From Big Tent to Big Table.
By Rev. Edlen Cowley
District Superintendent, Metro District, North Texas Conference
Board Member, Mainstream UMC
I am writing this article on the evening of December 31, 2023. I, like you, am looking forward to the new year 2024. An added observation this evening is that paragraph 2553, the paragraph added to the UMC Book of Discipline following the special called session of General Conference in 2019 to facilitate the process of those churches and clergy who wanted to disaffiliate from the UMC, sunsets tonight at 11:59 pm.
As a District Superintendent in the UMC, I can say that this season of disaffiliation has been a sad and challenging one because we have lost many friends, colleagues, and churches. DS’s across the connection have facilitated church conferences in local churches and held historic votes. Bishops have presided at multiple special called sessions of Annual Conference, and the pain of the past three years has left few untouched by grief and sorrow. Here in Texas, it has been especially hard as it has been in other parts of the South Central and Southeastern Jurisdictions. Some have asked the question, “Should paragraph 2553 be extended at the upcoming General Conference?” My answer to that question is firmly no. As a UMC pastor and a board member of Mainstream UMC, I want to take some time and lay out why I feel this way.
Many initially thought that paragraph 2553 would open the door for the mass exodus of more progressive-leaning churches and pastors. What actually happened is that many of our more traditional, conservative churches and pastors utilized it to leave the UMC. Following votes where the required majority was attained, it caused great pain to see these brothers and sisters leave. For other churches that did not achieve the required majority to leave, those local churches, which previously had the common bond of being in the same local church together, lost that unity and bond.
Following some unsuccessful votes, some churches saw upwards of 15-60% or more of its membership walk out of the door. Though those churches remained UMC, some of them are shells of their former selves. Even in churches that had nearly unanimous votes, there were those who didn’t vote to leave who felt abandoned by their churches. A common refrain I heard during some of the meetings I led was that persons felt that they weren’t choosing to leave the UMC; they felt the UMC left them in recent years. The persons of whom I speak, who were on the short end of those successful votes to leave, found themselves in that exact position.
Not to be lost in the larger discussion is the fact that our LGBTQIA+ siblings still feel unwelcome, unseen, unheard, and unacknowledged. For those who have been in this debate since 1972 to today, I cannot imagine the pain that this season continues to deliver to them. For those with whom I have spoken, there is a larger question that has to be answered by General Conference 2024; will there be a change in the language? Will the denomination chart a new course? How will we move forward?
As I reflect on this time in the history of the church, I see the wisdom of giving the season of separation and divorce that 2553 offered an end date. For the time that 2553 was in effect, the trust clause, for the first time and to this point the only time in the history of the church, was set aside to facilitate churches being able to vote, take their property, and have the freedom they desired granted to them. This evening I think of those meetings I had and those colleagues and laity who are now gone. My reflection tonight is not about the GMC, Free Methodist, Collegiate, churches that have gone Independent, or any other expression. Tonight, I am thinking of those of us who remain UMC. Tomorrow, January 1st, we have a chance to chart a new course and move toward the future.
Throughout the season of disaffiliation, I heard many times about how the UMC is a “big tent” denomination. I heard the positive and negative feedback associated with that term. The big tent for me always referred to the fact that the denomination is big enough for people who do not have explicit theological unity to coexist with each other. I embraced the fact that we are a doctrinal and not a dogmatic church and denomination. As one who did not grow up United Methodist, this was one of the things that drew me to the church.
I have reflected on that term, big tent, over the countless conversations in which I heard it. I liked the message that it sent, but as I got into deeper and more intense conversations, I found that it lacked the weight and gravity that I needed in some of those tough, face-to-face conversations with persons passionately seeking direction, guidance, and clarity. I found myself reaching for a concept that had more gravitas and punch. I wound up in a surprisingly familiar place. I returned to the thing that I love most about the UMC, our understanding of grace and the Wesleyan process of salvation.
We understand God’s grace to be expressed in three key ways:
- Prevenient Grace – Through which God reaches to humanity desiring to be in relationship with us;
- Justifying Grace – Through which we turn and acknowledge God, who has been reaching toward us as we move throughout life;
- Sanctifying Grace – Through which we venture toward the God who has been seeking relationship with us from the very beginning.
These expressions of grace are not necessarily sequential, but they are the primary ways we identify humanity relating to God and God relating to us. This understanding of grace, particularly prevenient grace, is why we baptize infants and why our communion table is open to all. The open table defines us like nothing else. How can we be the people of the open table and have any part of our human family closed off from the table?
I transitioned from referring to the UMC as a big tent denomination and began to speak of it as a “big table” denomination. In my return and focus on prevenient grace, I found the words I needed to answer those who challenged the big tent language. The more I shared this term and the reasoning behind it the more encouraged I became. The big table, which we access by the prevenient grace of God, is why the UMC is what it is doctrinally today. Even though the application of 2553 did not go as it was intended, it in itself was an example of the graciousness of the denomination; the UMC offered the grace to allow those who wanted to leave the right to do so with their buildings and property. Now that the painful season associated with 2553 is over, it is now time to turn our attention to healing, moving forward, and inviting as many new people to the big table as we can.
The divorce is final. As we move forward into a post-2553 UMC, I believe we can acknowledge that at some point every divorce is deemed final. Both parties are then able to move forward with their lives and turn the page. That time has arrived for us. It is time for the trust clause to resume and for us to turn the page. It is time for a new day and a new hope.
The legal actions related to 2553 have run their course. From 2019 to 2023, the divorce was being adjudicated; the steps were taken. I believe it is time for us to emerge from this painful season as the big table denomination God has called us to be. I do not celebrate that there are those who have left us. We will be something new as we move forward. I continue to empathize with our LGBTQIA+ siblings who have yet to see action taken to affirm their full membership in the UMC family.
Our denominational family business has been on display for all the world to see. They have watched us fight and bicker with each other. The match is over. If any discussion can be highlighted at GC 2024 it should not be about whether 2553 should be extended; it should be about how we take historic steps toward our bright and brand-new future as the big table church God calls us to be.
Please join me in supporting the work of Mainstream UMC to end the season of disaffiliations in the UMC. General Conference is just 4 months away and there are many coming to extend the fighting and disruption. We need to move forward.
You can donate online here: www.MainstreamUMC.com/Donate
You can donate via mail here:
PO Box 8374
Prairie Village, Kansas 66208
Thank you in advance. Happy New Year!
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