By Rob Renfroe
Covid vaccination for United Methodists in the United States is an issue of choice – not of convenience. Inoculation availability in the U.S. is widespread and accessible. This is not the case for all United Methodists in other countries. While it can be hard for urban and travel-oriented United Methodist to comprehend, some General Conference delegates live hundreds of miles away from locations where vaccinations are offered by their governments and health agencies. Those in rural sections of some countries have limited travel options (no private cars, buses and planes run irregular and infrequent schedules, dirt roads are sometimes impassable, and costs are prohibitive for the average person). This creates extraordinary hardship when it comes to reaching destinations to get vaccines.
To attend General Conference, international delegates must meet the government requirements for entry to the United States, which include a WHO-approved Covid vaccination. While the vaccine is provided free of charge for delegates by their home nation, the travel and lodging expenses are not. Neither are they provided by The United Methodist Church.
Traditionalists established a freewill, non-obligatory program to help defray the travel costs for rural General Conference delegates in other countries to receive the vaccine. The program covers travel, hotel stays, and food while delegates receive the vaccine at government health facilities.
Unfortunately, this has suddenly become a hot-button controversy, instead of a widely supported mission. The reaction of progressives and institutionalists to this traditionalist effort to help international General Conference delegates receive vaccinations for Covid-19 is as predictable as it is sad.
The Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops, a body of international bishops, unnamed members of the Commission on General Conference, and progressive bloggers report being “appalled” and “outraged” at the “harm” we are doing and have charged us with colonialism and “jeopardizing the integrity of General Conference.” Our motives are reported to be perverse and cynical, though none of our critics has spoken with us about why we began this initiative. These attacks are the same charges the same people have levelled against us whenever we have collaborated with international delegates on issues where we hold common beliefs.
First, how did we arrive here? Then, let’s ask and answer who is truly guilty of a colonialist mindset – traditionalists or progressives and institutionalists?
I know how the vaccine initiative came about because I was on the phone call when it was developed. The conversation really was this simple. “For the good of the church, General Conference needs to meet in 2022 and pass the Protocol.” “What’s likely to prevent that from happening?” “If the international delegates are not able to attend in representative numbers, the Commission on General Conference could understandably decide GC should be postponed.” “How can we help with that?” “One African bishop and a number of African delegates have asked for help in getting vaccinated so they can attend.” “Are the General Board of Global Ministries, the Commission on the General Conference, or the Council of Bishops doing anything to help make that happen?” “No. Representatives of the Council of Bishops have told us there are no such plans from official church agencies to help delegates get vaccinated.” “Let’s offer to provide travel expenses for those delegates who want to get the vaccine.” “Shouldn’t we ask other groups to join us so it’s clear we don’t have an ulterior motive?” “Yes, in addition to inviting the General Board of Global Ministries, let’s ask progressive and centrist caucus groups to help fund the effort.” (By the way, we did ask those groups to join the effort and they declined.) “It’s going to be expensive.” “Sure, but our people are counting on us to get the Protocol passed and stop the harm being done to the church.” “We will have to move quickly because the Commission on the General Conference might make a decision on postponing General Conference as early as January. We need to demonstrate that nearly all delegates can get vaccinated in order to attend General Conference.” “OK, our decade of partnering with international delegates has created a good network for getting the word out and helping delegates become vaccinated. Let’s do it whether or not we have to pay for it all.”
Thus, the plan was created. The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), Good News, the Confessing Movement, and UM Action were very transparent about what we were doing by informing key episcopal leaders of our plans, by asking other groups to join us before the plan was put into action, and later when we announced to the general church what we were doing. Nothing was hidden. Nothing was nefarious. Nothing was done that deserved to be described as dark and malevolent. Even if some might disagree with our efforts, neither our actions nor our motives warranted outright condemnation from our brothers and sisters in Christ. Such is the world we live in. Evidently, such is the church we live in.
So, what about the charge of colonialism? And who has actually acted in ways that could be described by that ugly term?
Was it a traditionalist bishop or a progressive bishop who wrote the following after General Conference 2012? “Delegates from Africa once again proclaimed that their anti-homosexual stand was what U.S. missionaries taught them. I sat there wondering when our African delegates will grow up. It has been 200 years since U.S. Methodist missionaries began their work of evangelization on the continent of Africa; long enough for African Methodists to do their own thinking about this concern and others.” It was not a traditionalist, but progressive Bishop Minerva Carcano who disrespected an entire continent. How did the Council of Bishops, the Commission on General Conference, and progressive bloggers who champion the dignity and inclusion of persons of color respond? Were they outraged and appalled? Did they condemn her colonialist assertion that if Africans do not share her opinions they are unthinking and ignorant? No. Not one of them said a public word taking her to task.
