My Methodist Swan Song
My resignation from the United Methodist Church about a year ago was just the culmination of a process that had been playing out for me over a considerable period of time. For years I had been close to walking away, and for a number of months I had remained a member but attended a church in a different denomination. Then, in the fall of 2019, inspired partly by a new pastor, I tried to become active in my own church again and started a new project that I believe is still serving the community well. But within a few months I finally faced the fact that the United Methodist Church is simply not a context within which I can find spiritual fulfillment. So I finally made a clean break with it.
As many of my United Methodist friends always knew, I was intensely dissatisfied with the denomination’s official policies of discrimination against gays and lesbians. I struggled against those policies as a member of the board of Reconciling Ministries Network and in numerous other ways. Our reform efforts failed over and over again and it became clear to me that different factions of the UMC had irreconcilable views and that the only way forward would be as two or more separate denominations. But the Bishops, determined to avoid that outcome, set up a committee to figure out a way to keep the denomination together. When the proposed plan was presented to a special meeting of the General Conference in 2019, I was not at all surprised that the conservative majority not only completely rejected it but also adopted a plan of their own that made things worse for gays and lesbians than ever before. Since COVID-19 has prevented the next General Conference from happening, the conflict over sexual orientation is still unresolved. The only resolution is a formal schism and both conservatives and progressives should accept the fact and make it happen.
Another problem I have with the United Methodist Church is its hierarchical, top-down system of governance. That system was on display at the 2019 Special General Conference when the bishops tried to keep the conservative proposal from even being voted on. This strategy did not work that time, but it often has worked. When I was a lay member of my annual conference, I saw our bishop use various maneuvers to keep things he did not like from being debated or voted on. He tended to be on my side of the issues, but I have no desire to suppress dissent or silence the other side.
One of the other reasons I left the United Methodist Church has nothing to do with that denomination. It only has to do with me. It is simply that I finally admitted to myself that I am no longer a Christian. For years I had been drifting farther and farther from any sort of traditional version of that religion, but kept trying to find some reason to still call myself a Christian. But, increasingly, that seemed pointless. I no longer think that Jesus Christ was divine in any unique way. I think that he is an example of someone who achieved full consciousness of his own divinity, but that all of us can do the same thing and many have. There may be others who think the same way and still call themselves Christians, and that is fine, but I am no longer comfortable doing so.
It goes even farther than that. I am actually no longer comfortable identifying with any one religion. It is not that I am against religion. It is more like the opposite: I respect all of them, have studied several, and find ideas and practices of value in each. And that is why I cannot embrace any single religion exclusively. I am now much more interested in examining many religious, spiritual and philosophical traditions and selecting elements from them that fit together in a way that works for me.
What ever I do now will simply be the next step in a journey that may have begun when I was a Roman Catholic altar boy. I have experienced a lot since then and I expect to experience a lot more in however many years I have left. I am continuing to develop both my concept of personal spirituality and my own spiritual path. This process will probably involve a couple of writing projects. At some point I hope to bring together a group of people who will support each other in finding their personal spiritual paths rather than identifying with any specific religious tradition.
While doing these things, I also hope to continue my connection with the many United Methodists who have been such important parts of my life during the past two or three decades. My problems with the United Methodist Church have been with the denomination, not its members, and especially not with the wonderful local congregation to which I belonged for so long. I fully understand that structured religions provide the best spiritual context for many people. As I have long said, there are many paths but one destination.