Bishops urged to work for big-tent church

Clockwise from left, retired Bishop Forrest C. Stith, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, retired Bishop Elías Galván, Ashley Boggan Dreff and Erin Hawkins join in conversation about the historical context of The United Methodist Church's anti-racism work. Dreff pointed out that multiple previous divides in Methodism cited race as a main cause. Screengrab courtesy of the Council of Bishops via Zoom by UM News.
Clockwise from left, retired Bishop Forrest C. Stith, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, retired Bishop Elías Galván, Ashley Boggan Dreff and Erin Hawkins join in conversation about the historical context of The United Methodist Church's anti-racism work. Dreff pointed out that multiple previous divides in Methodism cited race as a main cause. Screengrab courtesy of the Council of Bishops via Zoom by UM News.
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After long wishing that United Methodists could remain together in one body, Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey acknowledged that the time has come when some will break away.

“Every part of the body is important to the whole,” Harvey preached April 25 during her final address as the Council of Bishops president. “I also realize that it might be time to bless and send our sisters and brothers who cannot remain under the big tent.”

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She spoke as the week’s Council of Bishops meeting got underway — just days before the planned May 1st launch of the Global Methodist Church, a new theologically conservative Methodist expression.

Harvey based her address on Romans 12, in which Paul proclaims: “We are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other.”

She expressed grief that some people have decided they belong elsewhere. However, Harvey also shared her hopes that the international United Methodist Church will remain a big tent — a welcoming home to Christians no matter their sexual or theological orientation.

In her two-year tenure as president, the bishops have met more frequently, but every meeting has been virtual. The bishops also have dealt with increasingly strained denominational ties as the pandemic has disrupted so much of church operations including what many expected to be a pivotal General Conference.

However, the lack of a formal separation plan has left bishops grappling with how to handle church disaffiliations and other possible divisions while also meeting the denomination’s pension obligations and other commitments to ministry.

Harvey said she now understands why the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s policy book, is often vague or complicated on matters of separation.

“It is because that is not its intent,” she said. “The Book of Discipline is designed to give us direction for how to be United Methodist — not how not to be United Methodist.”

While today’s moves toward disaffiliations go forward amid an unprecedented General Conference delay, denominational separations are nothing new for the people called Methodist. After all, Methodism founder John Wesley ushered in the first split himself by encouraging the launch of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784 — a new U.S. denomination entirely independent of Wesley’s home Church of England.

For the next 200 years, Methodism’s history would be one of breaking up and making up.

In her presidential address, Harvey spoke of why people stay in The United Methodist Church now and where she sees God at work in the denomination. She pointed to the work United Methodists have done to feed the hungry, address racism, work for climate justice, welcome immigrants and help disaster survivors rebuild.

“While some have worked to divide our church, there are those who have done more to unite the church in its work for justice and full inclusion than ever before with grit, determination and the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” she said.

“The persons sitting in our pews continue to be the body of Christ in more significant ways than has ever been experienced. Let us not think so highly of ourselves to think that we can thwart the work of the Holy Spirit.”