I give you Drew Colby…
It all started one Sunday in 1787. On that day, Richard Allen, a Methodist preacher licensed to preach at the 1784 Christmas Conference, was forced by a church trustee to leave a “whites only” section of a sanctuary. Try not to read this as a commentary on the character of church trustees. Instead, read it as a sin, and a great loss, in the family history of the Methodist Church.
Just a few years after the American Revolution Allen and other African-Americans formed a new fellowship; but when some of them wanted to join other denominations, Allen insisted they remain Methodist, saying “there was no religious sect or denomination [that] would suit the capacity of the colored people as well as the Methodist; for the plain and simple gospel suits best for any people.” And so, after some legal battles, the AME church was formed.
Looking back, it is clear that Allen and the congregations that followed (AME, CME, etc.) maintained the holiness of the church by splitting, in faith. If we could go back and do this over, I believe Methodists like me would have been right to follow him out. If measured in average worship attendance and budget, the United Methodist Church has been more successful in the intervening years. If measured in righteousness, we would not fare as well.
More recently, in the wake of the 2015 mass shooting in a historic Charleston, SC AME church, our St. Stephen’s congregation wanted to do something to honor this church. They were not only victims of a massacre, and not only other Christians; they were fellow Methodists. They were family– estranged family–but family nonetheless.
We decided, for one Sunday, to use the AME communion liturgy for our own communion. It would be a way of learning from them, and of honoring the communion we believe we have in Christ. It was a holy experience for me.
In fact, as we prepared, I noticed how much more Anglican that liturgy actually is. So, I dug deeper into AME liturgies and their Book of Discipline. In some cases I found that this tradition has stayed better in touch with the tradition of Wesleyan Methodism than the United Methodist Church has. And, being an anglophilic liturgical snob, in many ways I liked their stuff better than ours! And so, I grieve at the effects of estrangement over time. I wish we could have kept in touch. I wish we could have stayed together.
Since that day I have pondered a sort of thought experiment. As the UMC considers and (mostly) tries to avoid a schism, what is to happen if a schism occurs? What if it is determined to be unavoidable–or even the will of God? Personally, I hope against hope that God will make a way forward where there seems to be no way. Nonetheless, I do wonder where everyone will go. Will one “side” get the “spoils” of trademarks, logos, pensions, Hymnals, and the Book of Discipline? Who will get “custody” of these things? And what if It is not my side that “wins,” whatever that means? Where will I go?
Ponder this with me: if I found myself ecclesiologically homeless, or orphaned, from the United Methodist Church, do you think the AME church would take me (back) in? Would the church that my church put out take me back? Even after we did her wrong? Is reconciliation after a split possible? Or, more broadly, is reconciliation instead of a split possible?
The answer may be no. For a number of reasons, it would probably be too awkward or difficult for some sort of pan-Methodist union to be born. And, let’s be honest, it would probably be even more awkward for me to become an African Methodist Episcopal pastor (I’m white, by the way). Our estrangement means we have grown terribly unfamiliar with one another, and we’d make strange bedfellows.
But, what if the answer were yes? What if what came out of this whole project was a re-united United Methodist Church? Imagine that. What if instead of schism, our minds were instead set on reconciliation?
Whatever the outcome of the ongoing Bishops’ Commission, I pray that the commission itself, and its aftermath, can be an opportunity to practice humility, repentance, and openness to the reconciliation revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ. May we be open to confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation in order to experience the Easter life. I can’t help but think that my 18th century ancestors would encourage all of us to consider the negative effects of estrangement over time. To avoid these effects would be prudent. To heal them would be a miracle.
The Church’s One Foundation: verse 4
’Mid toil and tribulation,
And tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation
Of peace forevermore;
Till, with the vision glorious,
Her longing eyes are blest,
And the great Church victorious
Shall be the Church at rest.