“How did you two meet?”
I usually ask this question after we’ve gotten past the heart of why a couple has come to my office for advice or counseling.
Looking at the beginnings (foundations) of a relationship can often lead to a deeper discussion about how that relationship got to the point where the couple felt they needed help from their chaplain or pastor. Most relationships don’t start off poorly–in fact, sometimes all it takes is a reminder of how a couple met for them to remember why they fell in love in the first place, and their problems (which were on the surface anyway), eventually dissipate. Sometimes, though, an issue arises in the story of how a couple came together that raises a red flag–it’s usually an issue or argument that arose early on that never got resolved, or got glossed over in the “honeymoon” period of the relationship. Often, when we’re head-over-heels in love with someone, we don’t notice the things that annoy us about them, or we’re willing to easily forgive something that might cause trouble down the road, in order to maintain the high we get when we’re around this new and adorable person. If such issues are not addressed at some point, you can guarantee that the couple will probably end up sitting across from a counselor, a pastor, or a chaplain, talking about their issues. (We hope–some people sadly skip this step and go right for the break-up. But let’s pretend that this couple has at least some hope for the survival of their relationship!)
Remember–we’re still talking about the Church, here.
I once served a small two-point charge in the East Ohio conference. Interestingly, one of the two churches had once been an “E” (Evangelical Church), and the other had been a “UB” (United Brethren). At the time of the union between those two denominations in 1946, the two churches were put together on one charge. As one old fella put it when I met him the first time, “I went to bed an E, and I woke up the next morning an EUB.” (He said the same thing about the merger between the EUB and The Methodist Church that happened a mere 22 years after he became and EUB.)
While I recognize that the above is completely anecdotal, I also have a strange suspicion that such a story could be heard in many churches, from the various break-ups and mergers that have twisted their way through the history of The United Methodist Church. I am the child of a congregation that was formed either shortly before or shortly after the big EUB/M merger of ’68, depending on who you talk to. It was a merger of two congregations of those venerable denominations, and was happening because of the growing decline in the urban centers of America during the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s. As the rubber factories began reducing their work forces in Akron, or closed altogether, churches which had once been filled to capacity were suddenly in decline, and mergers like the one that formed my home congregation were not uncommon. (By the way, replace “rubber factories” with “steel plants” or “glass factories,” or some other manufacturing industry, and replace “Akron” with “Youngstown” or “Toledo,” and you’ve got pretty much the same story.)
In 1946, when the E’s and the UB’s came together, it seemed natural that two denominations which had been founded for German-speaking folk, had similar structures and practices, and existed within the same general geographic regions, would come together. The Evangelical Association never ordained women, while the United Brethren had been doing so since 1889. As a compromise at the time of merger, the UB churches accepted the Evangelical practice, and women in the EUB lost the right to ordination. The first woman preacher in one of my former congregations was barred from entering her own church building on her first Sunday by parishioners who disagreed with the denomination’s decision to allow her to be ordained! Historically and linguistically, the two denominations were similar; politically and culturally, they had some significant differences.
In 1939, after 95 years apart, the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church merged into The Methodist Church. Despite significant differences in polity, practice, and culture that had developed over almost a century, these three denominations decided that their common ancestry in Methodism were more important, and they came together. The Methodist Protestants, by far the smallest of the three, had significant misgivings about the episcopal system of governance adopted by the other two Methodist bodies–in fact, it had been one of the issues that had led to their splitting from the fold in the first place. Nevertheless, an episcopal system was adopted in the new denominational structure. The Methodists in the South did not want integrated churches or conferences (and quite a few Northern conferences probably agreed, in private if not in public). So, a system of jurisdictions was created, and bishops were only to be elected and serve within a particular jurisdiction. Five of these jurisdictions were geographical. The sixth, the euphemistically-titled “Central Jurisdiction,” was only for African-American congregations, regardless of where they were located throughout the country. This system would be abolished at the creation of The UMC in 1968, but it represented a compromise that did everything but address the issue of racial segregation head-on.
