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DYK? We’ve Done This Before

Posted: August 16 2019 at 09:57 PM
Author: Rev. Arlene Christopherson, Ass't to the Bishop/Dir. of Connectional Ministries

Not in your lifetime or mine, but in our history, our Methodist ancestors faced issues that caused conflict and divided the Wesleyan movement. 

This year has been one of stress in our churches, for our pastors, bishops and denominational leaders. The tension that grew out of close votes during a General Conference Special Session in February concerning LGBTQ inclusion in the church remain with us and grow as we look to more decisions in 2020. 

If you follow the UMNews Digest (and I would encourage you to do so*), you know that almost every week another plan or report or action reminds us of our instability. Resistance, compliance, split; every manner of a pathway forward is being investigated, suggested, or pursued. 

When the world around us is in open conflict – politically, socially, economically, we seek places where we can find stability, clarity, guidance, peace. It’s hard to stay in our pews or even in the pulpit when the church presents us with another point of anxiety. 

I find hope in faith, in knowing that my church is really God’s church. I find hope in community as we bind together in visioning a future with a common mission and witness. I find hope in the stories of the past, reminding me that “we’ve done this before” and we survived. 

The Rev. Dr. Daniel (Dan) Swinson, pastor at Sycamore UMC, is also a church historian. He sees our current circumstance through the eyes of history and while history might not solve our current dilemma, it is helpful to know we have been here before. Dan shared some of the following stories with me recently. 

Until 1852 the Book of Discipline maintained Wesley’s requirement for building Methodist preaching houses. They were to be plain, without bells, steeples, or instruments. Seats were to be simple and free to all. Men and women were to sit separately. As the church spread to New England these architectural restrictions were resisted. Pewed churches, with mixed seating and rented boxes, were the norm. Thus grew an “open secret” that the Discipline would not be enforced in the New England conferences. 

Moving west the “banned” architecture prevailed. And in 1852 the Discipline’s language was changed from required to recommended in maintaining the old standards Wesley had first introduced. 

Our differences today go far deeper than the physical appearance of our church buildings, but this illustration reminds us that enforcement of the Discipline has not always been a high priority. Making disciples outweighed sensibilities opposing bells and steeples. 

In 1808, a motion was made at a General Conference to authorize the printing of 1,000 Disciplines for the South Carolina Conference (which included Georgia and part of North Carolina) with the section and rule on slavery left out. This held the church together for a time, as it was a compromise. But eventually the divide over slavery split the church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South was formed in 1845. For 94 years, the Methodist Episcopal Church North and the Methodist Episcopal Church South were two separate denominations. 

Today’s tensions in the church (even in our country) are moving the current generation of United Methodists to new places of exploration. Yet, these new places are reminiscent of our history. Compromise, defiance, and schism are all part of our DNA. 

As we wander through the current morass of conflict, options, differences, and uncertainty, we live a new chapter in our story knowing that our history reveals our highs and lows. Some bright spots and some embarrassing moments. 

Passionate leaders are working to find the best path. Stay tuned through the Northern Illinois Conference eNews, Reporter and the UMNews Daily or Weekly Digest. Stay prayerful as we explore. With God’s help, we will find our way. “We’ve done this before”. 

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