Surf City Disaffiliation or Eviction? —
The Los Angeles Times recently published a comprehensive 2,000 word piece about the excessively costly disaffiliation process for traditionalist United Methodist congregations in Southern California. It is worth reading to gauge the level of turmoil and pain within the denomination-wide schism.
Every annual conference has set different requirements for a congregation to disaffiliate. The California-Pacific conference is one of three to charge 50 percent of the price of their property – in addition to the normal fees and pension liabilities that are required by other annual conferences around the nation. Baltimore-Washington and Peninsula-Delaware are two others.
Elsewhere, California-Nevada is charging 20 percent, while South Carolina and West Virginia are charging 10 percent of the price of their property. Mountain Sky is charging a negotiated percentage of property value. Oregon-Idaho is adding some extra costs, but not a percentage of property value. Pacific Northwest and Alaska are not requiring extra costs. Neither is Desert Southwest.
According to the July 1 Times story from reporter Eric Licas, there are 22 Southern California churches attempting to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church. The arbitrary financial requirements are proving to be major impediments in the fate of these small congregations.
“This annual conference and a couple others out there are adding onerous provisions for disaffiliation that make it literally impossible,” said the Rev. Glen Haworth, lead pastor of The Fount, a United Methodist congregation in Fountain Valley, California. “My church has 50 members, and they want $3 million dollars,” he told Licas. “And they say that’s fine, that’s fair. I say: fair to who?”
For small congregations like Haworth’s, the annual conference cost requirements seem insurmountable.
The in-depth story in the Times focuses on a neighboring congregation, Surf City Church in Huntington Beach, a community 30 miles south of Los Angeles. That congregation sought to disaffiliate, but was closed by the conference instead.
The superintendent of California Pacific Conference’s South District, the Rev. Sandra Olewine, told the paper that Surf City Church – a United Methodist congregation – had been deemed “unviable” after “10 years of efforts to revitalize and focus the mission and ministry there.” According to Olewine, the conference leadership made the decision to close the church.
“[Surf City Church] is no longer a chartered congregation and due to the failure to participate in the mission congregation process that designation was terminated on December 31, 2022,” Olewine told the reporter. “They have no official standing in the denomination any longer.”
Understandably, laypeople from the Huntington Beach congregation are seeing the very painful story through a different lens.
“People in the pews, they’re the ones who are just unbelievably disappointed that they were part of a church that would say the kind of things and do the kind of things and take the kind of actions the church has taken,” John Leonard, a member of the Surf City Church board of trustees, is quoted as saying in the paper.
Leonard told the reporter that Surf City Church existed as a congregation long before it joined the United Methodist Church and that their sanctuary, preschool, fellowship hall and the rest of its facilities were all paid for by members of the community.
“The conference didn’t pay a cent for any of that,” Leonard said.
According to the newspaper account, Surf City was launched in 1904 as a “tent church” on the shore in Huntington Beach.
The newspaper reports that “members of the local congregation claim they have been harassed by parties representing their parent denomination, according to Leonard and [fellow board member Marge] Mitchell.” That interference includes harassment of the church’s preschool.
According to the reporting, “Earlier this year, [members of the congregation] received an email claiming they were illegally operating their preschool and had to shut it down. That was followed shortly thereafter by a visit to the school by state inspectors who said they were responding to an anonymous tip. However, [the inspectors] found no issues.”
Terri King, another Surf City member, handles the finances for the preschool that serves about 95 students from the community. When she tried to pay the teachers, King discovered that the “accounts holding their wages had been frozen by attorneys for the conference.”
In past years, the congregation has hosted a summer program for kids, but they have cancelled it this year “because we have no guarantee that we will be able to pay the teachers,” King told the paper.
Worship services, Bible studies, and other programs are being hosted at the church with the assistance of guest pastors. “Members still shuffle into their sanctuary’s pews and take inspiration from its stained glass windows,” reports Licas. “Most remain committed to their faith, even if they’re practically regarded as squatters by the conference.”
