I spent some time on Facebook following the announcement of the Judicial Council decision regarding the election of Karen Oliveto as a Bishop. I read articles from UMC news agencies and the pastoral letter of our Bishop David Bard. I read the letter from the Council of Bishops and a piece from the New York Times. I especially appreciated the letter of our Bishop and the gracious nature of his words.
In the midst of the Facebook comments about it all there were − of course − a variety of reactions. For some, there was anger at what was viewed as another legalistic response by the church to an individual gifted and loved by God. There were in other comments a sense of hopelessness towards the future. There were others passionately presenting their feelings that the Council had upheld an appropriate standard. There were lots of comments expressing a variety of opinions on these two basic themes.
One comment though stood out for me. It was in a long string of reactions representing all that I shared above and it said this, “Wow, I can’t believe that I belong to the same church as some of these people.”
On one level I understood this completely. When we see people who claim the name we claim and they are acting in ways, holding beliefs that seem to be far from our own, far from our understanding of the “essential” components of our faith, we wonder how we can stay in fellowship and connection with them given their position or perspective. I understand that completely. It is exactly what has gotten us to the 28,000 or so different Christian denominations in the world.
But on another level I don’t get it at all. It’s absolutely counter intuitive to what we know about the Church. There is a reason that Jesus makes such a point of calling us to “love one another.” There’s a reason why Jesus suggests that we might need to forgive one another from time to time! Because the Church is not designed to be a homogenized group of folks who all think alike. In fact the church is full of people who would never get together anywhere else. So on any number of issues around any number of strongly held perspectives, we will differ. That is just a reality, a reality that Jesus understood and anticipated.
But for me, this reality provides for us a great opportunity to be a witness to the world around us. It is an opportunity, especially in these days when our culture is experiencing an incredibly high level of polarization, to provide an example of how we can disagree in very significant ways and still love one another, still focus on the core mission of the Church and find ways to live together in the tension. The Church is not designed to be a place where it’s easy to be community. If it were easy for us to love one another Jesus and the Epistle writers wouldn’t have had to mention it so many times! But since we are called to be that kind of a community, to be that kind of witness, I pray that through “The Commission on a Way Forward,” through conversations and prayer, through the power of God’s Spirit at work in me and you, we will find the grace and power to be the Church − even as we struggle with one another. I invite you to pray to that end.