A Personal Response to My Florida Colleagues Who Incorporated Another Church
Fifty years ago I walked into Branscomb Auditorium feeling like one of the people at the final judgement who will say, “I was a stranger, and you took me in.”
I’d never been on the campus of Florida Southern College or attended an Annual Conference. The only people I knew were a few seminary friends, the pastor of my wife’s home church who married us, and my mother-in-law who, as District UMW President, was a member of the Annual Conference. I came as a graduate of Asbury College and a student at Asbury Theological Seminary at a time when people from the Asbury institutions where viewed with skepticism.
I was a stranger, but the Conference took me in. I’ve never lost the feeling of surprised belonging when Bishop Henley, in his raspy, Southern drawl, spoke the words, “Take thou authority to read the holy scriptures in the Church of God and to preach the Word.”
I look back on membership in the Annual Conference as an undeserved gift for which I will always be grateful. I worked hard, did the best I could for the churches I was appointed to serve, and endeavored to serve cooperatively with colleagues who saw things differently than I do. The friendships I’ve made and the relationships I’ve shared make me feel what Charles Wesley must have felt when he taught us to sing, “And Are We Yet Alive?”
I’m not naïve. Because I’ve been engaged at every level of our denominational structure, I can identify with St. Augustine who, speaking in biblical language that would not surprise Hosea, said, “The church is a whore, but she is your mother.” I can name the dysfunctions in The United Methodist Church better than some of its critics. But I continue to believe in a “wide embrace” church that can wrestle with diversity of opinion while being firmly united in our mission and our core affirmations. I’m convinced that the things we do together are so much greater than anything we can do on our own, that it’s more than worth the challenges of living and serving together as United Methodists.
Along the way, I tried to change things. I joined like-minded folks in coalitions that worked for change in the Book of Discipline. I spent countless hours in tedious meetings with the depressing awareness that they were hours of my life that I would never get back. I spoke out on the floor of Annual, Jurisdictional and General Conferences where I appealed to St. Jude (Patron Saint of Lost and Hopeless Causes) and lost about as many votes as I won. I worked behind the scenes to strengthen the church in any way I could.
But through it all, I never could have imagined signing legal papers to incorporate my personal version of Methodism into a new denomination. Sadly, that is precisely what three of my colleagues — two District Superintendents and a Conference staff person–recently did.
My disappointment with my colleagues’ action is based on my conviction that the Church is not mine to create. The United Methodist Church claimed me before I claimed it. It was passed down to me before it took me in.
Have I experienced love and frustration, joy and grief within it? Of course!
Do I want to reform it? Yes!
Will I continue to work for creative and necessary change in it? You bet!
Would I leave the UMC to join another part of the Body of Christ? Not likely, but possible if the General Conference continues to adopt repressive measures that are more punitive than affirming, more legalistic than gracious.
But incorporate my own separate denomination while serving in this one? Unimaginable!
In response, I’m grateful for a Bishop who confronts clergy misconduct with honesty and attempts to resolve those issues through a just resolution process that moves toward peace and restorative justice.
I’m grateful for two colleagues who reconsidered their initial actions and removed their names from the incorporation papers.
I pray that together we will continue to wrestle with our differences in a way that works toward the unity Paul describes in Ephesians 4 and that together we will fulfill our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Along the way, I’ll always be grateful that when I was a stranger, the Annual Conference took me in. I intend to remain a part of that community and extend the same kind of welcome to many others.
The Rev. Dr. James A. Harnish, retired elder