The members of the Huntington Beach congregation are awaiting a final decision “outlining exactly how ownership will be transferred,” although attorneys for the conference have “unsuccessfully filed motions to allow them to seize it immediately,” reports the paper.
“The issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage is the presenting issue currently,” the superintendent, the Rev. Sandra Olewine, wrote in an email to the reporter on June 23. “But there are other challenges we must face that have existed for far too long: systemic racism, persistent sexism, and impacts of colonialism both within the U.S. and globally are just a few. How to be church as we approach the second quarter of the 21st century is up for grabs. We are amid a period of reformation, which is not a bad thing, but it is a challenging thing.”
Concerned laypeople within the congregation believe the denomination is “trying to leverage its survival against what they describe as a ransom on those trying to part ways with it.” They are hoping for a reformation of a different kind with a peaceable resolution.
To read the entire story in the Los Angeles Times, you may click HERE. Photo: Lone surfer at Huntington Beach. Photo by Steve Beard.
Engaging an African Bishop —
By Thomas Lambrecht —
A recent commentary by Bishop Mande Muyombo (North Katanga Area in the Congo Central Conference) sets forth his understanding of where things are and where things are headed for The United Methodist Church in Africa. Given Muyombo’s position of power within the church’s hierarchy, it is appropriate to engage with the vision he puts forward.
Muyombo begins by quoting a 2019 statement by the African college of bishops. “We cannot allow a split in the church to further reduce us to second-class citizens in a church that only needs us when they want our votes. We have been second class for too long. We believe that as Africans, we have the right of self-determination, and … the right to speak for ourselves and determine who we want to be.”
It is an oft-repeated myth that United Methodists, particularly traditionalist UM’s, only care about Africa when their votes are needed at General Conference. Certainly, the church as a whole has been involved in missions in Africa for generations. Many of the missionaries who evangelized Africa and helped build the church there belonged to the traditional wing of Methodism. Even in the last decade, many traditionalist U.S. congregations have supported mission projects in Africa, built dozens of church buildings, sent volunteer teams, provided educational scholarships, and invested in evangelism and health projects.
Filling in the Gaps
What has been missing from the general church was a way to equip and empower African leaders to participate on an equal basis in the governing process of the denomination through its committees, board, agencies, and General Conference. Africans have been persistently underrepresented in the governance structure of the UM Church. Through the efforts of African delegates supported by traditionalists, some of that underrepresentation has been addressed, but not all. In the 2024 General Conference, African delegates will make up around 35 percent of the delegates, while African church members make up over half the denomination’s membership – even before disaffiliations started in the U.S.
Just having Africans at the table is not enough to enable them to participate as an equal voice. African delegates are often left out of the loop when it comes to sharing information. African delegates are often the last to receive the advance edition of the legislation submitted to General Conference, with some delegates only receiving it upon their arrival a few days before the beginning of General Conference. Because many delegates do not have access to the Internet, especially in their native language, they cannot follow the development of ideas and proposals over time.
The traditionalist Renewal and Reform Coalition has been instrumental in providing information to African delegates about developments in the church, as well as specific proposals coming to General Conference. The Coalition has offered training to African delegates about how to maneuver through parliamentary procedure and accomplish their legislative goals. We have offered assistance in writing and submitting legislation, as well as mobilizing support for African initiatives, such as the addition of five new bishops in Africa. Where the general church has left a gap in fully including African delegates in the governing process of the church, the Coalition has stepped in to fill those gaps.
Some have viewed the Coalition’s participation as a cynical attempt to manipulate African delegates to support traditionalist legislation. On the contrary, the Coalition’s work has enabled Africans to voice their own concerns and perspective more fully. With support of other delegates, Africans were elected as officers of legislative committees to a greater extent than ever before. With the support of the Coalition, the Judicial Council has a majority of its elected members from outside the U.S.
No one has to convince or manipulate the African delegates to vote for traditionalist positions on issues of concern. Africans in general believe and maintain traditionalist views. Rather, the Coalition’s work has been to help delegates understand the details and implications of legislative proposals, so that they can vote according to their own consciences and perspective.
“Using” African United Methodists?
