Room at the Table: When Separation is the Faithful Option

I love the hope expressed in the Gospel phrase “that they may all be one”. It was Christ’s hope for the church, and it’s the motto of my own denomination, the United Church of Christ.

At the same time, I’m watching as the United Methodist Church moves towards a possible split. There are reports that United Methodist bishops are meeting to propose a way forward that includes the option of a sort of amicable separation. And in its wake I do hear the concern of those who think the church should never schism.

But the reality is that the church of Jesus Christ has been in schism for over a thousand years, and many of those schisms have been necessary and good. The Protestant Reformation was a schism. The Methodist church itself broke away from the Anglican tradition. American denominations were in schism during the Civil War, with the Presbyterians not reuniting until 1983. Other denominations have broken apart over issues involving the inclusion of women. The truth is that schism is practically as old as the church.

And it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Here’s how I think of churches that have to break apart over issues of inclusion: everyone is sitting in a large room, and there is one big table. The only trouble is, not everyone at the table agrees that everyone else should be allowed to sit. So, the ones who aren’t allowed to sit remain standing against the wall while everyone else sits there comfortably, eats well, and debates whether or not they will let the ones standing sit at the table.

Here’s what an amicable separation could look like: Everyone agrees a solution is not coming anytime soon, but a large portion of the group says “we aren’t going to wait for our friends to be allowed to sit anymore.” And so, everyone remains in the same room, but another table is set up where everyone is welcome to sit.

10245585_250411955164792_8829165948251833523_nThe larger Methodist tradition is that big room, but it could be true that it’s time to set up two tables and let the faithful LGBTQ people leaning against the wall take a seat. The church is already in schism, because a church is not whole that does not recognize the baptisms of all of its members.

Perhaps it’s time that we simply adjust the seating arrangements accordingly.

When denominations debate issues of inclusion or justice they do so because a separation has already taking place. There are already multitudes of United Methodists who are not in the room because they have had to leave it for other rooms. LGBTQ people and their allies have grown tired of waiting for a seat, and have gone to other places where their God-given gifts have been well utilized. In a quiet and gentile way, they have been schism-ed out of the church. (I get that; I was a PCUSA minister for eight years, standing against the wall and waiting. Leaving was the healthiest option I had.)

So now the United Methodist Church is facing a big moment. The UCC, Presbyterian Church (USA), Episcopal Church, and Evangelical Lutheran Church have also been here, of course. But the United Methodist Church remains the largest mainline Protestant denomination in this country, and the split is becoming more deeply entrenched. The fact that the idea transgender people should undergo “reparative therapy”, a fringe treatment condemned by everyone respectable medical and psychological association, is getting serious support at General Conference is just one example.

So the time has come to ask the question: Can the people leaning against the wall wait any longer? Or is it time to set up a table where they can sit down.

Like I said, I do pray for a time in which “they may all be one”. Because we are humans, and deeply fallible, I fear that may not come about on earth. It may only be in the next life, when we see God’s love and truth face-to-face.

But that’s not to say there isn’t something good that can come from this. This week over 1,000 LGBTQ clergy members from other denominations said we would stand in solidarity with our United Methodist LGBTQ colleagues. To me that’s a symbol of what progressive Christians from all mainline denominations should do more of going forward.

I am a devoted student and lover of Reformed theology, and even I can say that in the 21st century church we can’t make our theological differences our idols. The reality is that Luther, Calvin, Wesley, were they alive today, would have far more in common than we realize. I wonder what they would think about their 21st descendants fighting 16th, 17th, and 18th century theological battles when the real work of the Gospel is yet to be done.

And so, if the United Methodist Church splits, I will not see it as a failure. I will see it as a commitment to get everyone a seat at the table. But more than that, I hope it will be a call for all of us who are progressive Christians to gather together in a bigger room, and to all sit together in fellowship. We don’t have to forget where we come from, but we do have to remember why we are here now.

Ironically, maybe it’s this moment of separation that will somehow move us closer to the time that we will “all be one”.

6 thoughts on “Room at the Table: When Separation is the Faithful Option

  1. Thanks, Emily. I know this comes from a deep personal place. Your suggestion for a way forward feels like a nice balance between Jesus’ prayer that “they might be one” and his equally provocative statement that “in my Father’s house, there are many rooms (tables?).”

  2. Generally a good position, yet the metaphor breaks down in my own mind and conjures up memories of my family’s feasts where all were seated and ate the same food, but the kids got the wobbly card table and the southpaw got the very end of the table so as not to “bother” the right handed ones. Jesus knew, and taught, a thing or two about meal tables and pecking orders. Perhaps our call today in response to Emily’s metaphor is to do the standing as we offer the most marginalized among us our own seats at the table.

