With social media, we have many new ways to connect in church life. Historical boundaries set by geography are diminished, allowing access by anyone who would search for us online.
For some, this media revolution has opened up new forms of community, growth, and inspiration. For others, it has tested the boundaries of modesty, privacy, and decency. For those prone to feel scandal, online religious media can become a catalyst for conflict. This presents an opportunity for the propagandist who will gather and amplify what is most likely to inflame anxiety and alienation. The goal is polarization and radicalization that drives individuals and factions to act out in ways that may be against friends, family, and their own best interests.
Propaganda has contributed to the division of the United Methodist Church. Inflamed by propaganda, over 100 churches within my annual conference have entered a process to sever historic relationships with the United Methodist Church. The church I serve is not in this process.
Yesterday, I watched an online video of a disaffiliation discernment session held in the sanctuary of a local church. It was difficult to watch. I love my clergy brother who is appointed there, but this suspension of the trust clause also suspended his constitutional right to fair process. With the “discernment process,” factions of laity are free to put the UMC on trial, arguing whether or not to continue his employment and their relationship to the UMC. He is not alone in this peril.
At one point, the presiding church officer stated the reason some desire disaffiliation: the refusal of conference officials to enforce rules against gay people and their allies. This grievance impacts families in that church but is prompted by situations entirely outside that local church. This external stimulus, amplified by propaganda, provided the sole warrant for unleashing a congregationalist trial process they acknowledge will bring destructive and traumatic consequences to their church regardless of who wins.
Are we entitled to a flawless, homogeneous, like-minded church?
I am in my 28th year under appointment in the UMC. As an advocate for Hispanic Methodism, there has never been a time when I felt my own values aligned fully with the values of the majority or those in power. Through the practice of ministry, some aspects of my understanding and values have changed. Consequently, I have stood, written, spoken, ministered, and voted on both sides of the sexuality debate.
Every year at Clergy Session, I heard the question raised: Are all blameless in administration?
The answer was always chosen and written already: “yes.” That means I was blameless when I was anti-gay even as I am blameless now for repenting of that perspective and conduct.
What does it mean to be blameless in administration?
A blameless administration would be finished with colonialism and racism. Our churches of color would prosper and the UMC would reflect the ethnic diversity of our ministerial context. Blameless clergy would never seek to maximize and flaunt their privilege while minimizing their responsibility or put more trust in money, personality, and popularity than they put in God. A blameless administration would not defund its own missions in order to provide inequitable support to those making the decisions. Blameless authority would be free of cronyism, nepotism, gender, wealth, and cultural bias. Blameless churches would celebrate the opportunity to share the cost and oversight of ministry. Blameless power would have no fear of truth, welcoming honest and civil debate in uncensored media and political assemblies. The blameless would never marginalize or repress intellectuals, critics, advocates, prophets, or the common person. The blameless would render faithful and transparent stewardship of souls, finances, properties, and process, shunning conflicts of interest, secrets, cover-ups, and payoffs. The blameless would defend our institutions beginning with the most vital and vulnerable and protect those who serve in mutual loyalty. A blameless church would not shun evidence, science, or the testimony of those with greatest experience.
Is the UMC blameless? Will the alternative be blameless? If not, we will continue to blame others while ignoring our own flaws, and our blame will remain whether we stay our leave.
Without honesty or repentance, our claim to blamelessness will continue to humiliate those whose lives, ministries, and communities have been ignored, silenced, marginalized, and sacrificed on the unjust scales of pride, greed, bias, selfishness, inequity, and double-standards.
I can say that we are not “all blameless” because I am not blameless. I am a sinner. I kneel before the table of my Savior. My pleading hands are stained with the same blood that he offers me to drink. My life is nourished by the same body that I nailed to the cross. A blameless church would not be invited to this meal.
Four years ago, a precious friend and mentor invited me to leave with him into the “new” denomination he was helping organize. This gracious invitation came after he learned that I no longer shared his perspective on human sexuality. Had I accepted, I would have become their first dissident!
As we were finishing our lunch, I took a piece of cornbread, cut it in half, handed him the other half, and said, “here is your half of the people and problems of the UMC. Go plant this in the ground and try to grow corn.” Division of an already homogeneous church in order to create even more homogeneity is just one more expression of consumption.
My choice to remain in the UMC in spite of flaws and painful experiences does not mean that I celebrate, enjoy, or benefit from corruption, betrayal, and suffering. I decide to stay because there is nowhere I can go where people will be blameless. I thank God that there is also nowhere I can go to escape the love, mercy, and calling of Jesus that saves me from my blame.