Who withdrew their financial support from Moscow Seminary after General Conference 2019? When the Russian delegates spoke often and passionately on the conference floor, defending a traditional understanding of sexual ethics, was it traditionalists, or progressives and centrists who sent the message: there will be no more support for your theological training until you begin to teach what our liberal western seminaries teach? It was not traditionalists, but a large centrist/progressive local church that has promoted the UM Church as a “big tent,” welcoming all. Several church ministries in Africa suffered a similar fate after GC 2019, prompting the WCA to start a Central Conference Ministry Fund to help projects that lost financial support from centrists and progressives. Did any group that has condemned us for providing funds for vaccinations speak out against removing funds from those who are doing the work of Christ in Russia and Africa? Of course not.
Who is currently floating plans to regionalize the church? Who is proposing to create a structure that would keep international delegates from voting on the sexual ethics and the ordination standards that Methodists in the United States would be expected to follow? Who is putting into reality Mainstream UMC executive director Mark Holland’s idea that, “It is impossible to share a governance structure with a global church which is both fundamentally disconnected from and disapproving of the culture of the United States. This new reality gives us 5 reasons why we should consider some version of an autonomous U.S. church.”
Disapprove of the culture of a western, post-modern, progressive nation with a liberalized sexual ethic (and a church that approves of its values), and a leading centrist spokesperson believes the solution is a U.S. church that is independent from the influence of those unenlightened persons who have not yet accepted the superiority of the American way. And that is the church centrists and progressives now envision and are proposing.
Who wants to diminish the influence of international delegates in the affairs of their denomination because they do not see them as equal partners in determining the will of God? It’s not traditionalists, but progressives and centrists who see international delegates as obstacles to enacting what liberals in this country have decided is God’s will. It’s they, not traditionalists, who see Africans and Filipinos as “work-arounds” to be marginalized, not as brothers and sisters worthy of respect and of fully participating in the process of holy conferencing.
By contrast, who is currently preparing for a denomination in which whites may very well be in the minority? In fact, a denomination in which Americans may be in the minority? Not the progressives and the centrists who plan to remain in the present UM Church in the United States, which is over 90 percent white and which will remain close to that when traditionalists leave.
The Global Methodist Church will be very different. Most of Africa will probably go with the GM Church and a good part of the Philippines may join, as well. International members and persons of color are likely to be in the majority of the new denomination. We who are creating the GM Church know that and we welcome it.
And who believes that international delegates are so lacking in conviction and virtue that their votes can be bought by the promise of a vaccine? That’s one of the charges made against our efforts: we’re attempting to buy votes. Really? By offering to help delegates become vaccinated when we have not made our assistance dependent on anyone telling us how he or she will vote? When we will have no way of knowing how anyone voted when General Conference is over? That’s our plan for influencing the outcome of General Conference? We’re spending $135,000 to buy votes when even Mark Holland agrees that 80% of the international delegates and at least 90% of the Africans voted for the traditional plan in 2019? The charge that traditionalists are buying votes is ludicrous.
But more egregious is the insinuation that the integrity of Africans, Filipinos, and others is for sale to the highest bidder. Those of us who have worked with and who are friends with international delegates know them to be persons of integrity and principle. And it angers and disgusts me when progressives insinuate otherwise. I wait for the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops, members of the Commission on General Conference, and progressive and centrist leaders to join me in expressing how appalled and outraged they are by these attacks on the integrity of our brothers and sisters.
So, who looks down upon and diminishes delegates living outside of the US, most of them persons of color and poor? Who has demeaned their intellect, their education, and their virtue? Who has defunded them for holding to the positions the UM Church has held since its inception? Who is creating a church that will diminish their influence in the future?
I guess a simpler way of asking those questions is: Who is guilty of a colonialist mindset? Not those who have treated international delegates as equal partners and who are grateful for their influence and who are creating a denomination where their strength will be even greater. Just maybe it’s the group that, for years, has thought it a useful tactic to project their own failures and prejudices onto others. That would include many institutionalists, progressives, centrists, and bishops. And just maybe the next time they decide to be appalled, aghast, and outraged, they should begin with the log in their own eye. That would certainly give them more credibility than they now possess when they condemn others.
Rob Renfroe is a United Methodist clergyperson and the president of Good News.
By Thomas Lambrecht
There is a very old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” It seems that is the case regarding the vaccine initiative promoted by the Renewal and Reform Coalition. Led by the Wesleyan Covenant Association, Good News, the Confessing Movement, and UMAction have committed a total of $135,000 to provide access to Covid vaccines for non-U.S. delegates. The U.S. government currently requires all persons entering the U.S. to be fully vaccinated against Covid. In an effort to remove one of the barriers to holding an in-person General Conference as scheduled in August-September 2022, the Coalition spearheaded an effort to ensure that all delegates could get vaccinated if they desired to do so.
