Last month, something amazing happened in Marietta, Georgia. The largest United Methodist Church in the North Georgia Annual Conference, Mt. Bethel UMC, came up against the appointive authority of Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson. The senior pastor at Mt. Bethel, Rev. Jody Ray, was reappointed to a post at the Annual Conference headquarters. This decision, unpopular with the congregation, led to protest. In response, Rev. Ray surrendered his clergy credentials and the congregation has now hired him as the lead preacher and CEO. The congregation also announced their intent to withdraw from the United Methodist Church.
Recently, the controversy escalated to a full-page ad in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution submitted by a group of North Georgia laity known as, “United Methodist Laity for Openness and Transparency.” From articles published by the United Methodist News Service, I learned theological conservatives feel the effort of welcome and inclusion in North Georgia leaves them out. Naturally, this feels fraudulent and they are calling for accountability from their Conference leadership.
Feeling the clash several states over (in Oklahoma), it coincides with my reading of Brian McLaren’s recent book, Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What To Do About It. McLaren narrates the painful journey of outgrowing one’s skin as it relates to faith. His schema, developmental theory, is not new. James Fowler was the pioneer for defining stages of faith development through the lens of theories from other disciplines. McLaren, however, uses a different metaphor than I’ve heard before: tree rings. He makes the point that each stage of faith development incorporates all that has come before, just as tree rings encompass all of the previous growth.
In a footnote on page 108, McLaren illustrates how those in Stage Three and Four are a perpetual threat to those in Stage One and Two. When the stretch posed by Stages Three and Four becomes too much, Stages One and Two institute a purge to protect orthodoxy and orthopraxy. This is actually a cycle that continues to repeat itself in religious institutions and belief systems around the world. No, United Methodist Church, we are not unique.
McLaren drops in this short blurb at the bottom of his footnote, “I have seen the reverse happen rarely, if ever: Stage Two enthusiasts or Stage Three purists instituting a purge of Stage One traditionalists. Stage Four people, in contrast, find purges as abhorrent as Stage One people find tolerance of diversity, so they tend to be buffers in this process, in my experience.”
Consider the implication. By definition, Stage One and Two folk, can only tolerate so much diversity before it begins to threaten the foundations of faith. So, purging is unavoidable – undesirable but unavoidable. Rarely, if ever, does it go the other way. Stage Three folk don’t purge the Stage One and Two folk. And, if the tension gets too high, the Stage Four folk step in and act as a buffer.
Like most, I probably overestimate my spiritual maturity. Rather than identify what stage I am in, I will simply identify my leaning. I lean toward open table. I lean toward inclusion. I lean toward diversity as a strength, even when it is personally uncomfortable. I lean toward change as opportunity for God to do a new thing.
Caught as I am in the undertow of the United Methodist quagmire, McLaren showed me why the North Georgia events feel unbelievable. I understand what my theologically conservative kin feel when they say there is not room at the table for them. They can’t realistically sit at a table where inclusion is a core value; therefore, they see the table as closed to them. It can be said, their table would have different core values: purity, authority and obedience. So, if I make room for them at the table with inclusion as a core value (demanded by definition when the value is inclusion) then they will use that seat to shut me out.
Because it is not within someone who has a leaning toward inclusion to close the gate, to close the table, we will always invite those who don’t share our core value. And, we will always be hurt when those we invited turn around and shut us out. I know the WCA feels like they shouldn’t have to be the one to leave, but they’ve played their cards and now we know their table cannot welcome anyone outside of their own brand of orthodoxy. Unfortunately, the delay of the pandemic means we are forced to live under the same roof when our differences cause each other so much pain. How long, O Lord? How long will we keep inviting people to the table knowing full well they will kick us out at the first available opportunity? My guess is, as someone who leans inclusive, we’ll keep opening the table, no matter what.