With the end of 2019, we rejoice in a new year coming, but we also mourn. Tomorrow, we move under the cloud of the Traditionalist Plan. Fifty years of targeted discrimination against LGBTQ people grows even more punitive. Our Church appears to be plunged into even deeper chaos.
Yet, in the midst of destructive chaos, we are also called by necessity to consider what is possible within community and with the spiritual offerings of our hope and diligence. We draw strength from the wisdom of our spiritual forebearers. Says theologian Rita Nakashima Brock: “We re-enter this world as sacred space when we love life fiercely, and, in the name of love, protect the goodness of our intricate web of life in all its manifold forms.” Such is our call on the eve of this new year: to protect goodness.
Today, goodness is threatened by those who wish to co-opt a Church further into a cycle of exclusion and spiritual violence. The harm done at General Conference 2019 did not accomplish all the aims of those who created the Traditionalist Plan. Their desire to expel and destroy was not completely accomplished. The threat from some is to pass the rest of the original harmful plan so that fear increases within the Church. The Wesleyan Covenant Association has also created a parallel church structure as an alternative for some traditionalists. This is incongruous to Christian love.
The task of those who threaten to pass the rest of the Traditionalist Plan will not be as easy at General Conference 2020. The risks are different and the stakes are higher. The General Conference has lost its authority, with more and more individuals, congregations, and annual conferences living in disobedience to its oppressive decisions. We are also seeing Central Conference United Methodists decry efforts to dissolve or split the Church, calling for an end to its colonialist structures, and seeking more regional autonomy.
Chaos, and yet opportunity. Pain, and yet gratitude.
A Time of Resolve
What we are experiencing in the history of this Wesleyan movement is momentous and complex, and with it comes a variety of emotional responses. But I want to focus on two that we feel acutely at RMN: resolve and hopefulness.
The meaning of labels such as “centrist,” “conservative,” and “progressive,” are not as easy to define as they may have been in years past. Those within each “group” find themselves with different desires for the future of our beloved Church. Some traditionalists are appalled by the effects of General Conference 2019 and seek their reversal while they want to hold on to previous prohibitions. Some progressives need more than mere removal of the language and reform of the Church.
While the conversations I’ve been a part of have been invitations extended by those who want to work together to those who want to do the same, United Methodists can no longer claim that we all want the same thing. Whether to seek reform or to abandon the institution altogether has been a theme in conversations throughout 2019. There are common elements between these strategies, but they lead us as individuals and congregations to different places.
In conversations with local congregations, we often hear: we are a family, and while we don’t agree on next steps at the General Conference level, we refuse to allow the divide in the Church to divide our congregation. RMN’s work, therefore, is to pull ever more chairs up to the table, not to pull them away, so that the growing Reconciling movement has a place to gather and nourishment for the journey ahead. As an organization, we are resolved to draw the circle wider.
We are resolved to be in connection, for this is Christian work. We are resolved to hold space for those for whom being out or being outspoken or being courageous come with high costs. We are resolved to be on this journey, to be down in the holy mud of ministry. And we are resolved to continue equipping and mobilizing United Methodists to resist harm in all its forms.
A Time of Hopefulness
At the end of this year, we are also hopeful.
Our hope is for a future that includes bold and broad reform of The United Methodist Church: reform that addresses systemic and institutional problems; and reform that works, rather than merely gives lip service, to end marginalization and othering in the Church. We hold this hope, even amidst the need for healing, and even though not all of our siblings are interested in it. We recognize that some United Methodists want to build something completely new. We celebrate that with them.
We hold with hope the historic influx of new Reconciling Churches, Communities, Campus Ministries, and even our first Reconciling College. Prior to 2019, the most Reconciling ministries declared in a calendar year was 97 in 2016. This year, 285 new RCs affiliated with the movement. We’ve also experienced a meteoric increase in Reconciling United Methodists (RUMs): individuals committed to the mission of Reconciling Ministries Network. Whereas in prior years, a strong year of new RUM support yielded approximately 2,000 sign-ups, almost 7,000 RUMs made the commitment this year.
This year, our staff members traveled around the country many times over to build deeper relationships, have difficult conversations, lead workshops on LGBTQ inclusion, advance legislation in and outside of the Church for LGBTQ justice, and more. The first Reconciling Church in Argentina was founded, and the first Reconciling United Methodist Church was declared in Kenya; both churches have continued in bold ministry. These are signs of a movement awakening around the world.
Signs of Hope
The strongest gains in Reconciling communities and individuals have come from the Southeast and South Central Jurisdictions. Many have come from annual conferences with hostile bishops. At RMN, we are scrambling to keep up with this unprecedented growth. It’s a good problem to have. Daily, we are with you planting seeds, and daily, we see the rewards.
We have hope for what seems impossible but through the limitless grace of God. We have hope that this uprising of United Methodists reclaiming their voice means palpable, tangible resistance and an end to codified discrimination in our Church. Through our involvement with Resist Harm, we are seeing both the planting of seeds and the ripening of fruit. Communities and individuals are expressing courage and advocating for the Church they wish to see, living as though that future were already here.
Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously said: “Freedom is what you do with what has been done with you.” What do we choose to do under the Traditionalist Plan?
Come tomorrow, we minister, live, and worship under the shadow of a colonialist, fundamentalist cloud. How we respond in this new decade of possibility indicates the kind of Church and world we believe is possible. Is connection possible? Is rebirth possible? Is healing possible? Can we strengthen the Methodist mission in the world?
I refuse to believe those who say that it isn’t or we can’t. After all, ours is a God who says, “Come, follow me.” It has been done before.
God’s peace and boldness be with us all as we enter the new decade.