by Chris Ritter
Last week I wrote a post asserting that the Illinois Great Rivers Conference would be well served by joining the soon-to-be-formed Global Methodist Church. In support of that idea, I ticked down a laundry list of issues related to a rigid institutionalism that has settled into our common life as a conference. I also documented our long-standing record of decline. I did not expect my ideas to be popular and I certainly did not anticipate they would be universally embraced. But I did hope to raise a level of holy discontent.
The response was led by District Superintendent Jim Barnett who recently posted his own provocative article on the Nicene Creed. In his first response to my post, Jim set the dogs on me with a “this-fellow-is-attacking-and-blaming-us-clergy” sort of tack… understandable given where we are. Jim’s second post accused me to “trashing” the IGRC camping program and the workers who labor in that vineyard. I partially deserve that one. It is always a bad idea to call someone else’s baby ugly. As a soul redeemed and called into the ministry at Beulah, I have my biases and I am sure they show. I also have a level of grief watching Epworth (where my own kids camped and I volunteered) decline and be sold off. Now an IGRC old timer, I remember fondly the days of local control where groups of churches surrounding a campground took primary responsibility for its success.
The storm raged on in the comments section. There was piling on. Then it got personal. I can’t really tell you the full extent of the nastiness the Facebook dust-up reached. I long ago blocked several people that I consider particularly toxic. Paul Black, our conference Communications Director, did a fair job of chiming in helpfully and maintaining objectivity. Like Paul, I hail from the former Southern Illinois Conference and remember Paul’s dad and uncle stirring the kettle on more than one occasion. Dust storms are nothing new in our conference, but newer formats somehow make them… radioactive.
We, the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, are getting ready to cross a line I have worked hard to avoid. I have studied our UM conundrum in earnest since 2014. An institutionalist at heart, I started writing about ways we could possibly stay in the same tent. The first proposals were various iterations of a “Jurisdictional Solution” that later became the Connectional Conference Plan. I publicly advocated for it against the wishes of many of my traditionalist friends. IGRC was gracious to allow me to represent us at GC 2016 and 2019. Most recently, I submitted legislation to transform the UMC into a UM Communion of related denominations. I participated in the “Indianapolis Group” which served as the forerunner to the Feinberg Separation Protocol. I now view that latter agreement as our best hope for bringing an end to the conflict.
But we in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference should not be naive about the process that the Protocol sets out for us enroute to a final settlement. There is painful sorting to be done. My fear is that this will become a zero sum game in which a “win” for one “side” is a “loss” for the other. The pattern we set now is the likely pattern will follow through the coming months. It also will set the tone for the days ahead when we will be two denominations serving the same Illinois mission field. Maybe we can start treating one another as ecumenical partners today.
For my part, I am willing to sit down with brothers and sisters with different visions for the church to help draft ground rules. IGRC should have a full and open debate on denominational affiliation without demonization, demeaning language, or hyperbole. Churches and clergy should be allowed to re-affiliate following that vote without coercion or manipulation by the institution. Where possible, shared conference assets should continue to be shared. Bishop Bruce Ough has led the conferences he leads on plans of cooperation following division. Perhaps we could use their work as a starting point.
I love the United Methodist Church. I was raised at Cache Chapel UMC, saved and called into ministry at Beulah, educated at Candler and Perkins, and ordained by Bishops Lawson and Christopher. My plan has been to die a United Methodist with one of those circuit rider emblems on my tombstone. I grieve where we are, where we are going, and what it means for our witness to the Gospel. When the social media dust storm is over, maybe we can talk face to face.