A Dunkirk Response to United Methodist Disintegration

Oct 14, 2022

By Scott Field

By the end of May 1940, Germany’s rapid advance through north-west Europe had pushed the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), along with French and Belgian troops, back to the coast of the English Channel. Stranded on the beaches of the French port of Dunkirk, they faced certain capture, which would have meant the loss of Britain’s only trained troops and the collapse of the Allied cause. The Royal Navy hurriedly planned an emergency evacuation – Operation ‘Dynamo’ – to rescue the troops and get them to Britain.

To speed up the evacuation, an appeal went out to owners of pleasure boats and other small craft for help. Boats of all shapes and sizes cast off – 850 of them. These privately owned craft, the smallest of which was a 14’ fishing boat, became known as the “little ships.” The effort brought 338,000 soldiers – a third of them French – to safety in England between 27 May and 4 June.  The evacuation, hailed as miraculous by the press and public, was a big boost for British morale. Losses at Dunkirk were still heavy, however. Winston Churchill pointed out at the time that great challenges remained, but the “little ships” response was a remarkable demonstration of resilience by the British people and for the British people. See photos here.

What do the “little ships” at Dunkirk have to do with United Methodists right now?

As I have been meeting with leadership teams from local congregations and responding to emails and phone calls from concerned United Methodists in our region and beyond, the risk-taking resilience of the Dunkirk “little ships” came to mind.

Allow me to clearly state three disqualifiers to what I am writing in this commentary:

  1. I do not want in the least to detract from the heroism of the actual participants in “Operation Dynamo.”
  2. My comparison here is an analogy at best; we are facing the denominational unraveling of United Methodism, not the literal threat of foreign military invasion.
  3. I want to highlight the resilience of local Methodists, akin to the courage of the British citizens who took matters into their own hands, in an unprecedented and challenging situation.

So, what about these resilient Methodists in their local churches?

If you listen to or read some of the progressive-leaning influencers within the United Methodist denomination, you might conclude that the Methodists seeking disaffiliation from the UM Church are narrow-minded, bigoted, uninformed, and under the sway of separatists who have been plotting a denominational revolution for decades. For progressives and liberationists, who normally assume institutions themselves are the source of so much oppression, entitled privilege, legacy discrimination, and the injustices plaguing the world, you would think they might also include United Methodism itself in their indictment of the “principalities and powers” that afflict us all, right?

Well, apparently not so much.

The folks in the High Tower, many of our UM leaders and administrators, seem to regard Methodists considering disaffiliation as an annoyance. We are gumming up the smoothly running machinery of United Methodism and the denomination will be much better off when we leave. In the meantime, while our denominational leaders themselves disregard the standards and accountability processes of the UM Book of Discipline in many cases, each congregation inquiring about the process of disaffiliation is informed with authoritative solemnity that they must follow the “letter of the law” when is comes to the requirements of Paragraph 2553. Though Jesus himself recommended seeking reconciliation, our denomination seems to prefer the alternative Jesus warned against, “And if that happens, you won’t be free again until you have paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:26; parallel in Luke 12:59). Many have suggested that for our leaders in The High Tower, it’s actually all about the money. Perhaps so.

Okay, but what about the resilient Methodists in their local churches?

I’m impressed with the laity taking the initiative in pursuit of a better future for their congregation.

  • Local church administrative councils or boards have held congregational meetings to share information about the current denominational divide and have begun a process of discernment and, potentially, disaffiliation from the UM Church. One administrative team had to hold their information meeting in the local American Legion Hall because the pastor would not allow it to take place in the church building. A full house showed up at the Legion Hall regardless. Resilient Methodists.
  • Others, recognizing that their church would probably not meet the required two-thirds majority vote to disaffiliate, are exploring the launch of “dinner church” or micro church meetings in their area, perhaps as satellite house-sized congregations connecting via livestream or recorded video with a larger Global Methodist Church elsewhere. They are resilient – willing to lean into a completely different model of church in order to cultivate their faith, experience Christian community, and share the transforming gospel of Christ with others.
  • A group of members from seven UM churches geographically near each other are at work planning the establishment of a new Global Methodist Church initially comprised of themselves and other “wandering Methodists” in the area. They are planning to leave their “home churches” to form a new congregation together. Resilient Methodists.
  • A congregation that describes itself as “small, rural, elderly, and on its last legs” has decided to continue providing free meals to the needy in their community. They hope the new Bishop arriving in January will leave them alone because they know they cannot sustain the financial costs of disaffiliation, are concerned that a new pastor might try to “convert them to progressivism,” are very happy with their current pastor’s biblical grounding, and presume they may close the church doors at the time of the next pastoral transition anyway. They are few, but they are stalwart in serving their community. Resilient Methodists.

In no way are these collectives of the narrow-minded, bigoted, and angry. They are warm-hearted and welcoming to all who are on a spiritual quest. They want to worship the Lord Jesus, offer the good news of salvation through faith in Christ, welcome any and all who are searching for redemptive community, and serve the needs of those nearby. These are resilient Methodists.

Three cheers for laity leading toward a new Methodism in their communities.

Scott Field is a retired United Methodist clergyperson and the leader of the Northern Illinois chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Dr. Field has been part of denominational renewal efforts throughout his ministry in the local church. Photo: Dunkirk – Operation Little Ships. British commemorative stamp (2010).

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