Muyombo charges that “The leadership of the Wesleyan Covenant Association/Good News and the Global Methodist Church have been attempting to divide our church in Africa. African United Methodists must resist being used as proxies of the Global Methodist Church and other U.S. breakaway groups.”
The division in Africa is real. It is surprising that Muyombo is unaware of the grassroots sentiments.
We categorically reject the accusation that we are somehow “using” African United Methodists or that they are “proxies” to fight our battles for us. American traditionalists have been fighting to uphold United Methodist doctrine and discipline for decades before the African church grew to the place of influence it now holds.
We are simply making available to African United Methodists information that is being intentionally withheld from them by their bishops and other leaders. Many of them know very little about the separation happening in the U.S. church and have no knowledge about any options for disaffiliation that may be available to them.
The Need for Self-Determination
It is interesting that Muyombo addresses African United Methodists with the call, “I invite you to exercise self-determination and speak for yourselves based on your own experience and that of your church community.” He says, “We believe that as Africans, we have the right of self-determination, and … the right to speak for ourselves and determine who we want to be.”
This is from the same bishop who suspends and even evicts from the church any African leader who tries to share information about what is happening so that Africans can indeed speak for themselves and exercise their self-determination. Muyombo and some other African bishops have forbidden African leaders from equipping their members to make the very decisions that Muyombo says he believes they ought to make.
African delegates to General Conference should be able to hear point-counterpoint presentations about the issues before The United Methodist Church. Bishop Muyombo and his colleagues should empower and freely release the delegates to make up their own minds.
The Renewal and Reform Coalition believes Africans can and should decide for themselves what future they want to be part of. If African United Methodists want to be part of a church that affirms LGBT practices and changes the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, that is their decision, and we support their right to make it. At the same time, we believe African United Methodists should have the ability to decide not to be part of such a church – a right they are currently being denied.
How can Muyombo speak of “self-determination” when he denies that right to his own people? He quotes with approval the statement by the African college of bishops that, “Even if The United Methodist Church splits, Africa will continue to be a United Methodist Church.” Should that not be a decision for African United Methodists as a whole? This sounds less like “self-determination” and more like “bishop determination.” It makes a mockery of Africans’ ability to “determine who we want to be,” substituting instead “determining who our bishop wants us to be.”
Teaching Founded on Culture and Context?
In connection with the presenting issue of sexuality and marriage, Muyombo quotes the African college of bishops’ statement as saying, “As an African United Methodist Church, we do not support the practice of homosexuality because it is incompatible with most African cultural values and contextual realities.” Not because it is incompatible with the Bible or with 2,000 years of Christian teaching. Rather, it doesn’t fit African culture and context.
Of course, culture and context can change. Does Muyombo envision a time down the road when African culture will change to accept the practice of homosexuality? What about other areas where African culture and context opposes biblical teaching? Should the church side with culture over the Bible?
When one builds the church’s teachings on the shifting sands of culture and context, there is no telling where that will lead. It will certainly not result in a church that consistently maintains faithfulness to historic Christian faith and practice. (Of course, we face this same problem in the U.S., where we have allowed some cultural ways to warp the church’s teaching and practices.)
Neither Good News nor the Renewal and Reform Coalition has sought to “divide” the church or seek its “dissolution” as Muyombo charges. Instead, we have fought for 50 years to uphold traditional Methodist doctrine and teaching, seeking to reform the denomination to preserve accountability to our stated doctrines. Only when it became apparent that widespread rejection of some traditional doctrines and practices would go unchecked did we state the reality that we could no longer live together in one church.
At that point, it seemed most prudent to foster a separation that would allow traditionalist Methodists to maintain historic doctrine and practice, while allowing more progressive Methodists to pursue the revisionist path they had embarked upon. We hoped such separation would happen amicably with mutual respect and grace. Instead, institutional United Methodism in many cases has fought tooth and nail to prevent gracious self-determination by congregations and clergy seeking an expression of Methodism more faithful to their beliefs. Muyombo and some other African bishops are part of that institutional resistance that seeks to preserve personal status and power at the expense of grass roots self-determination.
