By Carolyn Moore
April 23, 2021
An ironic take on an old story keeps coming to mind. In this version, Old Mother Hubbard’s sad tale of an empty cupboard and hungry dog goes viral. An outcry of concern ripples through the community. Who would leave a dog without a bone? Was it stolen? Who would let an old woman get to the point of destitution? Surely this is an injustice that requires our response!
From the outcry arises a protest. Petitions are circulated. T-shirts are printed, articles written, reports filed. Churches pray. A GoFundMe account is created and the generous give. A non-profit is formed; employees are hired. Mother Hubbard’s dog becomes famous (in a hungry kind of way) as his story goes public.
In the midst of so much seemingly good activity, Ms. Hubbard’s hungry dog dies. When the children hear about it, they ask (as children will), “Why didn’t somebody just give the dog a bone?” And their parents explain in that knowing and parental voice, “Oh, goodness, this is much too complex for that, dear. You’ll see, when you get older.”
Why didn’t somebody just give the dog a bone?
That’s the line from this story that I can’t seem to shake lately as I consider our current situation in The United Methodist Church. The fact is, there is a very simple answer to our complicated mess, friends. In the spirit of the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, why can’t our Council of Bishops find a way to let traditional churches go? There is nothing illegal, unethical or immoral about moving forward in such a spirit. As Paul would say, “against such things there is no law.” Why can’t we seem to lay down our debates and let churches go that are ready to go, so that no further harm is done to our Christian witness or the tribes that will emerge on the other side?
Is there anything preventing the Council of Bishops from simply agreeing now to the spirit of the Protocol and letting churches go, with no price tag attached? There are very good reasons to ask this question. We all suspect the viability of even a 2022 General Conference. We watch with concern while various annual conferences handle this wait in complicating ways. We worry that with enough negative publicity, folks who haven’t been in church for months will simply choose a less controversial place to land when they eventually go back to in-person worship.
What reason could we possibly have for punishing one another with contention, distrust, and punitive actions?
Hold that thought while we rehearse a little history.
For forty years, every General Conference has voted to uphold the current Book of Discipline in its broadest definition. In 2019, a narrowly focused called General Conference once again voted to uphold it. The vote has been clear and decisive … over and over again. And yet, those who disagree have consciously chosen not only to not leave, but to disregard the standards set by that vote.
What is most confounding is that it isn’t just some clergy and laity who have chosen to disregard the decisions of General Conference, but even some bishops. To add insult to injury, some leaders have now decided to target and in some cases shame those who are simply upholding the promises we made when we were ordained. How is this possible, in the name of justice, that people upholding the vows they promised to uphold are now considered traitors in their own denomination?
Remember those General Conference votes? That, too, is history — one that ought to have left traditionalists in a position of strength in our denomination. And yet, to keep peace and to keep our beloved church from imploding while we loudly protest each other, traditionalists have chosen to start something new for the sake of peace. It was never our intention to take anyone’s property or money, so stepping aside was more a matter of giving up our claim to the United Methodist name. For some, that has been the hardest part. This was our mother and father, a tribe we’ve loved, one into which we were ordained. Please do not underestimate our sacrifice on this point.
Yet, for the sake of peace, we have chosen to go in a new direction. Some have been repaid for that gesture by being bullied, threatened, belittled, and left feeling incredibly stuck. Why don’t we just leave, you ask? Because some of our colleagues seem unable to repay grace with grace. Every effort to move forward seems to come with an arbitrary price tag most churches can’t pay. Meanwhile, unable to pay the tab asked of us, some traditional churches and pastors are slowly being weeded out by a mix of intimidation, random appointments, and deal-making.
Much like the proverbial dog in our story, the heart and soul of the UM Church is dying, and the folks who will be left with it seem unaware or uninterested in that detail.
May I make this earnest appeal to our institutionalist and progressive friends, especially those with power to make real change happen? Find enough care within yourselves for the institution of the UM Church to not drag it through the public square while it languishes in this no-man’s land. Do not ask us to wait years while you pick and choose where the Book of Discipline will apply.
There is a simple way out of this mess that holds integrity, shows grace, and trusts God. Let those who oppose your theological stand go their own way with the property and assets that they’ve built in good faith. Suspend the trust clause. Empower WesPath to work with those exiting to a new denomination so that liabilities can be transferred seamlessly. Trust that if you are indeed in the right, God will not only provide but vindicate you without your having to force the issue. And if you aren’t, you ought to want to know that sooner than later. I’d say the same for myself.
As my bishop, Sue Haupert-Johnson, told The Washington Post shortly after the 2019 special General Conference, “We’ve either got to figure out how we go together or how we separate. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the pettiness. I’m tired of the fighting to win at all costs.”
I think we all are.
Friends, this doesn’t have to be complicated. We don’t have to empty our cupboards and create a scene. Just let those of us who, in good conscience and faith disagree with the direction of the UM Church, graciously set forth in a new direction.
It’s as simple as that.
The Rev. Dr. Carolyn Moore is the founding and lead pastor of Mosaic Church in Evans, Georgia. She also serves as the chairwoman of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Global Council. You can read more of her essays by visiting her webpage: The Art of Holiness.