Now, three non-U.S. bishops have issued a statement “deploring” the initiative, calling it “brazen interference in the affairs of The United Methodist Church in Africa.” They believe that “forming a new denomination means leaving a trail of destruction” and “pits us against each other.” Bishops Ruckert (Germany), Nhiwatiwa (Zimbabwe), and Juan (The Philippines) issued the statement. Unnamed “leaders” of the General Commission on the General Conference piled on with their own anonymous criticism of the initiative in a UM News Service article.
Before addressing the leaders’ specific complaints, one must note the over-the-top hyperbolic language used. One would think that the vaccine initiative threatened the existence of human civilization! There are many things to be appalled at in our world today, from ongoing civil wars to the potential invasion of Ukraine, from the economic hardships posed by the pandemic to the millions of casualties of that same pandemic, and the list could go on. It would seem that an initiative to vaccinate 100-200 UM delegates in rural Africa would not rise to that same level of threat.
It appears the three bishops’ main complaint is that the Coalition’s vaccine initiative smacks of “colonialism.” They state, “The unfortunate thing about the entire process by WCA is that it has all the marks of colonialism which our countries went through in [sic] some years ago.” The bishops never define what the “marks of colonialism” are, so it is difficult to determine whether the WCA/Coalition is guilty. Rather, it appears any action taken by Americans that some progressive leaders do not like can be labeled “colonialism” in an effort to besmirch the motives and actions of those Americans. It has become a knee-jerk reaction of some liberals to actions they disagree with, the charge having no real substance, but the powerful effect of stigmatizing those labeled as “colonialists.”
The bishops protest, “One would have thought that our friends and partners in the WCA would have taken some modest time to consult with the church leaders in the Central Conferences so that we move together in how to implement such a cause.” However, the initiative was taken in response to requests from African delegates and church leaders there, who realized that in some areas of Africa, delegates would be unable to be vaccinated, jeopardizing the possibility of their participation in General Conference. African delegates and leaders identified where the need for the initiative exists and are themselves administering the funds, with the normal accountability process in place to ensure the funds are spent with integrity for the purpose for which they were given.
Colonialism disempowers those who are its victims. Throughout the last ten years, the Renewal and Reform Coalition has worked together with African leaders in the Africa Initiative to empower Africans. Where barriers to their full participation have stood in their way, we have sought to work with them to remove those barriers. Whether it has been providing resources or training, working together to elect Africans to general church leadership positions, or enabling alternate delegates to attend General Conference, the Coalition has sought to amplify the voices and participation of Africans, as well as Filipinos and Eastern Europeans, who in the past have been marginalized by some general church processes. Their participation is a matter of justice: their voices must be heard as the church considers very important matters impacting their local churches. What the Coalition has done is the very opposite of colonialism. Providing vaccine access so African delegates can participate in General Conference is just another way in which disadvantaged voices can be brought forward.
It is interesting that none of the three bishops serve in annual conferences where the delegates have trouble obtaining the vaccine. Rather than pledge to assist in vaccination efforts for the families, congregations, or communities associated with United Methodist delegates, they simply condemn this modest effort. It is easy to criticize a program that does not benefit one’s own delegates.
The three bishops’ other main complaint is that the vaccine initiative is an attempt to unduly influence African delegates to vote with traditionalists at General Conference. The bishops declare, “When individual interest groups begin to offer benefits to delegates, they jeopardize the integrity of General Conference.” According to the article, “Commission leaders also object to ‘The appearance of perceived or real influence of the vote of General Conference delegates on any number of matters under consideration.’” This tired argument has been trotted out before and is insulting to non-U.S. delegates. It seems some UM leaders think non-U.S. delegates cannot think for themselves or stand on their own convictions. They believe that African delegates’ votes can be “bought” by traditionalists, notwithstanding the fact that 95 percent of African United Methodists are already traditionalists and do not need their vote to be “bought” in order to agree with U.S. traditionalists.
A third complaint raised by the bishops as well as the anonymous Commission leaders declares that the vaccine initiative (in the words of the bishops) “is not an expression of vaccine equity.” They continue, “We are dismayed that the WCA would choose to help provide vaccines to only a few people and not the community as whole [sic].” The Commission leaders say, “As is apparent through the data on the current omicron variant, a focus on vaccinating one member of a family, household, workplace, church or other group while not vaccinating the other members of the group would not ensure that the vaccinated individual would have the most protection from the virus.”
