Way back in the 1980s, as the sex wars in the Episcopal Church really began to heat up, I heard a conservative priest tell a joke that gently mocked many of his Anglo-Catholic colleagues on the doctrinal right.
The whole point of the joke is that it is really hard to cut the ties that bind, when people have invested decades of their lives in religious institutions and traditions. And then there are the all-too human, practical details that come into play. In the end, it may be easier to edit the Apostles Creed and modernize the prayer book than it is to split the clergy pension play or divide a denomination’s trust funds.
The year is 2012 … and two Anglo-Catholic priests in the back of National Cathedral are watching the Episcopal presiding bishop and her incense-bearing lover process down the aisle behind a statue of the Buddha, while the faithful sing a hymn to Mother Earth.
"You know," one traditionalist whispers, "ONE more thing and I'm out the door."
Right now, in the multi-decade United Methodist Church civil war, things may be close to reaching that point for LGBTQ clergy and their supporters on the denomination’s doctrinal left. What will it take for these believers — who are sincerely convinced that 2,000 years of Christian doctrines on marriage and sex should be changed — to decide that enough is enough?
That’s the key question that I asked during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. (Click here to tune that in, or head over the iTunes.) What would this old “ONE more thing” joke look like today, if you turned it around — doctrinally speaking — and looked at it from the point of view of United Methodists on the left?
Maybe you would have two United Methodist pastors from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver — long a safe haven for the left — standing at the back of a global General Conference that is being held in a United Methodist stronghold in Africa. They are watching an African bishop walk down the aisle with his wife with his hands in the air singing an evangelical praise song. The service ends with the Rev. Franklin Graham giving an altar call.
One more thing and I’m out the door?
Then what? That was the other half of the equation in this podcast. Follow me through a few “ifs” here.
* If liberals in the United Methodist Church decided that it’s time to (a) leave, period, or (b) negotiate a divorce settlement with the UMC traditionalists, what then? Do they start their own Methodist-heritage denomination in North America?
* OK, then what does that church do with proposal that is on the table — it’s scheduled to be discussed at 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis — for a full-communion pact with the Episcopal Church? This is not a complete merger, but a recognition of clergy orders and a state of communion at altars in both churches. For more info, click here see my “On Religion” column this week. Then what?
* Well, the Episcopal Church already has a full-communion pact with the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There are places, in the USA, in which there are united parishes — one church representing both flocks. If the United Methodists have that tie with the Episcopalians and the Episcopalians have that tie with the ELCA, then what?
* What happens if these oldline Protestant flocks continue to lose members and budgets begin to get tighter and tighter? Or what if the leaders in these three flocks — each with its own system of bishops — decide that it would be a better witness in the modern world if they were a United Church (think Canada) of some kind?
Would that be possible? Read between the lines of these quotes at the end of my On Religion column, drawn from an interview with the Rev. David Simmons of St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Waukesha, Wis., a leader in several regional and national ecumenical efforts.
At some point in the future, said Simmons, it might be possible to discuss combining churches. But, right now, what "we need is a safe space in which we can get to know each other. … In America, we still have the luxury of being able to afford parallel church structures."
Combining two churches would be incredibly complex, he added. "We might be able to unite churches, someday, but I'm not sure we could unite our pension plans."
Well, whatever. I do know this — there are several potential news stories linked to the fault lines in these denominations. And there are already United Methodists who are hurting — big time — and thinking about the future.