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Towards a Better Canaan

As anyone who follows the goings-on of the UMC no doubt knows by now a bipartisan group of negotiators representing various advocacy groups across the theological spectrum met with renowned negotiator Kenneth Feinberg to determine if a solution to our great impasse could be reached. Through a series of difficult meetings and tough compromises the group came to unanimous agreement that separation was necessary and they created a unanimously supported document outlining the various principles that the group had reached through the mediation process.

We must clarify, of course, that nothing has functionally changed yet. The Protocol is merely a proposal and has neither been voted on or implemented. The emergence of The Protocol holds serious significance though and it has quickly risen above other proposals and appears to be the leading piece of proposed legislation geared at ending our conflict.

While The Protocol has garnered widespread support there are those in every camp that are less than happy with the terms. As with any good compromise no group is totally happy and everyone wishes they’d gotten more things their way in one area or another. I’ve heard fellow traditionalists lament frequently: “why should we have to leave?” “we’ve won the vote consistently, why should we now abandon the church (name, logo, structure) to the other side?” Perhaps you have similar feelings about the path forward as proposed in The Protocol. Traditionalists have successfully upheld the language of the Discipline every single time it’s come to vote; why should we now give up and abandon ship? There are many who’ve already provided several great responses to such questions citing all of the practical and logistical reasons. I’d like to look at this through a different lens though: the lens of a similar conflict resolution in scripture.

Recently I was reading the Seedbed Daily Text as part of my daily devotions with my discipleship band and the story for the day was that of the separation of Abram and Lot. Like many stories in scripture I was familiar with Genesis 13:8-9 but had never taken much time to consider those particular verses of Abram’s story.

“8 Finally Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not allow this conflict to come between us or our herdsmen. After all, we are close relatives! 9 The whole countryside is open to you. Take your choice of any section of the land you want, and we will separate. If you want the land to the left, then I’ll take the land on the right. If you prefer the land on the right, then I’ll go to the left.”” Genesis 13:8-9 NLT

What parallels might this scriptural account provide to the future of United Methodism? First, Abram cited their familial relationship as reason to end their conflict. While the divide between different factions of United Methodism grow by the day we cannot deny the fact that most of us have close friends, even family members, on the other side. As our conflict has grown over the past several General Conferences it has been easy to adopt an “us vs them” mentality and forget that these are our brothers and sisters in United Methodism. While we may disagree on many points we’ve done some incredible things together (UMCOR immediately comes to mind.) One of the best things about The Protocol is that it seeks to end our harm to one another and part ways amicably and in good faith. This cannot be overstated. United Methodism now stands in the footsteps of several other mainline denominations but with the opportunity to write a different end to our story: one that models for the world what it looks like when followers of Christ work for the betterment of one another in spite of serious disagreement and division.

Second, let’s not miss that Abram allowed Lot a lot (no pun intended) of say in their respective futures. Abram didn’t cast Lot into the wilderness or force him to take the direction that seemed least desirable. He said if you go left, I’ll go right. If you go right, I’ll go left. Abram wisely saw that there was land enough for each of them if they would but part ways with their respective herds for the sake of peace. As with any good compromise The Protocol makes it so that everyone wins something, but nobody gets everything. This has been painful for United Methodists on both sides. Many traditionalists, for instance, are not keen on losing the denominational logo and name. However we will be able to go forth with our flocks, our properties, our assets, some of our shared assets, and be able to reform a new expression of Methodism without the institutional baggage we’ve been carrying for decades. It’s hard not to be excited by that prospect!

Third, like Lot, the centrists and progressives have chosen the path that appears fruitful. When given the choice by Abram Lot looked at the well-watered plains of the Jordan Valley to the east and took off, settling near the city of Sodom. I don’t have to remind you how that decision turned out. Likewise, many centrists and progressives view loosening our sexual ethics as a way to reach new people and grow the church. It seems to be an undeniably fruitful path to the Jordan Valley. When we look at every other denomination who has chosen that direction we see that, without exception, they exhibit even steeper denominational decline. Can progressive Methodists write a different story in the Jordan Valley? I truly hope so. But I have serious doubts in that department.

Finally, Wesley has an insightful note on Genesis 13:18 “Then Abram removed his tent – God bid him walk through the land, that is, Do not think of fixing in it, but expect to be always unsettled, and walking through it to a better Canaan; in compliance with God’s will herein, he removed his tent, conforming himself to the condition of a pilgrim.” Keith Boyette, President of the WCA, recently shared how a movement is at its most effective and vibrant early on. As it becomes stronger, bigger, and more institutionalized the movement stalls. The United Methodist Church stalled as a movement a long time ago. Perhaps now is the time to remove our tent, conform to the condition of a pilgrim, and begin our journey towards a better Canaan.

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