All in the Family (Thoughts on Schism in The UMC, Final Part)

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It’s been a while since I’ve reflected on this space, but I’m back!

When I was a kid, sick days, school vacations, and summer break meant TV–usually re-runs on one of the local broadcast channels out of Cleveland.  We played outside quite a bit, but sometimes, when the heat got the better of us, or if we thought we could get away with it, we’d sit down in front of the TV set all day long.  As a result, many of the cultural touchstones of my childhood are actually from a generation before mine– “I Love Lucy,” “Andy Griffith,” “Bonanza,” and “The Brady Bunch” were staples, among many others.  Sometimes, when I mention an old show to my wife, who’s only two years older than I am, she’ll look at me like I’m crazy!  

One show that made an impression on me was “All in the Family,” starring Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton as Archie and Edit Bunker.  Archie was famous for his bigoted bull-headedness, and Edith for her meek and mild disposition.  Archie saw everyone as his enemy, or at least as an annoyance, especially people who were different or strange–which, in Archie’s estimation was pretty much everyone except for himself!  Of course, Archie was often confronted with situations that made him uncomfortable, and his characteristically racist, sexist, or homophobic responses were classic comedy fodder.  The show was actually pretty cutting-edge for the 1970’s, given the social unrest that had begun with the civil rights and student movements of the late 60’s, and the relatively “safe” television programming that was then heavily controlled by sponsors and network censors.  

Despite his ranting and raving about Liberals and “Commies,” and his seeming hatred of anything foreign or new, one thing that Archie Bunker always valued above everything else was family.  Even when his family included Mike “Meathead” Stivic, his left-leaning son-in-law, or his neighbor, Lionel (who often acted as a foil to Archie’s racist attitudes), Archie was fiercely loyal to his kin, and would do pretty much anything for them, especially for his wife, Edith.

I thought of “All in the Family” this week when my fictional fighting couple came back to my office to see me again.  By the fourth or fifth time that I see I couple, I usually recommend professional couples’ counseling, since my skill-set does not go beyond basic relational skills training, and I want couples to have the best possible chances for staying together.  But, when this couple comes in for their last session with me, I decide that we’re going to talk about family, particularly about families of origin and extended family.

“I never seem to be in the right,” says one.  “I’m always the bad guy in every situation, and my mother-in-law and the extended family always seem to take the opposite side.”

“Not fair!” says the other.  “I often feel the same way with your family!”  

It’s clear very early on that the extended family is an issue in this relationship, as it often is in so many couples’ lives.  

“What kinds of issues usually cause the most problem with extended family members?” I ask innocently.  (I have a hunch what they will say.)

“Our parents always have something to say about how we raise the kids.” (Check)

“Money is often an issue.” (Double check)

“They tend to take sides–whichever of us gets hurt goes to the family with the issue, and a war erupts.” (Triple check!)

Extended family tensions, just like those faced by Archie and his clan, and by our fictitious couple, are so frequently the cause of relationship issues that I often wish I could meet with the in-laws as well as the couple for pre-marital counseling sessions! I’d love to get everyone in a room and lay it all out on the table–

“Look, folks, I know you love your kids, and you want them to be happy, but if you really want them to succeed as a couple, you have got to learn to get along with each other, and not take sides all the time!” (Is what I would say as an opening line.)

As I often say to couples (pre-marriage):  Conflict is inevitable; combat is not.  Not every issue needs to result in battle lines being drawn.  Too often, once it gets to that point, there’s very little I can do to help a couple.

Remember, this couple is The United Methodist Church, and the extended family we’re talking about is the worldwide church of which we are a part as United Methodists.

One of the unique features of our denomination is that we are a worldwide body.  Unlike our British Methodist cousins, who worked to make their “daughter” churches autonomous over a number of years, we United Methodists have always prided ourselves in the fact that we have conferences all over the world.  Many of the Methodist conferences in Africa, South America, and Eastern Europe are part of our denomination, and send delegates to General Conference every four years.  They are full members of The UMC, and as the church has seen more growth in the global south over the last few decades, their influence has become increasingly more important as decisions about polity and doctrine are made.  And, increasingly, as tension has developed between various factions within the American part of our denomination, our brothers and sisters in the developing and growing parts of the world are brought into our struggles, and often used as pawns in a very North American-centered debate.  

While the Northern and Western hemispheres fight over issues like homosexuality–well, let’s face it, that’s the one that we fight over the most, so let’s just focus on that–While we fight over homosexuality, our Christian brothers and sisters in Africa and Asia are often confused, because to them, this issue is settled.  Why return to General Conference and re-argue every four years over something that they believe the Bible is very clear about?  Because of this position, American caucuses, like the Good News crowd, are wont to leverage the voting power of the Southern delegates to General Conference, and have been able to “win the day” on a number of key votes on homosexuality over the past few General Conferences because of this.  On the other side, progressives like MFSA and Reconciling MInistries are pleased as punch when someone from Africa takes a stand in favor of LGBTQ inclusion, and often lament the silencing of progressive voices in the central conferences.  

I admit my American-centered bias when I portray this issue as a struggling couple (the American portion of the church) and their extended family (the global South).  Unfortunately, that is how things often play out in the life of the church–we Americans argue over our pet issue(s), while those who come from Africa and Asia are left confused, and sometimes angered, over our reluctance to address what they see as the bigger issues facing the church and the world.  If I were a United Methodist who was not an American, I would want to go to General Conference to make sure that pastors in my conference were able to receive a pension, and that churches, clinics, and classrooms in my home country were well-supplied and cared for.  I would want my voice to be heard as a part of the family, and not be seen as an in-law or a noisy neighbor.  I sense this frustration when I have had the opportunity to meet church leaders from other parts of the world.  “Let us get on with the business of being the church,” they say, “and not argue about these things.”  

There is a justice issue here.  At some point, we in the American church will need to deal with the issue of men and women who feel called to ministry or to life in the church, but who happen to be LGBTQ.  At some point, we will need to either decide the issue, split up over it, or allow a mysterious “third way” to appear and guide us forward.  I know that the Holy Spirit continues to work among us, and will lead us into a new way of being the church that will make and mature disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  But until that time comes, we need to give up our self-imposed victim status, and we need to stop seeing the “other side” as the enemy, and we need to stop putting the important work that the church is doing in places like Africa on hold in order to argue out our differences.  

Despite his animosity toward most of the world, Archie Bunker was ultimately able to put aside his own views in favor of what was best for his family.  Will our family of The United Methodist Church be able to do the same?  

I hope we will.  Our survival as a family, and our only chance to thrive as the Body of Christ, is depending on it.