On April 22, 1968, in Dallas Texas, The Evangelical United Brethren Church and The Methodist Church shook hands and became one. Our “marriage ceremony,” the very first general conference of The United Methodist Church, was a celebration of our common mission as Christians–and a giant papering-over of our differences. I contend that the unresolved issues of 1968–racial segregation, women’s ordination, the Evangelical-Social Gospel theological divide, and regionalism (to name a few)–are at the very heart of our relationship issues as a denomination today.
Am I sorry that The UMC was formed? By no means! I am a proud member of The United Methodist Church, the first generation in my home congregation to be considered only UMC, not former EUB or Methodist. I was baptized, confirmed, and ordained in this denomination, and it is my rightful home. And that is exactly why I feel we need to go back and look at some of our unresolved issues as a denomination before we even consider breaking apart. We need marriage counseling, and we need someone to say, “So, how did you two meet?”
In a later post, I want to address the issue of regionalism, particularly how we ought to structure ourselves as a global church in the 21st Century. What I’d like to touch on today is an issue of theology, or approaches to seeing God’s action in the world, that lie at the heart of some of our differences today.
By the time of the ME/ME,South merger in 1939, it was pretty widely acknowledged that the many of the Northern churches, conferences, and seminaries had adopted a more liberal/progressive theology, while the Southern Methodists had developed a much more evangelical/conservative stance on many theological issues. These are gross overgeneralizations, to be sure, but I think they hold pretty well even today, where the Northeast and Western jurisdictions tend to be more liberal, and the Southeast and South Central jurisdictions are much more conservative. In the vast middle of the U.S. lies the North Central jurisdiction, which is an odd mixture of the two, and often serves as the “bellwether” of The United Methodist church. While the EUB churches may have had similar differences that could be geographically charted, the largest concentration of EUBs were in the North Central region anyway. Rather than deal with our theological differences at the time of union, we decided instead to isolate these positions within jurisdictions, and allow seminaries to continue to train pastors and church leaders as if the theological differences didn’t exist. After all, if you went to Emory, Duke, or Asbury, you were likely to continue to serve in the Southeast, so why bother? And, if you went to Illif, Drew, or Boston, you were pretty much going to be a Westerner or Northeasterner anyway. General Conference, that great Methodist melting pot, was the site of many a battle over an emerging set of issues that highlighted our theological divides–abortion, homosexuality, the death penalty, and war are just a few of the most well-highlighted examples, with the first two being the primary issues over which we have skirmished. Increasingly, the theological divide became a chasm, as the Book of Discipline became a tool for each side of every issue to gain ground, win points, and build power in the quadrennia between General Conferences. At an event that I attended for a particular “unofficial caucus” in the 1990’s, one speaker, when asked how to make sure The UMC was shaped into the kind of church the caucus wanted, replied, “The answer is simple…we’ve got to get more delegates elected to General Conference than they do.” This “we vs. they” language lies at the heart of our problem today. Instead of both sides acknowledging that they might be wrong about some things, both sides assert that they are right, and the other side is completely wrong. There is no room for living together when each side believes that the other is essentially wrong. (I mean this in the original meaning of “essentially,” that each side believes the other side is wrong within its very essence, or being.)
So, if we disagree on some things, we should break up. That’s the reasoning I’ve heard from both sides.
You know who else disagrees, but yet stays together? My wife and I. My parents. My wife’s parents. Every healthy couple I’ve ever met. No one totally agrees all the time with the person they choose to love. Sometimes, you wake up in the morning, and you look at your partner lying there in bed next to you, and you think, “What did I get myself into?” But despite the differences, we continue to love that person, because he or she is the person we’ve chosen. Through thick and thin, when the going gets tough, and through a host of other cliched situations, we stay with them. Not because we always agree on everything, but because of the one thing we can always agree on–that we love each other. So, I guess the question The United Methodist Church needs to ask is, “Do you love each other enough to stick with it?” If love isn’t part of the equation, then maybe we are doomed to break apart.
Our love for each other is a sign of our spiritual health–which is the subject of next week’s blog.
Blessings and Peace,