Friday, May 02, 2008

Moldy Methodists


It has not always been so. At the beginning, into the U.S. Civil War, and even 40 years ago, the Methodist Church favored progressive causes, particularly social justice.

My Methodist church left me and it has continued to wander. For example, just two days ago at its annual conference, its leaders adopted a minority policy that rejected saying even that members disagreed on homosexuality. Instead, the delegates voted (501 to 417) to stay with the old hard-line of "incompatible with Christian teaching."

Another reactionary, regressive Protestant church is not big, except it is. There are more Southern Baptists around, but Methodists claim 75 million members, mostly in this country. There are also a few influential ones, like Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and President Bush.

Stumbling from Grace

I grew up knowing that 18th Century John Wesley defined and spread Methodism in the United States and England. He was a social activist and abolitionist.

He believed in New Testament verbiage and concepts. You know, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, treating others as you want to be treated, all without any qualifications as to race, gender, class, and such. I have no doubt which side of gay rights and marriage equality he would advocate.

They're Nice Too

While the Northern and Southern versions of church officially joined in 1939, they didn't really. I became pointedly aware of that when I took a college girlfriend home to her family's small mill town in 1967. My welcoming committee far exceeded any projection.

I hadn't really thought about it. I knew her brother, a grad student in the same journalism college where I was a sophomore. If someone had asked, I would have figured to greet her parents and get on with the weekend.

Instead, it was like crows on a fence. Seated at the entrance to the living room in four chairs turned to face the font door sat her mother and three aunts, representing paternal relatives as well. They were all sturdy cotton-mill workers, more along the line of salt and pepper shakers than champagne flutes.

As soon as she introduced me, her mother's first words were, "What denomination are you?" I noted that she did not offer the choice of religion or Catholic v. Protestant, but into my teens, I was raised as a Methodist, attending church for Sunday school and services weekly, plus choir and youth fellowship. I knew that they were surely Southern Baptist, but that Methodists were probably close enough. Wrong.

I hadn't completed, "Methodist," when she shot back "Wesley or Southern?" My answer was wrong again, I should have noted that the distinction was no longer accurate, but I honestly admitted that I had not grown up in the conservative branch. Then, she just smacked her lips and said, "They're nice too." She clearly didn't mean it.

Methodists, after all, had bishops. If Episcopals were almost Catholics, Methodists were almost Episcopal. On the spectrum, they definitely were on the dangerous end.

What's My Motive?

I did not consider myself a Christian by college, other than living the ideals. Yet, I found myself in South Carolina comfortable at the campus Methodist student center. Not only was it far more inclusive than the other such houses, it also fostered active philosophical and political discussions among the range of students who sat in the living room and kitchen.

Moreover, one of the great magazines of the era, Motive, was Methodist. It officially was a monthly publication of the University Christian Movement by the Division of Higher Education of the Board of Education of the Methodist Church. After a final consolidation of Methodist factions, including incorporation of the Evangelical Church of the Brethren in 1968, the bishops decided to out and oust Motive. They declared it leftist radical, what with its anti-war, pro-feminism and gay, and anti-racist articles, poetry and art.

Yup, that literature is scary.

I have a stash of these maggies in the attic. (Artifacts that Hillary also claims to have preserved.) The art above is a typical editorial, with its jump-page conclusion pasted on. Articles and poems from noted religious sorts such as Thomas Merton and Harvey Cox appeared next to student writings and interviews with leftist Black leaders. It would have taken a very Christian attitude indeed to tolerate such social action.

Not all of the devolved Methodists want a return to the bad old days. About 200 to 300 protested the anti-gay policy decision. A 15-minute demonstration during the conference included:
Primarily dressed in black, demonstrators walked onto the legislative floor at the Fort Worth Convention Center, formed a two-lined cross around the communion table located in the center aisle and draped it in a black shroud to witness against the church's stance on homosexual practice. They entered silently, but once all demonstrators were in place, they sang, "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?"
The conference's presiding bishop, J. Lawrence McCleskey, recessed the conference. He said in a spasm of incredible circular reason that it was only because the conference was in recess that the act of witness, the protest, did not appear in the online stream of the session. (Move along. There's nothing to see here.)

Several UU ministers have told me that the most typical member of that association is a former Methodist. In as much as you can be a Christian as well as a UU in this non-credal religion, this is not surprising. The vast majority of UUs I know, and I know a lot, are social-action oriented and believe they and their churches should be about Jesus' precepts and mandates, not about punishing people who are just like them.

Why, that sounds like Motive readers!

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