An Epistle to the United Methodist Church

To the United Methodist Church in the United States,

Grant, a commissioned elder in the United Methodist Church, expecting ordination in 2015,

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I want to begin by giving thanks to God for the opportunity to be a part of the UMC. God has richly blessed me by giving me a good home in the UMC. I was raised by an elder of the church, raised to live in the Christian way as set forth by Christ, organized by the apostles, and given a new expression in the Methodist model set forth by John Wesley. While I owe the means of polity, doctrine, and piety to Wesley, I owe my faith to Christ, and Christ alone. To God be the Glory.

This church has been a home for me, crafted by people who love God, serve faithfully, and wish to make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Oh, how I pray we would remember those words that we set as a mission statement, an identity, for us in the UMC. While I am grateful for the many gifts I have received in the church, I am especially grateful the opportunity to become an elder in the church, a vocation both highly esteemed and also laden with great responsibility. I grew up not wanting at all to be an elder, but the Holy Spirit moved me in such a way that I cannot imagine my life otherwise now. That said, I see all too well the many wounds of our precious body of Christ in the UMC, wounds ever deepening as the many words, sharp as swords and poisoned as fangs, rip the flesh of our precious communion.

In recent days, and most violently in the past year, I have seen a war of words emerge between factions within the church over issues of great importance. It seems that one hand of the church, inspired by the Holy Spirit and on fire for the force of justice, seek to fight oppression in the form of discrimination against our LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ, and push for official doctrine and polity in the church to reflect that mission. The other hand of the church stands in vocal opposition, inspired by the Holy Spirit and on fire for the force of faithfulness to tradition, seek to retain the language in our polity and doctrine as a matter of scriptural fidelity. I write this today not to take sides. In honesty, the hand seeking justice also seeks faithfulness to tradition in a different way, as the hand seeking faithfulness sees this as a quest for justice in a different way.

What it appears to me is that we are having a conversation in which both sides can neither understand the language of the opposition. It is as if one side will say “The book is a square!” and the other side argues, “No it’s not—the book is red!” While the analogy isn’t perfect, it has to suffice for now. Discussion cannot take place as long as those party to the discussion cannot even agree to the definition of terms. For instance, one side may take the word “Paternalistic” and see it as a negative phrase, as if to be patronizing, denigrating, and demeaning. The other side sees the word, and conjures up images of a loving father protecting and authoritative. We see each argument, only perceiving one side of the coin claiming it to be a different discussion when in reality they are joined in unity.

Perhaps I am being reductionist, simplistic, and maybe even naïve. I am young in the faith, and younger still in leadership in the church. I have no illusions that the conversation is simply a disagreement over terms. The beliefs held in each camp of the church, left and right, are deeply held, not taken lightly, and connected to the vision of faith that defines us. But I use the analogy to express the fact that we are so divided that we can no longer even hold conversations with each other without resorting to name-calling, denigration, or outright anger and hatred. Such is the state of our impoverished body of Christ.

Some say this inability to communicate means that we can no longer hold communion together. Calls have been made in recent days for a schism, a divide in the church, amicable and voluntary, in order to solve the issue. They claim that the impasses between the hands are too great, irreconcilable. The church cannot stand as it is if we are so divided, and so they seek for a peaceful parting of ways in order to remedy the issue.

To these people, I want to say that while it is tempting in many ways to schism as the church has done in days past, this is not how I was raised in the church to handle differences. As young as I am, as naïve as I may be, I see it as far more naïve to say to one another in a church that claims unity within our very name that we should schism. This is not the way I see the church who claims its mission is to make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world ought to go.

We are the United Methodist Church. That ought to mean something. John Wesley sought revival in the church, not division. One of his greatest friends, George Whitefield, strongly and vehemently stood against him in matters too numerous to count concerning the nature of God, the agency of humanity, and the theology of the church. And yet, they remained great friends, not seeking schism but unity. While the Methodist movement eventually did schism with the Church of England, it was not on matters of theology or doctrine that is was done so, but matters of polity and organization, even though there was much doctrinal division between Wesley and the Church of England. The issue was over leadership and episcopal right, not a theological world view. At its heart was a question of power, and regrettably, schism occurred.