We have become painfully aware that vaccination does not protect people from becoming infected. More and more vaccinated and even boosted individuals are suffering bouts of Covid. However, the vaccine does protect against serious illness and death in most cases. Therefore, vaccinating any person offers protection from serious illness and death, whether or not other members of their family or group are vaccinated.
This is a classic case of the perfect being the enemy of the good. The perfect outcome would be to vaccinate every single person in the world who desires it. Does that mean that if we cannot vaccinate every single person, we should vaccinate no one? Vaccinating some is better than vaccinating none. Sir Robert Alexander Watson Watt, British pioneer of radar technology, is quoted as saying, “Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes.” In other words, if we wait for the perfect solution, we will never accomplish anything. Just because we cannot offer “the most protection from the virus” does not mean we should offer no protection from the virus.
Vaccinating delegates so an in-person General Conference can take place does not contradict or interfere with the goal of vaccine equity, sharing more of the vaccine to the countries who can least afford it. The two initiatives have different purposes that harmonize, rather than conflict. In some cases, vaccinating a village leader who happens to be a delegate can act as a positive example for others to obtain the vaccine. The members of the Coalition wholeheartedly support vaccine equity and the GBGM “Love Beyond Borders” Advance. Both initiatives are worthy of support, and championing one does not mean one cannot also back the other. This would be a false dichotomy.
The unidentified Commission leaders put forward a few other criticisms:
- “The unofficial advocacy group’s collection of private medical information.” Presumably, this means finding out the vaccination status of individual delegates. Such information is necessary to help delegates obtain visas. Knowing the vaccination status of the delegates is also a primary piece of information for the Commission in determining whether to hold an in-person General Conference. Such information is not shared, except in the aggregate. Knowing the overall vaccination status of delegations helps make the case that lack of vaccination is not a barrier to an in-person General Conference. Besides that, any delegate coming to the U.S. will have been vaccinated, so that will already be publicly known by virtue of their attending General Conference.
- “Fundraising and distribution of resources are not bound by The United Methodist Church’s auditing requirements.” As religious non-profits, the members of the Coalition are bound by universal auditing requirements and at least two of the organizations annually obtain a professional audit of their books governed by Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). In addition, Good News and the WCA are members of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), which holds its members to the highest standards of financial and governance integrity.
- “Interference and possible disruption in the medical treatment plans of existing public health departments and ministries.” The vaccinations are given free by government public health authorities. The Coalition’s vaccine initiative only pays for transportation, food, and lodging to enable persons to receive the vaccine. Delegates who receive the vaccine do not preclude or take the place of any other person receiving it. There is no interference or disruption because the delegates attend the vaccine clinics in small numbers.
- “Liability in the case of an adverse medical outcome or developing condition.” It is up to the individual delegate whether they want to be vaccinated. It is a decision between the person and his or her doctor. No liability accrues to those who simply provide transportation to receive the vaccine at the delegate’s request.
Before proceeding with the vaccine initiative, the WCA approached UM leaders to find out if there were plans by official church agencies to enable delegates to secure vaccines. There were not. The Coalition approached GBGM to find out if they were willing to enable delegates to secure vaccines. They did not respond, and their vaccine programs appear to be aimed at building up the general health system of countries, rather than specifically providing vaccines, particularly to delegates. The Coalition approached centrist and progressive caucus groups to invite them to join in this effort in order to make it a “bipartisan” initiative. They have either declined to participate or have yet to respond.
It is the role of leaders to help organizations move forward toward the organization’s goals. So far, the official United Methodist leaders as a whole have failed to help the church get “unstuck” by enabling an in-person General Conference to take place. In the absence of leadership from official bodies, the Coalition took it upon itself to provide that leadership to surmount at least one substantial barrier to holding General Conference. Dwight L. Moody is quoted as saying, “I like my way of doing [evangelism] better than your way of not doing it.” Applied to our current situation, providing some leadership, however imperfect, is preferable to having no leadership.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.
Mural of Coretta Scott King at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta. Photo: Steve Beard.
By Coretta Scott King (1927-2006) –
Throughout the epic freedom struggle of African Americans, our great sustainer of hope has been the power of prayer. We prayed for deliverance in a dozen African languages, chained to the holds of slave ships, on the auction block, in the fields of oppression, and under the lash. We prayed when we “followed the drinking gourd” on the Underground Railroad. We prayed when our families were torn asunder by the slave traders. We prayed when our homes and churches were burned and bombed and when our people were lynched by racist mobs. So many times it seemed our prayer went unanswered, but we kept faith that one day our unearned suffering would prove to be redemptive.
As a young child growing up in Marion, Alabama, I remember my pastor at Mt. Tabor Church responding to the racial abuse of one of our congregation by saying, “God loves us all, and people will reap what they sow. So just keep on praying. Don’t worry. God will straighten things out.” I believed he was right then, and I believe it still.