We call upon all bishops and institutional leaders to allow gracious self-determination by their members, whether in the U.S. or Africa or other parts of the world. Only free and informed decision-making by members will result in a church that is unified in a mission and vision for the future.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.
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!
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
All of us at Good News wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. Our thoughts on gratitude were brought into focus this week through a column by the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren. As one of our favorite writers, we have deep appreciation for her books Liturgy of the Ordinary and Prayer in the Night. She is a columnist for Christianity Today, and writes a weekly newsletter for the New York Times.
What follows is a brief excerpt from this week’s article in the Times newsletter.
“The practice of gratitude is central to nearly every religious and spiritual tradition. And all of us have much to be grateful for. We get the shocking privilege of living on this planet that is uniquely crafted so that humans can be born, breathe, grow, work, harvest and create. We have bodies that know the pleasures of strawberries, guacamole and buttery popcorn. We hear laughter and breathe in the steam of hot coffee.
“The practice of gratitude teaches us, as the theologian Christine D. Pohl put it,’the giftedness of our total existence.’ This posture of receptiveness — living as the thankful beneficiary of gifts — is the path of joy because it reminds us that we do not have to be the makers and sustainers of our life. Gratitude is how we embrace beauty without clutching it so tightly that we strangle it.
“To receive life as a gift is to acknowledge that we do not — and indeed cannot — hold our world together out of our sheer effort, will and strength. Most of the best things in life can only be received and held with open hands. Like the story of the Israelites receiving manna from God in the desert, we receive what we need as sheer mercy, but it cannot be hoarded, clung to or clutched. Instead, understanding all of our existence as a gift allows us to see that we are limited in our own capacity to control the world and yet we are given what we need, day by day.
“Maybe your Thanksgiving will be dreamy, full of abundant food, family, friends, and laughter. Or maybe you’ll burn the turkey, maybe you are barely getting by, maybe you will feel lonely or hurt by your family and friends. Even still, there are ordinary gifts and overlooked graces that surround us on each day of our lives.
“‘Even in these lowly lovelinesses,’ says the title character Thomas Wingfield in George MacDonald’s novel, ‘there is a something that has its root deeper than your pain; that, all about us, in earth and air, wherever eye or ear can reach, there is a power ever breathing itself forth in signs, now in a daisy, now in a wind waft, a cloud, a sunset, a power that holds constant and sweetest relation with the dark and silent world within us.’
“Thanksgiving Day softly asks us to practice thanks for the lowly lovelinesses that make up each of our lives, to take time to notice the constant and sweetest relation offered by the giver of every good gift.”
A postage stamp was issued on May 28, 1948, to honor four chaplains who sacrificed their lives in the sinking of the U.S.A.T. Dorchester. The chaplains —George L. Fox, Clark V. Poling, John P. Washington, and Alexander D. Goode — are pictured above the sinking ship.
By Steve Beard –
Some of the most emotional moments broadcast on television are when deployed military parents return unexpectedly to surprise their kids coming home from school, during a musical recital, or at a graduation. Sheer joy boils over and you can almost feel the tight squeeze of the bear hugs. Tears of happiness cascade down the faces of the unexpected with unreserved elation. In a perfect world, those moments would last forever.
A few years ago, I joined my family at the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego to honor my grandfather, Harold L. DuVal, a veteran of World War II. For the families gathered at the site near the Pacific Ocean, it is a breathtaking experience. Those leaving flowers or touching plaques want to make sure that their loved ones are not forgotten. Walking the grounds gives a good opportunity to reflect on the service and sacrifice of men and women in uniform.
While Memorial Day in May is specially designated to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice during military service, Veterans Day in November is an opportunity to show gratitude for all current and former members of the Armed Forces.
February 3 is designated as a special day to honor four specific heroes from World War II (1939-1945) and recognize their acts of self-sacrifice during a fateful night off the coast of Greenland in an area the Navy dubbed as Torpedo Alley – a treacherous stretch of the North Atlantic filled with Nazi submarines. The U.S. Army transport ship U.S.A.T. Dorchester was a cruise ship that had been repurposed to serve during wartime. It carried more than 900 military personnel, merchant marines, and civilians.
