In one sense, I am glad our father, Rev. George Harper, is no longer alive to see what is happening to the United Methodist denomination that he loved and served. I am sorry that my wife Pat and others like her have to see this day, after all the years she and they have put into service for our global church.
Church people often have very different views about divisive social issues. Political fights can be vicious and dehumanizing, as with civil rights and women’s rights. When the church fights over such issues, the fights are even more vicious, because the Bible is often used as a club to bash the “unbelievers.”
Our denomination was split, and the conservatives were figuratively waving the Bible as if it were one book with a clear message about what and who God hates, while the progressives were also “waving” the Bible but saying that Jesus’ and the prophets’ message about love was the opposite of the Bible’s culture-endorsing passages.
Then we split into two different denominations.
The time was just before the Civil War. The conservatives who would become the Methodist Episcopal Church South argued that the Bible taught that slavery is not only accepted, but ordained by God, and that there are 120+ places in the Bible that say so, in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, such as these:
When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property. Exodus 21:20-21 New Revised Standard Version
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Ephesians 6:5-6 NRSV
The progressives of that time argued that these were cultural values of the Biblical times as well as the present time, but that God’s intent was that love and justice as taught by Jesus and many of the prophets meant the exact opposite.
Even our present-day United Methodist conservatives no longer believe the myriad Biblical passages showing God endorses slavery. I truly believe that years from now they will no longer believe the six places in the Bible that see same-sex love as unnatural and cursed by God. (There are three verses in the Hebrew scriptures and three in the letters of Paul and his disciples writing in his name, but none in the gospels.)
The debate in St. Louis this week was instructive. When people advocated for acknowledging that Christians disagree on these matters, they used the words of love and inclusion. We are all created in God’s image. We are all children of God. All means all.
Not all, but many for the Traditional Plan were simply mean-spirited. They personally attacked our own Bishop Karen Oliveto (bishop of the area including Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and one church in Idaho) because she is married to a wonderful woman. Never mind that Bishop Karen is a loving Christian person who is also one of the best preachers and spiritual leaders in the country. The personal attacks, often cloaked in passive-aggressive language, feel like the same ugliness directed toward people of color and women, both in the past and in the present political debates in this country.
That wasn’t enough. They not only voted to keep the hateful language about same sex prohibitions, but tried to add amendments that would force millions of us out of our own denomination. There would be provisions to kick out not only bishops and clergypersons, but also whole churches, like St. Paul’s in Helena!
The outcome was murky, with our United Methodist Judicial Council ruling some of the worst parts of the plans to be unconstitutional. In fact, the entire Traditional Plan which passed will be ruled on by our Judicial Council in late April.
Regardless of the outcome, I trust we will continue in Helena to stand for the God that Jesus described as “Love” and will be proud to be “loyal opposition” of our denomination or part of a new coalition of like-minded churches if the worst happens.
I also believe that Hate never has the final say. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I trust we will be on the right side of justice with our LGBTQ+ siblings, though it might no longer be under the banner of “United” Methodism. I imagine John Wesley and my father, not as rolling over in their graves, but as saying something like this: “God approves of Bishop Karen, and so do we.” Hate never has the final say.