My parents made sure that prayer would be a regular part of my life, and it has been to this very day. Prayer is how we open our hearts to God, how we make that vital connection that empowers us to overcome overwhelming obstacles and become instruments of God’s will. And despite the pain and suffering that I have experienced and that comes to all of our lives, I am more convinced than ever before that prayer gives us strength and hope, a sense of divine companionship, as we struggle for justice and righteousness.
Prayer was a wellspring of strength and inspiration during the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the movement, we prayed for greater human understanding. We prayed for the safety of our compatriots in the freedom struggle. We prayed for victory in our nonviolent protests, for brotherhood and sisterhood among people of all races, for reconciliation and the fulfillment of the Beloved Community.
For my husband, Martin Luther King Jr., prayer was a daily source of courage and strength that gave him the ability to carry on in even the darkest hours of our struggle. I remember one very difficult day when he came home bone-weary from the stress that came with his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In the middle of that night, he was awakened by a threatening and abusive phone call, one of many we received throughout the movement. On this particular occasion, however, Martin had had enough.
After the call, he got up from bed and made himself some coffee. He began to worry about his family, and all of the burdens that came with our movement weighed heavily on his soul. With his head in his hands, Martin bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud to God: “Lord, I am taking a stand for what I believe is right. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can’t face it alone.
Later he told me, “At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear a voice saying: ‘Stand up for righteousness; stand up for truth; and God will be at our side forever.’” When Martin stood up from the table, he was imbued with a new sense of confidence, and he was ready to face anything.
I believe that this prayer was a critical turning point for the African-American freedom struggle, because from that point forward, we had a leader who was divinely inspired and could not be turned back by threats or any form of violence. This kind of courage and conviction is truly contagious, and I know his example inspired me to carry on through the difficult days of my journey.
A few nights after Martin’s moment of truth, I had mine. I was sitting in my living room in Montgomery, chatting with a friend, while my new baby daughter, Yolanda, was asleep in the back room. Suddenly, we heard a loud thump on the front porch. Because of all the recent threats, I urged my friend to get up. “It sounds as if someone has hit the house. We’d better move to the back.”
As we moved toward the back, we felt a thunderous blast, followed by shattering glass and billowing smoke. I hurried to Yolanda’s room and thanked God that she was all right. I called the church where my husband was speaking, but he was addressing the audience at the time. He called me back shortly afterward as a large crowd gathered at our house, and then he rushed home.
The crowd was angry at what had happened, and there was a lot of tension between the police and those who had gathered, some of whom were armed with guns, rocks, and bottles. In the midst of all of the turmoil, I said a silent prayer for the protection of our family and the restoration of peace. Then Martin began to speak to the crowd from the front porch of our home. “My wife and baby are all right, ” he said. “I want you to go home and put down your weapons. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence.”
As Martin continued to speak, I was enveloped by a growing calm. “God is with us,” I thought. “God is truly with us.” The fear and anger around me began to melt like the receding snows of spring. Almost at that moment, Martin concluded his remarks to the crowd: “Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because God is with this movement. Go home with this glowing faith and this radiant assurance.”
Martin’s speech on that day was yet another crucial turning point for our freedom struggle because it set the tone of nonviolence that gave our movement its unique credibility and enabled all of the victories we achieved under his leadership.
From that day on, I was fully prepared for my role as Martin’s wife and partner in the struggle. There would be many more days of difficulty and worry, and there would be many more prayers. But the unwavering belief that we were doing God’s work became a daily source of faith and courage that undergirded our freedom movement.
It is said that every prayer is heard and every prayer is answered in some way, and I believe this is true for people of all faiths. I still believe that the millions of prayers spoken by African Americans from the Middle Passage on down to today have been heard by a righteous and loving God.
Coretta Scott King (April 27, 1927 – January 30, 2006), the late widow of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was the Founder and former Chairman, President, and CEO of The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia. Mrs. King was a human rights activist for more than 40 years.
This excerpt appeared in the March/April 2004 issue of Good News. Reprinted from “Standing in the Need of Prayer” from the Schomburg Center, with permission from The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster.
By Thomas Lambrecht
In October 2021, after 16 months of Covid-related delay, the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) adopted a plan to allow traditionalist congregations to disaffiliate over the church’s gridlock over LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriage. That plan has now given rise to a new, theologically conservative denomination called the Alliance of Reformed Churches. Several smaller networks of traditionalist churches also formed prior to the General Synod’s action.
According to articles by Kathryn Post in Religion News Service (RNS), “The RCA is a historically Dutch Reformed denomination dating back to the 1620s, when New York was known as New Amsterdam. Today, the RCA has fewer than 200,000 members and 1,000 churches.”
