A couple of days ago our church staff gathered for worship in the Chapel, as we do every Tuesday. Rev Tim Morrison gave the message, based on 1 Thessalonians 5:8-28. He began the message by asking us to mention specific moments that touched us in our faith journeys: a sermon, a work of music, a teacher or lesson, a time we received care from another. As I thought about impactful sermons on my life (there have been several), one sentence echoed in my ears:
"I'm not leaving until we get it right."
This sentence was spoken by Bishop Alfred Norris (this link is for the bio and picture only; the sermon podcast is a different message from the one I am referencing in this post) at the opening worship service of the Texas Annual Conference several years ago. Bishop Norris ordained me an Elder in 2001. I remember listening to this sermon several times while cleaning the garage one day (don't ask)-- I had bought it on cassette tape. In the sermon he talked about a conversation he had with a lay person. The man was remembering the "good old days" of the Methodist Church, before the 1968 merger. Here's a little history for non-Methodist folk: Our denomination split over the issue of slavery in the 1850s: North and South (that's why SMU, founded in 1911, is called Southern Methodist University). In 1939, those two Methodist denominations merged to form the Methodist Church. WooHoo!
But racism in the church was not finished: as the Methodist Episcopal Churches North and South formed the Methodist Church, African-American United Methodists were forced into the newly-formed Central Jurisdiction. While white Methodists were organized geographically, black Methodists across the country were all organized together. The Central Jurisdiction was all about racism, plain and simple. Well, in 1968, the Methodist Church merged once again with a cousin-like denomination, the Evangelical United Brethren, forming the United Methodist Church. That same year, 1968, the Central Jurisdiction was abolished, and African Americans were once again brought into the fold of the church.
So when this man hearkened for the good old days-- before 1968, when things began to fall apart for our movement in his mind-- it set off a nerve. Bishop Norris had served in that Central Jurisdiction and knew what it represented. Thinking on the brokenness of the church, and all the subsequent hurt, Bishop Norris reflected on the number of African Americans who have left the church over racism. He'd considered it too. But then he said:
"I'm not leaving until we get it right."
Recently many members of Custer Road received a letter from an organization called UM Action, which is linked to the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), headquartered in Washington, DC. Our church mailing list, and the lists of many other United Methodist congregations, was obtained by the IRD after the now defunct United Methodist Reporter (UMR Inc.) evidently sold its mailing lists to raise revenue. Those who received this letter did so because their church newsletters, like Custer Road's, were once published through UMR Inc. This letter contained some very volatile language, and it is not my intention to speak to that content. That being said, it is true that our denomination is facing serious challenges once again, mostly related to our stances on homosexuality, and the threat of schism has many United Methodists worried about what will happen at our next General Conference, which meets in 2016. Annual Conferences, including North Texas, will elect delegates to that conference this summer. So tensions are high.
Personally, I do not think our General Conference is functional enough to change the denomination's stance, and no, I am not running to be a delegate. In 2012, the conference did produce some needed reforms, but our Judicial Council, sort of the church's Supreme Court, ruled them unconstitutional. So the institution remained largely unchanged. It's my belief that we'll see the same thing again in 2016. More frustration and hand wringing. Then the talk of schism, etc. will resurface before the 2020 General Conference.