At one o’clock in the morning on February 3, 1943, a German torpedo tore a massive hole in the ship. The ship went completely dark. Sleeping soldiers woke up in a whirl of disorientation. Survivor Michael Warish described the scene in No Greater Glory: “The lights went out, and steam pipes broke, and there was screaming. Then the bunks, three to five decks high, went down like a deck of cards. Shortly after, there was a very strong odor of gunpowder and of ammonia from the refrigeration system.”
Those who were awake scrambled to upper levels to reach a lifeboat. In Bloodstained Sea, survivor Walter A. Boeckholt remembered, “I was thrown against the ceiling and then landed on the floor. By the time I was recovering my senses, the ship was already tilting. I grabbed for the door, which hadn’t jammed as of yet, and walked out on deck, realizing I didn’t have my life preserver, I went back into the room to get it. As I returned to the deck, they all seemed to be yelling, crying, and trying to get to their lifeboats. Most of the lifeboats were frozen solid or broken in the process of trying to get them loose.”
On board were four chaplains, all lieutenants. Only a few months previous, the Rev. George L. Fox (Methodist), Rabbi Alexander D. Goode (Jewish), Father John P. Washington (Roman Catholic), and the Rev. Clark V. Poling (Reformed Church in America) had become friends and ministerial colleagues during military chaplaincy training.
In the whirlwind of panic on the ship, the four chaplains from divergent faith traditions handed out life vests to the terrified young men. Refusing to take places on the lifeboats, they helped as many soldiers as they could to escape the sinking ship. As the supply of life vests ran out, each of the chaplains gave their own to four soldiers who were without.
Tragically, only two of the fourteen lifeboats were successfully deployed. The Dorchester sank in less than 20 minutes.
Witnesses report that the chaplains said prayers and sang hymns as they linked arms as the ship was sinking. “When she rolled, all I could see was the keel up there,” recalled Dorchester survivor James Eardley. “We saw the four chaplains standing arm-in-arm … like they were looking up to heaven, you might say. Then the boat took a nosedive. It went right down, and they went with it.”
Another survivor had a similar recollection. “As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything,” engineer Grady Clark testified. “The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the four chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”
Of the 902 passengers, only 230 survived.
There is no way to adequately measure what the efforts and sacrifices of the four chaplains meant on that night. Pfc. John Ladd, a survivor, said that seeing their selfless actions was “the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.” For nearly eight decades, the story has been a symbol of counterintuitive sacrifice, faith-based cooperation, and remarkable love.
In 1944, the U.S. government posthumously awarded each chaplain the Distinguished Service Cross and a Purple Heart. In 1948, a postage stamp was released in their honor. In 1960, the U.S. Congress authorized the unique creation of the Four Chaplains’ Medal and posthumously awarded it to the four men.
In 1988, a unanimous Act of Congress established February 3 as an annual “Four Chaplains Day.” There are numerous stained glass memorials, plaques, paintings, and sculptures to their courageous act found around the nation and at places such as the Pentagon and West Point.
One of the deceased clergymen was the Rev. George L. Fox – the Methodist chaplain. Prior to the fateful night, he had valiantly served in World War I. As an Army ambulance driver, he gave his gas mask to a wounded French soldier. In addition to other commendations, Fox was honored with the French Croix de Guerre, or Cross of War. After the war, Fox became a Methodist minister. Despite having lung damage from World War I, Fox volunteered for service again after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “I have to go,” he told his wife. “I know what those boys are up against.” For Fox and his fellow chaplains, devotion to God manifested itself as selfless service to those in need.
Floating in the freezing Arctic water after the explosion on the Dorchester, Pvt. William B. Bednar heard “men crying, pleading, praying. I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”
“To take off your life preserver, it meant you gave up your life,” said survivor Benjamin Epstein in the Pioneer Press. “You would have no chance of surviving. They knew they were finished. But they gave it away. Consider that. Over the years I’ve asked myself this question a thousand times. Could I do it? No, I don’t think I could do it. Just consider what an act of heroism they performed.”