“It’s really about how we view the Bible, how we understand God and the nature of the church,” the Rev. Lynn Japinga, professor of religion at RCA-affiliated Hope College, is quoted as saying. “It’s a fundamental difference in approach to the Christian faith that’s the source of all this.”
The Rev. Ron Citlau, senior pastor of Calvary Church near Chicago, frames the question this way, “The issue for me and many of the people I know is, is it a thing for which Jesus Christ needs to come to redeem us, or is it a blessing he wants us to embrace? If we get sin wrong, there are larger issues at stake.”
The Reformed Church has similar issues of accountability comparable to The United Methodist Church. According to the articles, “The RCA has a localized structure that gives classes – regional church groups [similar to UM annual conferences] – authority over matters such as discipline and ordination. While all RCA churches follow the Book of Church Order, they don’t have to follow the General Synod’s recommendations.”
David Komline, associate professor of church history at Western Theological Seminary, is quoted as saying, “The General Synod has repeatedly made statements that are more traditional in orientation about sexuality, but those are just statements. There are no mechanisms in place to hold people accountable to these statements.”
Attempts to amend the Book of Church Order to define marriage as between a woman and a man passed the General Synod, but failed to win the necessary two-thirds approval from classes. According to Citlau, “We found that the RCA is designed in such a way, intentionally or not, in which the vast majority cannot move to what they believe is right because there are just enough progressive classes that can veto.”
The 2018 General Synod formed a team “charged with discerning whether the RCA should stay together, restructure, or separate.” The team proposed three options: 1) organizing the classes [annual conferences] by affinity, rather than geography, allowing churches to opt into classes based on shared values; 2) creating an external RCA mission agency that would allow departing churches to continue supporting RCA’s global mission work; and/or 3) allowing a departing church to retain its property and assets. These three proposals were considered at the 2020 General Synod that was postponed until 2021.
Even before the General Synod acted, one class [annual conference] withdrew from the RCA. As Citlau, one of the leaders in the breakaway class, is quoted as explaining, “The RCA has this albatross around its neck, and historically it moves very slow. From our point of view, the house is burning. We can’t keep saying, we’re going to wait five more years and have a couple of committees. It’s already a bloody mess, and until you’re willing to get in there and make some choices, there’s no way through.”
Komline, the church history professor, is quoted as saying, “People on different sides of the spectrum have been fighting for about 40 years and they’re sick of it. They believe their fighting is impeding their mission. I think that’s the case on both sides. The liberals want to go pursue justice, as they define it, and the evangelicals want to share the gospel as they define that.”
In response to the conflict, the 2020/21 General Synod adopted regulations for churches that have chosen to leave the RCA to retain their assets and buildings (the third proposal above). “We believe that the RCA has an opportunity in this moment to act in an exemplary way by providing a generous exit path for churches who decide to leave, and also by inviting these churches to act generously themselves,” Brian Keepers, a Vision 2020 team member who presented the recommendation, is quoted as saying.
The delegates overwhelmingly defeated a proposal to create an external global mission agency (the second proposal above).
However, the delegates did approve the first proposal above, forming a team to restructure the denomination’s regional church groups by affinity, rather than geography. Each group/class would make its own decisions on ordination and marriage.
It remains to be seen, however, whether traditionalist churches will stick around to participate in affinity classes. On New Year’s Day, 43 congregations left the RCA to join the traditionalist Alliance of Reformed Churches (ARC). According to the articles, “At least 125 churches from various denominations are in conversation with ARC leaders about joining.” Steven Rodriguez, an RCA church planter in Brockport, New York, is quoted as describing the departing churches as “a large group of conservative churches that are also providing a lot of income to the denomination.”
The new Alliance, according to one RNS report, “besides not affirming same-sex marriage or ordination of LGBTQ individuals, will have a strong emphasis on church planting and feature a flexible organizational model meant to foster theological alignment and efficient decision-making, according to ARC leaders.” As Tim Vink, the new denomination’s director of spiritual leadership and outreach, describes it, “We have a passion for this remnant of believers to become a part of reformation and revival in the Northern Hemisphere. Part of our strategic thinking is designing things for the 21st century that allows a multiplication of gospel-saturated churches and a multiplication of disciples.”
“We believe if the church is going to be successful in the 21stcentury, it needs to be powered by a more agile structure and it needs to be more theologically aligned than theologically diverse,” Dan Ackerman, ARC’s director of organizational leadership, is quoted as saying.