The church suffered many schisms since then, from issues as grave as slavery to matters as relatively minute as whether or not we should be able to buy pews (a topic still important, but that may be reserved for another letter.) Each time it came down to matters of power, who held it, and what they believed. In the end, it appears to this young pastor that it played out like children in a sandbox unwilling to share their toys, and so in anger, left for different, more controllable sandboxes. Schism is a childish thing. It’s foolish for us to pretend that it is the only way forward when the Methodist tradition has always made space for a wide spectrum of theological belief. We have, at our core, a passion for following Christ along a middle path, a way that is tempered by scripture AND tradition, reason AND experience. Balance, harmony, unity—that is the Methodist way, and it can be again.

I have prayed much over this church. I still pray. As one with relatively little power save for that bit which God has graciously given me as a commissioned elder, I speak as a pastor who dearly loves his church, loves his tradition, and wishes for there to be a United Methodist church in the future so that my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren can come together in fidelity and unity with one another to follow Christ, to make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We can, nay we MUST not schism. We must find a middle way. We must be able to compromise, even if it is simply an agreement to amicably disagree, and we must do so without breaking communion.

When I see a brother or sister that I may greatly disagree with on this issue or on another one, I want to above all see them as just that: a brother, a sister, a fellow child of God. I pray that we may remain the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood, and remember that we are but hands, different in direction but always in service to the greater mission of the gospel.

This is my plea. I submit that it is one that can be heard and considered. I do not wish to see my church split, the body wounded any more than it has. Perhaps I am naïve. But in my naivety, I have faith in God, in the resurrection and redemption of Jesus Christ, and power and communion of the Holy Spirit.

Grace and peace be with you all.

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About grantimusmax

Grant Barnes, aka Grantimus Maximus, aka The Nerdcore Theologian. He is a graduate of Perkins School of Theology with a Masters Degree in Divinity. He is also a commissioned elder in the United Methodist Church, and Senior Pastor at Hemphill First United Methodist Church and Pineland United Methodist Church. He graduated from Texas State University Cum Laude with a Bachelor's degree in English, minor in History. He watches way too many movies, reads too many books, listens to too much music, and plays too many video games to ever join the mundane reality people claim is the "Real World." He rejects your reality, and replaces it with a vision of what could be, a better one, shaped by his love for God.
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2 Responses to An Epistle to the United Methodist Church

  1. Mike Lindstrom says:

    Grant,
    I applaud your work and effort in your epistle to the UMC. This is the kind of encouragement needed (rather than signed documents as others would offer). You do a nice job of laying out some of the difficulty – the square vs. red analogy works well. I dare say that invoking the name of “United” might be a bit optimistic about who we are. That portion of our name came from the Evangelical UNITED Brethren in our merger. I’m not sure it was claimed particularly as you suggest, and certainly in regular reference we are simply “the Methodist Church”. You could equally challenge our sense of method these days. But, the reference to the name “United” is a minor issue.

    The bigger struggle I see is the actual future unity. While you do a good job of naming the issue and calling for an end, it requires more than an emotional plea. It will require someone or someones to develop a plan that allows the square/red members to live together. It requires wisdom beyond that which we have known in the past. I am longing for someone to make an effort in this. So far we mostly have the “just get over it” plan – from both sides. Without a way forward in regard to the process of leadership/ordination and our theology of sexuality – one that addresses each side of the struggle simultaneously, the separation will continue to be a de facto reality. The truth is that we are NOT united at this point (as you mention) and without a plan to make it so, the divide remains in spirit if not ultimately in official polity and doctrine.

    Thanks for having the courage to write this as one not yet ordained. I encourage you to consider allowing the Holy Spirit to use your passion to help develop a way forward. Maybe then we could proudly wear the name.

    Peace,
    Mike Lindstrom
    Elder in the Texas Annual Conference

    • grantimusmax says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful critique and encouragement, Mike. I realize that we gained the name from the EUB, and I also acknowledge the sad reality of the almost total erasure of their existence in our denominational consciousness. I emphasize “United” because despite how we attained the name, I feel that it is a word that should help define our course of action in the world as followers of Christ united in the body.

      I felt led to write this partly out of a need to cleanse myself of these thoughts–to get it out of my system. I only wish I had a plan, as you mention, that we could implement to forge ahead. I’ll continue praying for our church, for our pastors, leaders, and all who call the UMC home.

      Thanks again. I look forward to seeing you at conference.

      Grant Barnes

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