by Christie R. House
Members attending the annual meeting of the United Methodist Association of Communicators Philadelphia took to the road March 9—a short distance down South Broad Street—to the historic Tindley Temple United Methodist Church. Members of the African American congregation welcomed communicators from across the denomination to their church. Tindley’s pastor, the Rev. Robert L. Johnson, started off the afternoon of historical reflection with the story of the Rev. Charles Albert Tindley and “God’s Cathedral,” the temple Tindley and his congregation built in 1924.
Tindley, the son of former slaves, passed his ordination exam by teaching himself to read and taking correspondence courses from Boston School of Theology. He was known far and wide for his preaching and his hymn writing, composing more than 60 hymns in his lifetime, many beloved and sung the world over today. The Rev. Johnson referred to the Tindley Temple, which, in the 1920s, averaged three services on Sundays to accommodate its 10,0000 members, as “the first mega-church in the Philadelphia area, decades ahead of its time.”
Exploring history for clues
In Tindley sanctuary, UMAC hosted a panel discussion that included the Rev. Alfred Day III (General Secretary of the Commission on Archives and History), the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe (General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society), Bishop John Schol of the Greater New Jersey Conference, and Johnson. Their task was to reflect on United Methodist history in light of what the church must do today to transform congregations through the changes of the 21st century. Skyler Nimmons, communications director for the Indiana Conference, served as moderator.
Nimmons started the conversation by asking the panel about the mission ministry of the church and what history has to offer in this time and place considering the special general conference called in 2019 to consider a way forward over the impasse the church has reached on human sexuality.
Henry-Crowe, who has taught Methodist polity and history on the seminary level, said there was never a time in all of Christendom when change wasn’t brewing—when there wasn’t disagreement, dispute, anger and controversy. “I reflected on the short version of our long history,” she said. “Yet, never was there a time when the church did not have the potential for change.” As the church continues its quest to identify and live out its understanding of what it means to be Christian, change happens. “Yet, there was never a time when Christianity did not find a way,” she added.
Day suggested that the most powerful word in the Christian vocabulary might be the word “through.” God parted the Red Sea so that the Israelites could go through it. “Our story is what we’ve been through,” he said. The church has gone through fights about church governance, slavery, birth control, inclusion, ethics and race. “In our chaos of the moment, our job is to cling to the power of ‘through’ and follow Jesus the best way we can, living lives with the outpourings of the Holy Spirit, trusting God to see us through.”
Pastor Johnson spoke about the ways the African American community weathers the storms of life. “As a people of faith, we’ve always weathered storms,” he noted. “But storms are good sometimes; they change the landscape. Our church is going through a storm, but we cannot do it without Jesus.”
Bishop Schol, a self-described social historian, said, “Institutions don’t change. Institutions only adopt the changes that have already occurred.” He referred to the dissolution of the Methodist Central Jurisdiction—African American congregations organized in a segregated conference structure by the general church—as one example. The 1968 General Conference abolished the Central Jurisdiction, but only after the Eastern Pennsylvania, Peninsula-Delaware and Baltimore-Washington conferences had already merged with their Central Jurisdiction conferences before 1968.
Schol also pointed out that, following the church’s social history, the denomination is most likely to divide when it pushes for unity. “We wanted to unify around the rights of women to be pastors, but that caused branching and splintering to ensure that women would have pulpits.” The insistence that unity means everyone must accept the same system of beliefs and methods causes the divide. “It’s a difficult challenge—even from a historical point of view,” he mused. “We haven’t figured out the right balance between unity and context.”
Context or unity
The panel gave some pushback to Schol’s response, with Day saying, “We live in a world that wants to make us choose either/or. Historically, we haven’t chosen either/or, we’ve danced between context and unity a long time.” He acknowledged that while the Central Jurisdiction ended in 1968, it was many more years before most congregations would accept a person of a different race or culture or a woman as their pastor. “Instead, we did a delicate and complex dance until the time came when we became more accepting. I’m afraid the danger is that we quit dancing.”
This statement prompted Johnson to ask, “When was the dancefloor ever equal?” He pointed out that there are still churches today that won’t accept a well-qualified African American pastor and others that won’t accept a female pastor. “In this dance, we need to change partners,” he pointed out.
“Context can’t carry all the weight,” Henry-Crowe reflected from her experience. “I served some churches that were lovely, but they didn’t want a woman pastor or an African American district superintendent. It didn’t work until the church simply said—this is it, your new reality.”
Members of the panel went on to discuss how progress has been made but agreed the church has a long way to go. Schol gave examples of how two things that are apparently opposite can be held in one hand and both be right—and both be wrong, depending on a person’s context and faith journey.
When Nimmons asked about the language in The Book of Discipline that describes people as being “of sacred worth” yet “incompatible with Christian teaching,” Schol responded that the language came from a framework of fallen-ness. “If we label people ‘not of worth,’ or ‘incompatible’ with God’s love and grace, we are missing who God is.” Johnson said that if we look at all people as having “sacred worth,” then we can work for justice, without necessarily agreeing with all they do.
Henry-Crowe said that all people have rights that are non-negotiable. Social justice concentrates on these non-negotiable human rights—that everyone has a right to health and decent housing and living in an environment of nondiscrimination.
When asked how the UMC’s way forward process could be a gift to the worldwide church, Day spoke of a deep Methodist DNA that begins with a theology of love and inclusion, following a living God that changes and transforms people who then change and transform their world. Johnson felt that just having the conversation about inclusion was a gift—showing others how to face the ugliness of the past that bleeds into the present—allowing the church to move forward to become the beloved community.
Henry-Crowe said that the church helps us look beyond ourselves to the community of all God’s people and that the more we look into injustice and the suffering of the world, the better we all become.
Bishop Schol held up the United Methodist Committee on Relief as an entity that served all people and also brought all kinds of Methodists together in a common mission. They may not agree on theology or certain beliefs, but they concentrate instead on working together to serve communities in distress.
Christie R. House serves the UMC as editor of New World Outlook magazine, General Board of Global Ministries.
Photo by Matt Brodie