According to the RNS report: “Joel Baar, an ARC board member and elder at Fellowship Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan, which opted to join ARC by a vote of 604-9, said that theological conformity of ARC is part of what appealed to his congregation. ‘As the RCA was attempting to define and clarify marriage,’ said Barr, ‘and efforts had been happening over the decades in that regard, there continued to be this tension within the RCA of whether or not the Bible was the full authority of God’s Word. We started feeling at Fellowship we no longer belonged within the RCA.’”
RNS continued: “ARC will replace national in-person conferences with video calls, digital messaging platforms, and other forms of virtual communication to make decisions more efficiently, organizers said. Its board already meets twice a month to expedite response times.”
According to the articles, “RCA leadership has reached out to its congregations, hoping to sell them on RCA’s increasing diversity and new international church-planting and missional partnerships. Yet, the RCA is also committed to allowing departing churches to leave on good terms. ‘We want to bless our brothers and sisters who are choosing to find another denominational family,’ said Christina Tazelaar, director of communication for the RCA.
“The ARC seems equally dedicated to a smooth transition. ‘We bless the RCA, we pray for the RCA,’ said Vink.” Nevertheless, he went on, “the General Synod in October made it clear to many conservative churches that the time is now to look for a new wineskin.”
It is striking how similar the RCA’s situation is to our United Methodist dilemma. Even the words used by the leaders on both sides correspond almost exactly to what UM leaders have said.
If the Reformed Church in America could find a way to pull off an amicable separation, why couldn’t The United Methodist Church do the same? Here’s hoping the 2022 General Conference will follow their gracious example.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.
The Reformed Church in America faces rupture over LGBTQ gridlock
The Reformed Church in America moves toward restructuring, prepares for departures
Reformed Church in America splits as conservative churches form new denomination
By Thomas Lambrecht
The slogan “We Are Better Together” has been used for everything from a political campaign to the headline for efforts to keep The United Methodist Church from separating. Efforts to promote greater unity in our country deserve support. After all, this is the only country we have, and we need to learn how to live together in this country. On the other hand, my colleagues Rob Renfroe and Walter Fenton have shown in their book, Are We Really Better Together?, that we are not really together in our denomination. Attempts to patch over the things that divide us deeply from each other in our denomination cannot mask the reality that we are simply not operating from the same worldview. In that case, we are not “better together” because our togetherness leads to continual conflict over the direction of the church. And this is not the only church that exists. There are other alternatives.
However, today I want to use that slogan “Better Together” to talk about a different kind of togetherness – the embodied community found in the local church. Over the course of the Covid pandemic, local churches have suffered the loss of community. Many churches closed for months and some have recently closed again due to Omicron. Many members have created a new Sunday morning habit of tuning in online to watch church. Many others have created a new Sunday morning habit that disregards church altogether. Estimates are that local churches will lose one-third to two-thirds of their members over the course of this pandemic.
As we begin this new year of 2022 and its attendant New Year’s resolutions, I want to make the case that we should prioritize once again gathering in person as safely as possible with our brothers and sisters in Christ to worship God and grow in holiness. While there are understandable times and circumstances that could cause us to temporarily withdraw from in-person worship, there is simply no substitute for meeting in the flesh with other believers to strengthen and express our faith.
Scripture Commands It
The writer to the Hebrews encourages, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Neglect for the regular meeting together of believers is not a new phenomenon in 2022. It has been happening since the first century!
It is important to understand why meeting together is necessary for the life of faith. The kind of mutual encouragement and stimulation to grow in love and good deeds can generally happen only in person. Watching a worship service online does not give us the opportunity to interact with our fellow believers, offering and receiving encouragement in the faith with them. We can engage with the chat function, but it is just not the same as looking someone in the eye and telling them you are praying for them.
The same section of Hebrews offers other reasons for in-person gathering. Verse 22 invites us to “draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings.” We can absolutely draw near to God in the privacy of our own home as an individual – and we should on a daily basis. But gathering with other believers strengthens our faith and helps to purify our hearts, so that we can even more effectively draw near to the Lord. Again, there is no substitute for this personal gathering that enables us to draw near. Singing hymns and worship songs with others really lifts me into the presence of the Lord. Experiencing the preacher looking me in the eye when she exhorts me to a life of holiness carries a power that is minimized when we are separated through electronics.
Verse 23 commands us to “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” If we don’t gather in person, we forgo the opportunity to converse with others about what God is doing in our/their lives. We miss hearing how the Lord answered prayer this week or unexpectedly ministered to a personal need. Meeting together gives us the strength we need to “hold unswervingly to [our] hope.” It is the difference between sitting on the bench with our fellow players in the game, versus watching the game on TV.
The bottom line is that, when we forsake meeting together, we cultivate (at best) a spectator mentality toward church that weakens our faith and deprives us of the ability to live out that faith in everyday life.
