’s Mountain Sky region.
“Jesus, Jesus, what is up with you? … Too many folks want to box Jesus in, carve him in stone, create an idol out of him,” wrote Oliveto, in a 2017 online essay that was later taken down. “The wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting one, prince of peace, was as human as you and me. … We might think of him as the Rock of Ages, but he was more like a hunk of clay, forming and reforming himself in relation to God.”
Was as “human as you and me.” Yes, followers of John Wesley would agree that this is half of the small-o orthodox Christian doctrine in the ancient Christian creeds. But Jesus was “a hunk of clay, forming and reforming himself in relation to God”? That’s where millions of global Methodists would say, “Whoa.”
Back to the story — half of the story, that is — about what is happening in Amarillo.
“ … (T)he departure of all seven UMC churches in this city of 200,000 made it the largest city in the nation known to be without a UMC church and left nowhere for those who felt an allegiance to the denomination to go.
The Rev. Margie McNeir, an 83-year-old UMC minister who had retired last year from the city’s oldest church, Polk Street Methodist, was determined that the UMC wouldn’t become extinct in Amarillo.
“It was the first time in our lives that we had lived somewhere where we did not have a church home,” McNeir said.
In February, after the existing UMC churches in Amarillo had voted to leave or would do so soon, McNeir, along with another retired pastor, held a meeting to see how many people among the seven churches wanted to remain with the United Methodists. Less than a month later, they held their first service in a senior living home.
That final sentence is a candid detail. But there is, of course, good news about the prospects facing the “good” United Methodists.
By the following Sunday, it became clear that the remainers were going to need more space. … Since April, the group has been meeting at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church in Amarillo. On June 4, the group was officially chartered as Amarillo United Methodist Church.
It made sense that the newest UMC church in Amarillo would rise out of Polk Street Methodist. Established in 1888, the church stands out for its delicate stained glass, intricate moldings and Gothic-inspired architecture. Members describe it as the flagship Methodist church in its corner of Texas.
“Polk Street has a long, long, long history as the founding Christian Church in Amarillo, Texas, and I had been a part of that church since I was a 10-year-old,” said Gary Pitner, now 67, who helped organize the new church. Pitner, who had been a member at Polk Street for 57 years, said its disaffiliation was “a very painful process, for all of us.”
Amen. It’s obvious that there would be pain “for all,” in this kind of divorce. In this case, there are lots of relevant details about the faith and lives of the “good” United Methodists. Let’s keep reading.
The 3-month-old Amarillo United Methodist Church is bursting at its seams, with more than 150 people attending its 9 a.m. service, with nearly half under the age of 60, but the congregation is still getting organized. “We barely put a leadership council together just for the chartering service,” Burke said.
That is certainly a healthy UMC church in this day and age. It would be interesting, of course, to know how that attendance compares with the average numbers in the other local Methodist congregations. I would also like to know the size of that Presbyterian sanctuary, as part of that “bursting at the seams” equation. Also, does this new UMC congregation have the financial resources to build from scratch? How soon?
Also note this crucial statement, in the context of decades of mainline Protestant decline. “Nearly half” of those in attendance are “under the age of 60.” In other words, more than half of those choosing the new church are over the age of 60.
In conclusion, what do we know about the “bad” Methodists? Here is the final word, in this report:
… (M)embers are still grieving their buildings and church friends left behind.
“Some of this decision-making in disaffiliation got co-opted, if you will,” said Pitner. “What’s taking place in the country with the culture and the politics, the red, the blue, left and right, the Christian nationalism stuff clouded, shaded and impacted decisions that were being made, and quite frankly, confused people as to decisions that were being made by local churches in our part of the world regarding disaffiliation or staying put.”
Itn other words, the Methodists voting to defend the doctrines in the current Book of Discipline were confused by “Christian nationalism stuff.”
Now, how would the people on the other side of these votes in Amarillo describe their beliefs, their motivations and their reactions to this painful divorce process? What does the future look like, from their point of view?
To hear their point of view in this RNS report, CLICK HERE.
Maybe there will be a follow-up report? What do you think?
FIRST IMAGE: Uncredited Pinterest graphic with a ChurchLeaders.com feature on divisions in American churches.