Dixie Cups

Some United Methodist congregations are discerning whether to disaffiliate from the denomination. I have many friends in congregations that will choose to remain and many friends in congregations that will choose to disaffiliate. Discernment has been going on for at least four years. COVID-19 interrupted the process, but many congregations have been clear about their decision for a long time. Now, they’re trying to determine the most gracious, and most economical way, to exit.

In a 2019 communion meditation at a Walk to Emmaus team meeting, I said that I will remain friends with those who stay and with those to leave. We are forever part of a larger, ecumenical table. At this late date in the disaffiliation process, and at age 71, I’m much more concerned about the division within our nation. I plan to spend the rest of my days naming and opposing the current radicalization in the Republican Party. We’re closer to civil war than I ever imagined possible. Listen to Texas.

Last week a friend shared with me a document produced by a local church that provides some historical background for one congregation’s discernment process. The document asserted that much of the current “theological divide” within the UMC is the result of the 1968 merger between the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren: “On the surface, the merger seemed like a logical idea. But underneath, the merger triggered a number of differences almost immediately.”

As a pastor from 1970-2010, I never heard that theory about the 1968 merger. Our regional and cultural differences date to at least 1845, when the southern Methodists seceded from their northern siblings. I believe it’s more accurate to say that the 1939 merger that formed the Methodist Church, uniting the (northern) Methodist Episcopal Church, the (mostly northern) Methodist Protestant Church and the (southern) Methodist Episcopal Church, South was a merger that never fully “took.”

At the 1984 General Conference in Baltimore, I saw the old Confederacy in many votes. Delegation seating, by drawing lots, put the Northern Illinois Conference and the Alabama-West Florida Conference on adjacent rows. Numerous times, the Illinois delegates voted unanimously one way and the Alabama-West Florida delegates voted unanimously the other way. At one point, an Illinois delegate said in good humor, with much laughter by the Conference, “We’ve learned to drink from Dixie Cups.”

The 1939 merger healed some wounds of the Civil War, but our cultural differences have remained.

From “Divisions and Unifications in American Methodism,” Pitts Theological Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

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