August 11, 2023
The 2019 Special Session of General Conference convened in St. Louis was a decidedly painful, if not embarrassing, moment for The United Methodist Church. Whatever one’s biblical or theological perspective, the conversations and debate on the floor were far from loving, caring, grace-filled or graceful.
In the midst of this storm, several Black clergy began to gather between each session for strategic conversations. We discussed what was not being talked about on the floor of the sessions: the structural/institutional racism, white power, white supremacy and white privilege that still drives and orders the denomination.
The core group who gathered for these sessions were persons who had organized the Northeastern Jurisdiction Black Leadership Forum several years earlier. That group was birthed from the remnants of the former NEJ Black United Methodist Pastors caucus.
Our first action item was to submit a Call to Action resolution to the 2016 Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference, which passed unanimously. This resolution addresses the historic and systemic racism that has paralyzed The United Methodist Church since its inception. We then began in earnest daily conversations at the site of General Conference 2019 relating to the need for broader and more strategic conversations relative to the future of “our” churches.
By this point in time, several resolutions had already been submitted for consideration at the then-scheduled 2020 General Conference, offering disaffiliation options for historically Black United Methodist churches. Knowing this to be the case and realizing that at GC2019 there was absolutely no mention of historically Black churches and our fate in this fight, there was no choice but to keep this issue alive and to continue to develop a plan for our future — within or outside the current denominational configuration.
Following GC2019, we continued to meet regularly, simultaneously expanding the conversation beyond those who were present in St. Louis. This resulted in organizing two regional gatherings of Black laity and clergy to discuss the future of the Black United Methodist churches. One was held in Philadelphia and the other in Atlanta, both convened in early 2020. Over 600 Black United Methodists showed up in Philadelphia and nearly 100 in Atlanta.
Obviously, the Black church is not monolithic. There are theologically conservative Black churches, there are theologically liberal Black churches, and there are Black churches that don’t identify on either end of this spectrum.
Additionally, one cannot justify or argue that human sexuality is the issue that divides the church and at the same time continue the denomination’s institutional-systemic racism, white privilege and white power. To do so is both duplicitous and biblically indefensible. Consequently, our continuing conversations following GC2019 are inspired by the vision: “Black Methodists for a Better Future.”
Though African Americans have been in the “fellowship” of the Methodist movement from the very beginning, Black United Methodist churches, clergy and laity, have never been treated equitably nor been fully embraced. Black United Methodists and other people of color continue to be marginalized. It has been said that the one who controls the narrative controls the future. Likewise, information is power.
Let’s be clear: The people called Methodists have never set a table large enough nor provided consistent, clear, accurate and transparent information relative to the plans and vision for a racially, culturally and fully inclusive denomination. To be sure, most United Methodists have lived with the illusion that their denomination is not only racially diverse, but treats everyone equally. Nothing could be further from the truth.
First, in every reorganization, merger, split or reconnection of the Methodist movement, race — not sexuality — has been at the center.
From the incidents at St. George’s in Philadelphia in the late 1700s, to the Peter Spencer incident at Old Asbury in Wilmington, Delaware, in early 1800; from the geographical split, North and South, to the organizing of the Central Jurisdiction and from the dissolution of the Central Jurisdiction to create The United Methodist Church, to this present moment, the central conversation, issue and debate has been race.
In addition, in none of the above reconfigurations of Methodism has the rank and file of Black Methodists fully benefited. More times than not they lost people, churches, assets and a place at the table.
Second, as the denomination now faces yet another cataclysmic moment, the conversations one hears and information one receives is both duplicitous and confusing. While the narrative is that the central issue in the pending split is sexuality — though sexuality is an issue, to be sure — the real issue, historically, institutionally, existentially, and fundamentally for the remaining United Methodist Black churches and clergy is racism, white power, white supremacy, and our property and money.
The Black church potentially faces three options: 1. To stay put, and hope that the denomination finally deals head-on with its institutional racism, white power and white supremacy; 2. Disaffiliate — though the denomination has essentially removed this option; or 3. Create its own future within the denomination, i.e. an alliance of historically Black Methodist churches and those churches that were formerly white churches. Indeed, we are one of only a few denominations that make race distinctions in categorizing local churches.
Since race, not sexuality, has been the issue in previous reconfigurations of the church, it is likely that racism will continue unabated in what remains post-General Conference. Indeed, the limited pathways to disaffiliate, which make it nearly impossible for most Black churches to leave, should create the impetus for Black clergy and churches to envision a new or very different future — within or outside the current United Methodist Church.
Greer is a retired elder, consultant, mentor and community organizer focusing on justice and equality for all. He resides in Wilmington, Delaware.