Amazing grace for survivors. Through the efforts of David Fox, the nephew of the Methodist chaplain on the Dorchester, the memory of the story of the Four Chaplains has been preserved. In 1996, Fox rented a video camera and attempted to interview as many Dorchester survivors as possible. He ended up meeting 20 of the 28 known survivors. According to Fox, the first sergeant of the ship, Michael Warish, reported that the four chaplains had a remarkable comradery: “These men were always together.”
“Remember, this was 1943. Protestants didn’t talk to Catholics back then, let alone either of them talk to a Jew,” Fox told America in WWII. “And yet here they were, always together, and they loved each other. The men said it didn’t matter which service they went to, that the chaplains always made them feel welcome and cared for. They were remarkable for 1943, way ahead of their time.”
Through contacts in Germany, Fox also reached out to the three remaining survivors of the German submarine U-223 that had fired the torpedo. “When I was interviewing the U-boat crew, they just would cry,” Fox recalled. “The men had never told their families this story. They realized that when they hit that ship, there were men dying. They cheered the first moment, and then it just got very silent, and they felt terrible after that. These were Germans – they were not Nazis – young boys, 17, 18, 19 years old, forced to do it or they would have been shot, pretty much like in the movie Das Boot. The U-boat crews did what they had to do, but they didn’t like it very much.”
Through a notable reconciliation effort by Fox and the Immortal Chaplains Foundation in 2000, survivors of the Dorchester met with the surviving crew of the German submarine. The men from U-223 had also known loss. The submarine was sunk a year after the Dorchester attack.
Remarkably, two surviving German veterans arrived in Washington D.C. for a 2000 memorial ceremony and they wept openly after visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The small group of both the American and German survivors were invited to the nearby home of Theresa Goode Kaplan, the then 88-year-old widow of Rabbi Alexander D. Goode who had died on the Dorchester.
“She shook the Germans’ hands, and accepted their expressions of regret for her husband and for her suffering,” reported The New Yorker. “When the room was silent, Gerhard Buske (U-223’s executive officer), produced a harmonica, raised his hands to his mouth, and blew out a slow, warbling rendition of ‘Amazing Grace.’ Everyone clapped. Then the room lapsed back into silence.”
Buske returned to the United States in 2003 to speak at a ceremony on the sixtieth anniversary of the Dorchester’s sinking. “We the sailors of U-223 regret the deep sorrows and pains caused by the torpedo,” he said. “Wives lost their husbands, parents their sons, and children waited for their fathers in vain. I once more ask forgiveness, as we had to fight for our country, as your soldiers had to do for theirs.”
Buske concluded by imploring the gathering to follow the example of the four valiant chaplains. “We ought to love when others hate; we ought to forgive when others are violent,” he said. “I wish that we can say the truth to correct errors; we can bring faith where doubt threatens; we can awaken hope where despair exists; we can light up a light where darkness reigns; that we can bring joy where sorrows dominate.”
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
By Thomas Lambrecht
Since the 2016 General Conference, The United Methodist Church has been trying to find a way to resolve our differences that can be supported by a majority of the denomination. The Commission on a Way Forward was set up to bring recommendations to a special General Conference in 2019. Unfortunately, the Commission was not allowed to consider all options, but was limited to what the Council of Bishops thought would keep us “together” as a church.
At the 2019 General Conference, progressives and centrists put all their eggs in the “One Church Plan” basket. They believed the best or only way forward was to allow annual conferences and clergy to have autonomy to figure out whether or not to broaden the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples and ordain openly gay clergy. Traditionalists relied on maintaining the church’s long-standing conception of Scripture, defining marriage as between one man and one woman and restricting non-celibate gays from ordination.
The traditionalist approach won the most votes at the 2019 General Conference by a slim majority. Progressives and centrists decided that they could not live with a traditionalist way forward. Traditionalists had already stated they could not live with a “One Church” way forward. It was this impasse that began to convince folks that separation was the only way forward.