Jesus said, “Whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30). I once read an illustration of this truth in the picture of the coals in a fire (whether in a grill or fireplace). When the coals are all together, they burn with a hot and steady fire. When an individual coal is placed out to the side away from the rest, it soon grows cold and loses its fire. That is exactly what happens to our faith when we neglect meeting together – it grows cold.
Gathering for Worship Improves Our Health and Well-being
A recent article in Christianity Today by Tyler J. Vanderweele and Brendan Case of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University surveys research relating church attendance with personal health and human flourishing. They find that “religious service attendance powerfully enhances health and well-being.”
The article states, “a number of large, well-designed research studies have found that religious service attendance is associated with greater longevity, less depression, less suicide, less smoking, less substance abuse, better cancer and cardiovascular-disease survival, less divorce, greater social support, greater meaning in life, greater life satisfaction, more volunteering, and greater civic engagement.” Specifically, when compared with those who never attend religious services, regular attenders have 33 percent reduced risk of death, 84 percent reduced risk of suicide, 29 percent reduced risk of depression, 50 percent reduced risk of divorce, 68 percent reduced risk of “deaths of despair” for women and 33 percent reduced risk of such deaths for men, 33 percent reduced risk of adolescent illegal drug use, and 12 percent reduced risk of adolescent depression.
The authors found “regular service attendance helps shield children from the ‘big three’ dangers of adolescence: depression, substance abuse, and premature sexual activity. People who attended church as children are also more likely to grow up happy, to be forgiving, to have a sense of mission and purpose, and to volunteer.”
It is important to note that these benefits accrue to people not based on what they believe, but on what they practice. As the article puts it, “Our research suggests that religious service attendance specifically, rather than private practices or self-assessed religiosity or spirituality, most powerfully predicts health. Religious identity and private spirituality may, of course, still be very important and meaningful within the context of religious life, but their effects on health and well-being don’t seem to be as strong as those of regular gathering with other believers.” They go on, “Something about the communal religious experience seems to matter. Something powerful takes place there, something that enhances health and well-being; and it is something very different than what comes from solitary spirituality.”
The authors attribute this beneficial effect in part to the embodied community engendered by church worship participation. “Religious communities provide a strong social safety net that other institutions can’t easily replace. … The apostle Paul’s metaphor of the church as a body may also help us understand part of the power of communal religious life. (See I Corinthians 12) … Through their diverse gifts, and the help they provide one another, members of churches are supported in religious faith and spiritual growth, but also in more mundane matters, from care during illness to help finding work after a layoff.”
The authors point beyond the mundane to the spiritual power present in the gathering of believers. “Paul’s use of the body imagery is not merely a metaphor, however, but a claim about the intensity and reality of Christ’s presence in and through the church.” The gathering helps all present to draw near to the Lord and experience his life-giving presence and power. After all, Christ promised “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).
Consequences for Society
At the macro level, the individual outcomes of decreased health due to decreased worship attendance contribute to massive social consequences. As Brendan Case, one of the authors of the CT article, points out in another article in First Things, “Deaths of despair caused drops in overall life expectancy in the United States for three consecutive years (from 2015 to 2017), the longest period of decline since World War I.” He goes on to state, “The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University has … assembl[ed] a body of evidence that suggests that about 40 percent of the increase in suicides from 1996 to 2010 was attributable to declining religious participation.”
The way Case sees it, “Job losses, declining marriage rates, and shrinking religious communities interact in complex ways to bring about deaths of despair. Low (or no) wages reduce men’s ‘marriageability’ and so drive down marriage rates. Lower marriage rates cause church attendance to decline, which in turn has been shown to increase divorce rates. The result is an atomized society in which deep friendships and simple human warmth become luxury goods. One recent study found that loneliness may increase mortality risk over a fixed period of time by 26 percent, perhaps in part because communities afflicted by isolation and atomization are natural breeding grounds for self-destructive behaviors.
“Religious communities are crucial sources of social connection, but perhaps equally important is their role in directly teaching that suicide or abusing drugs and alcohol is wrong. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has put it, ‘religions are moral exoskeletons.’ They provide ‘a set of norms, relationships, and institutions’ that protect individuals from their own worst instincts and from giving in to self-destructive temptations.”
Church attendance is a key tool in combatting loneliness, depression, and the isolation that this Covid pandemic has forced upon us. Worship participation not only grows our faith, it helps restore a healthier society, both individually and collectively.
There may be good reasons why an individual or family needs to stop attending worship for a time. The risk is the temporary pause becomes a habit. As the CT article puts it, “the most common experience of Christians who don’t go to church seems to be less a deliberate choice and more a substitution of habits.”
Now at this renewing of the year, we have the chance to renew our commitment to church participation through “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.” We will be healthier for it – physically, spiritually, and societally!