Editor's note: This story was updated June 6 to include the most recent number of signers and note similar statements in other conferences.
As talk of splitting The United Methodist Church reaches a fever pitch, a theologically diverse group of clergy and lay members of the North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference are signing a covenant calling for unity.
“While our disagreements are significant, we confess our faith in a God who creates out of nothing, makes a way out of no way, and holds the power to bring the dead to life,” says the document “That They May Be One. A Covenant for Unity in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.”
“Though there are some issues about which we profoundly disagree, we are united in our opposition to schism in the United Methodist Church,” the statement continues.
As of June 6, 585 United Methodists in the North Georgia Conference had signed the covenant, including 225 clergy. Signers also include six members of the bishop's appointive cabinet. It is being shared through email and various social media.
With more than 362,000 professing members as of 2012, the conference reports the biggest membership of any in the United States. The Rev. Dalton Rushing, the North Georgia pastor who has been tallying the signatures, said similar statements have now been crafted in other conferences, including Holston, Louisiana, Mississippi and the new Rio Texas Conference.
The covenant follows a statement by a group of 80 United Methodist pastors and theologians in 30 conferences calling for “traditionalists” and “progressives” to part ways “amicably.” The group’s press release described the debate regarding homosexuality and other issues as irreconcilable.
Most of the 80 clergy have chosen to remain anonymous, but at least one is in the North Georgia Conference. He did not return requests for comment.
The covenant originated with a Facebook post by Rushing, pastor of North Decatur United Methodist Church in Decatur, Ga.
“I realized, as a number of folks have said, that if the church were to split, I wouldn’t have a denomination,” Rushing told United Methodist News Service.
“There is something about the tension between the two traditional camps of the church that feels right to me. I like the evangelical focus of the conservative wing. I like the social-action focus of the progressive wing. And if the church were to split, I realize there would be nowhere for me to go.”
He soon found that many other United Methodists hold a similar view.
Covenant coming together
After the positive response on Facebook, Rushing reached out to clergy friends from various theological perspectives to help craft a covenant for unity. Ultimately, about 15 to 20 laity and clergy had a hand in drafting the statement.
Rushing emailed the covenant to pastors on June 1, a week before the North Georgia Conference’s annual session, which is scheduled to meet June 11-15. It was made public to the wider conference early June 2.
Rushing said he and others considered introducing the statement as a proposed resolution at the annual meeting but decided that the point of the statement was not just for the conference.
“The point, at least from my perspective, is to help people realize that the things that connect us are stronger than the things that divide us,” he said.
The Rev. David Allen Grady, senior pastor of Druid Hills United Methodist Church in Atlanta, echoed that sentiment. He was among those who helped draft the document.
“It is a more faithful, stronger witness for us to remain together,” Grady said. “I have great hope that we will pause, worship, pray and conference together and discern that is a better witness to the world.”
Contention and conversation
Still, the covenant comes at a time when United Methodists differences, particularly regarding homosexuality, are intense.
Though not calling for a denominational split, several United Methodist churches, conferences and unofficial organizations have made public declarations that they cannot follow church law as currently stated. Some clergy have engaged in “ecclesial disobedience,” officiating at same-gender unions in defiance of a ban under church law.
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, states that marriage is between a man and a woman. It also affirms that all people are of sacred worth, that all are in need of the church’s ministry, and that God’s grace is available to all.
The Rev. Steve Wood, pastor of Mount Pisgah United Methodist Church in Johns Creek, Ga., has been involved in conversation with the 80 clergy calling for amicable separation. He said he does not remember signing the call for separation. At the same time, he did not sign the covenant either.
He said he is glad both conversations are happening, but neither statement precisely captures the views. While the covenant contains noble sentiments, he said, "the problem, for me, is how we are living out our definition of being one."
He noted that The United Methodist Church's membership in the United States has decreased each year since the 1968 merger between the Methodists and the Evangelical United Brethren, although the church is growing worldwide.
He has talked to United Methodists around the global church, he said, and he has noticed common themes. "I haven't talked to anybody who is happy with the way things are," he said. "And I think that is becoming our motivation to say 'So we can't continue things the way they are.'"
Contention, he said, is compromising The United Methodist Church's witness to the world. He does think amicable separation is possible, as a last resort. But he also acknowledged he does not know what such a breakup would look like.
"There is hope for a way forward for us all," he said. "Here's why. It's because of who God is, not because of who we are or how we think. And so my prayer is: 'God can get us there in a new way forward. Lord, let it be so.'"
Confession of falling short
The covenant confesses and seeks forgiveness for where United Methodists have fallen short in handling the debate over sexuality.
“We confess to God and each other that we have sometimes failed to watch over one another in love,” the covenant says. “We have, at times, failed to keep true to our covenant as United Methodists, preferring the easy work of disruption and covenant-breaking to the difficult work of discipline. Likewise, we have, at times, failed to recognize the sacred worth of each of God’s children.”
The Rev. Sondra R. Jones, senior pastor of Buford First United Methodist Church, noted that her congregation — like many others across the connection — has members who disagree about everything from what color paint to use in the building to biblical interpretation.
“If you look at the local church as your core model, homogeneity is not the goal,” she said. “We are not all supposed to look alike, think alike and be alike. We are supposed to be of one heart, one mind, one faith, one Lord and one baptism.”
She said that some of the pastors calling for denominational separation are among her friends. Still, she noted that 80 clergy cannot speak for a global denomination of some 12.5 million members. In the United States alone, there are more than 46,000 active and retired United Methodist clergy.
“We are supposed to love alike even when we don't think alike,” Jones said. “Unity is best expressed when we love as Christ loves and lives in us. That is central to my reason for signing the unity covenant.”
Not just ‘unity for the sake of unity’
The Rev. Richard Hunter, senior pastor of Sugar Hill (Ga.) United Methodist Church and another contributor to the covenant, said he is not calling for unity just for the sake of unity. He wants to renew the denomination’s focus on its key mission.
“I’m saying unity for the sake of let’s get focused on what our culture needs so we can do what (John) Wesley called us to do,” he said. “That is to bring scriptural holiness to all the land, and that includes our justice ministries for the poor and disenfranchised.”
He added that it’s a “sin to spend $1 million a day on General Conference and end the week with no plan for the Great Commission.”
The Rev. B. Wiley Stephens, senior pastor of Dunwoody (Ga.) United Methodist Church, was among the first signers of the covenant who did not have a hand in drafting it. He is retiring this year after 50 years in ordained ministry. He also has been a delegate to four General Conferences, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly.
His congregation has about 4,750 members. Like many churches, he says his congregation includes gay and straight members.
“It just breaks my heart to see the danger of the church breaking up,” he said.
Like a family, The United Methodist Church has reasons to stay together, Stephens maintains.
“We need to keep struggling and particularly listening to each other,” he said. “I don’t think we listen enough to those who disagree with us. We need to be in serious dialogue so we can all grow.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].