In the months following General Conference, the question was asked whether a way could be found to bring about separation in a gracious, Christ-honoring way, rather than resort to spending millions of dollars on court battles over church property. This led to various groups trying to negotiate plans of separation that would be acceptable to many persons across the theological spectrum. Passing a plan of separation by a slim majority would not be helpful if many in the church refused to honor it.
Eventually, representatives of all the major advocacy groups (left, right, and center) agreed on the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. Crucially, this proposal also had support from leaders (mainly bishops) outside the U.S. Since then, it has been endorsed by five annual conferences, including very progressive and very traditional ones, ranging from 64 percent to 86 percent in favor. This is the kind of broad support that could lead to a successful implementation of a gracious separation.
General Conference Postponed
The Protocol was headed for likely adoption at the May 2020 General Conference, until Covid-19 hit. The postponement of the conference, first to August 2021 and then to August 2022, has caused some to think that the Protocol has “timed out.” That for some reason, it no longer can be considered.
Of course, this is not true. The Protocol was validly submitted by the Sierra Leone, Michigan, and Zambia Annual Conferences prior to the deadline, and it is to be considered by the delegates at the General Conference, whenever it meets.
The other myth floating around is that “conditions have changed” since the pandemic and therefore the provisions of the Protocol need to be reconsidered. I wrote on this question last week.
If anything, over the last two years, the need for the Protocol has become even more clear, with some annual conferences ordaining multiple non-celibate lesbians and gays as clergy. The divergence of practices from one annual conference to another and the divergence of theology regarding the inspiration and authority of the Bible mean that we cannot fruitfully live together in one church body.
This has not stopped a few church leaders from trying to find another way forward that does not involve separation or that keeps as many local churches as possible bound within the UM Church. Some leaders are still in denial about how deep the divide is within our church. Other leaders are in panic mode because any kind of broad separation will impact the UM Church institution in dramatic ways. Preferring to try to hold as many churches within the denomination as possible, by whatever means necessary, some leaders do not favor allowing separation at all. Such a short-sighted, institutional preservation approach will only make the conflict worse and cause more harm to the church.
Connectional Conference Revived
Some leaders proposed that the jurisdictions should be abolished and that every region of the church should have two different conferences – one traditionalist and one centrist/progressive. Everyone would still be United Methodist, but the different theological conferences could operate under different rules according to their consciences.
This approach would not ultimately be acceptable to most traditionalists because it would leave us yoked as part of a denomination that affirmed what we believe to be contrary to the teaching of Scripture. It would also confuse the identity of what it means to be United Methodist.
Most progressives could not accept this approach because it would permit parts of the UM Church to practice what they call discrimination against LGBTQ+ persons. The need to “correct” the “injustice” practiced by traditionalists trumps any desire for a papered-over unity in the denomination.
This Connectional Conference Plan redo has almost no support from General Conference delegates.
About the same time that the Protocol became public, another proposal, called the Christmas Covenant, also came to light. The Christmas Covenant would set up each different region of the church (U.S., Africa, Europe, the Philippines) as its own separate conference, each able to operate by its own set of rules.
I have analyzed the shortcomings of the Christmas Covenant before. It does not solve the theological impasse because every region – and notably the U.S. – would have a significant number of both traditionalists and progressives. The fight would continue at a regional level, and it would be set up for progressives to prevail in the U.S. region of the church.
The Christmas Covenant may very well be how the post-separation United Methodist Church would organize itself. But it is not a substitute for the Protocol. Some form of separation is still needed to resolve the conflict.
Both the Connectional Conference redo and the Christmas Covenant also require two-thirds votes in favor at both the General Conference and all the annual conferences. (The Protocol does not.) This makes it even less likely for either to pass General Conference while traditionalists remain in the church.
One avenue for separation was adopted by the 2019 General Conference. That is the Par. 2553 disaffiliation. While the cost for this option has come down for churches in most annual conferences, it still remains high. While a few churches have taken this route, many local churches are unable to afford the cost, making it not a viable way for most churches that would like to move to the Global Methodist Church to do so.