    • I remember those “Children’s table” days. Good thought that we stand so those excluded can sit. – Constance Winther (former UMC for 36 years & now UCC)

  3. “The Crossroads of Science and Scripture”
    Cheryel Lemley-McRoy, Methodist Lay Servant, Detroit Charge, NE Texas
    UMC 2016 General Conference Delegate Listening Session, FUMC, Rockwall, Texas
    April 3, 2016

    Psalm 93:1 (KJV)
    “The Lord reigneth, he is clothed with majesty; the Lord is clothed with strength, wherewith he hath girded himself: the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved.”

    Psalm 104:5 (KJV)
    “Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.”

    Based on these and other scriptures, the Church in the 16th and 17th centuries censored Nicolaus Copernicus, banished Galileo Galilei, and burned Giordano Bruno at the stake.

    In 1633 Galileo Galilei was convicted of grave suspicion of heresy for “following the position of Copernicus, which is contrary to the true sense and authority of Holy Scripture”.”

    But centuries later, we now know the scientists were right, and that we had taken the poetry of the Psalms as science, and not for the poetic license it is.

    Ecclesiastes 10:2 (KJV)
    “A wise man’s heart is at his right hand; but a fool’s heart at his left.”

    This and other references to the left hand in the Bible were cited for centuries by the Church for its teaching that left handed people were demonic and had the left hand of Satan. Left handed people were persecuted; their left hands sometimes cruelly cut off. Parents hid or rejected their left handed children. Even in the last century reparative therapy was practiced on left handed children. And even though science has proven that being left handed is either genetic or biological in origin, and that to try to change a child sometimes results in cognitive damage, superstitions persist to this day.

    So throughout history when science makes a discovery that seems to contradict the Bible, the Church historically has rejected science and continued in ignorance for sometimes centuries until it is proven that the Church has in fact mistranslated or misinterpreted the Bible.

    We have not always been welcoming to genetic minorities, birth defects, or gene mutations. There were times and eras in history where I would be standing before you pleading for my life, and declaring to you that I was not a witch simply because I’m a red head. But not today because now we know science tells us that my red hair is a gene mutation and not the result of the occult. There was a time when we kept African American slaves, and justified it because we believed they were genetically inferior. We have historically ostracized minorities for religious superstitions.

    We may shake our heads about the ignorance of the historical Church in these matters, but the church is once more presented with the dilemma of making a choice between science and scripture.

    Many Christians wonder why, at this point in history, gay people are coming out of the closet, no longer ashamed, demanding respect, equality, and civil rights. One answer is science. Science is telling them that there is nothing wrong with them; that they’re a biological minority.

    Science today tells us that being gay is either genetic or biological in nature, and current studies hypothesize that homosexuality is the result of prenatal maternal hormone levels that either deprive a male fetus of testosterone, or overdose a female fetus. And that when a female brain is born with male genitals, or a male brain with female genitals, the result is a gestational anomaly known commonly as transgender. So science is telling us that being gay or transgender is not a choice, nor the result of a depraved mind, but a natural phenomena.

    So what do we do with all the scriptures that tell us homosexuality is an abomination? Do we learn from our history and go back to the Bible and “scrutamini scripturas”: search, examine, and scrutinize our translations? Are we afraid to learn that we have mistranslated and misinterpreted the scriptures? Do we hold our Church traditions so sacred that we cannot see that we may be wrong? Are we afraid to learn that we have persecuted a part of Christ’s Body with ignorance and prejudice?

    Haven’t we learned that science is the study and discovery of how God created the natural order? Physics? Biology? Mathematics? Astronomy? Aren’t those all studies of the workings of the hand of God? We must not fear science. Science may seem to contradict the Bible, but it never contradicts God. It affirms and reveals His mighty hand, and His awesome creative powers.

    Will future generations of Christians shake their heads at our ignorance of scripture and science? Will they be appalled, as we are when we read how the ancient Church treated scientists and genetic minorities? Today the Church’s treatment of the LGBTQ community is appalling, and downright un-Christlike. But one of the fastest growing communities in America is that of the gay churches. I shake my head in wonder that people who have been treated so badly by the Church can worship the God we preach. Just as African American slaves embraced the God of the Bible even while white Christians were criminal in their treatment of them.

    Did we change our stance on heliocentrism, left handed people, genetic minorities, slavery, women’s rights because we wanted to be politically correct? No we changed because it was the right thing to do. It was the scientifically correct thing to do. It was the scripturally correct thing to do.

    So what is the Church to do now that we are confronted with data from the scientific community that is seemingly contradictory to scripture? We are at a crossroads that we have been at before in history. But this time let us not turn our heads and close our eyes to people for whom Christ died. We have a growing crisis in America of a high suicide rate amongst LGBTQ children. They cannot wait for us to wake up to the reality of this needy mission field. We cannot delay to recognize them for who they are, people who are fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image. Our mission as Christians stands at the crossroads of science and scripture.

  4. So true. I never new the history of exclusion & fear of Left handers (I am left handed). Time to include LGBTQ in UMC and all churches.

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