Another option for separation has recently surfaced, which is to use Par. 2548.2 as a way to allow local churches to leave the denomination to unite with another denomination. This could be a viable way forward for some, especially if General Conference is unable to meet as scheduled. It would require a two-thirds vote by the local church and approval by the bishop, Cabinet, district board of building and location, and the annual conference. So there are a lot of hoops to jump through.
The terms for this 2548.2 separation would be set by each annual conference. Negotiations are underway to see if a standard set of terms can be agreed to that would allow churches across the connection to move to the GM Church on equal terms without waiting for General Conference to enact the Protocol. However, each bishop and each annual conference would have the choice of whether or not to utilize this paragraph and the standard terms. It is unlikely that all bishops and annual conferences would embrace this pathway, leaving many local churches still stuck in a UM Church that they no longer can support. This approach would also not explicitly allow annual conferences to move to the GM Church, which could jeopardize the continued viability of some annual conferences if many of their churches depart. Central conferences and annual conferences outside the U.S. could not use this avenue to move to the GM Church because 2548.2 does not provide for conferences to take that action.
The 2548.2 separation would be helpful for local churches that are in a desperate situation in their annual conferences. Perhaps they experience hostility from their bishop or superintendent. Or perhaps many of their members are ready to leave the local church if it does not immediately take action. In these kinds of situations, 2548.2 could relieve the pressure on individual churches and clergy. For the reasons given above, however, it would not be a broad scale way to resolve the UM Church’s impasse.
Neither the 2553 nor the 2548.2 approaches would eliminate the need to pass the Protocol. For full and fair separation to take place, the Protocol is the only avenue before the delegates to achieve a gracious result.
A Call to Grace
Just in the last few days, another statement has been issued by centrist and progressive leaders calling upon the church to facilitate separation. They say, “The season for waiting on General Conference legislative solutions as the only way forward has passed. We recognize that continued delay in making decisions about the future of The United Methodist Church hurts our mission and is especially harmful to our central conference and LGBTQIA+ siblings who are caught up in this conflict.”
We would strongly support several of their proposals:
- “We call the church to a pastoral response to the anxiety generated by having to delay decisions that impact peoples’ lives and ministries.
- “We call on bishops and annual conferences to develop resources to assist local churches in discerning their future, including resources on how to have difficult conversations in ways that reduce harm.
- “Honoring the expressed desire of some churches and church leaders to leave The United Methodist Church and participate in other denominations, we call bishops and annual conferences to use existing disciplinary authority to find grace-filled ways for these leaders and churches to follow their call now, allowing them to take their church property with them where appropriate.”
Unfortunately, the provisions in the Discipline allowing local churches to withdraw are inadequate to provide for a truly viable separation for all the churches and annual conferences that want to do so. Central conferences and annual conferences outside the U.S. could not avail themselves of the opportunity to separate, as it is not specifically provided for in the Discipline. Again, using one of the non-legislative ways forward is no substitute for the Protocol.
We strongly disagree with the Call to Grace assessment that, “Given the safety considerations that result from this [Covid] tragedy, it appears likely that the General Conference, scheduled for August-September 2022, may be postponed again.” The Commission on the General Conference is the only group that can make that decision, and they are currently operating under the assumption that General Conference will be held as scheduled. Any change in that position will be decided by that Commission in the spring. With the U.S. opening its borders to vaccinated persons and the steadily increasing supply of vaccines for non-U.S. countries, it appears feasible for delegates to travel to the U.S. for the conference. We continue to believe that an in-person General Conference is possible, and that a distributed General Conference would also be possible in the event that everyone meeting in the U.S. becomes impossible. What it will take is the will on the part of our leaders to make it happen.
What the Call to Grace and all the “other ways forward” show is that leaders across the spectrum long for this impasse to be resolved in a grace-filled way. Their statement says, “Those who have decided to remain in The United Methodist Church wish to begin doing the work now of envisioning the future UMC. To be able to do that requires the ability to graciously release others to their own future.” This works both ways, and we heartily agree.