Blessing in a Schism - Word&Way

Blessing in a Schism

The sound of silence. That surprised me. After messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting voted earlier this month to bar two churches from the nation’s largest Protestant denomination because the congregations affirmed women as ministers, the response was silence.

Perhaps silence was better than cheering and applauding, but it still felt odd for such a significant moment. A church in Louisville, Kentucky, was removed after nearly 70 years of partnering with other Southern Baptists for missions and evangelism. And a megachurch in California — the second largest congregation in the SBC — was removed after more than 40 years of partnering with other Southern Baptists for missions and evangelism. And the response was silence.

The liturgy went like this. Don Currence, the SBC’s registration secretary who oversees all voting (and who is also the new mayor of Ozark, Missouri), read the vote tallies and percentages. Then SBC President Bart Barber repeated all those numbers without emotion and issued a final declaration for each congregation: “The messengers from _____ Church are not added to the official roll of voting members of this Convention, and _____ Church is not in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention.” Then silence.

After Barber read that statement about the last congregation voted on — Saddleback Church, which was founded by bestselling author Rick Warren — Barber walked away from the pulpit to confer with others about what was next on the schedule. Then he stepped back to the podium and moved on to the next item of business as if nothing noteworthy had just occurred.

The fact that Saddleback and Fern Creek (where Rev. Linda Barnes Popham has served as pastor for more than three decades) lost their votes did not surprise me. But the silence afterward did. However, it wasn’t until I saw what occurred at another denominational meeting that week that I fully appreciated what was missing.

United Methodist bishops and delegates gather to pray at the front of the stage before a key vote on church policies about homosexuality on Feb. 26, 2019, in St. Louis, Missouri. (Kit Doyle/Religion News Service)

A few days before the SBC meeting, voting members at the annual conference of the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church approved the request for disaffiliation from 75 churches as the denomination splits over disagreements about LGBTQ+ issues. Then the conference included a time to bless those departing congregations.

Other UMC conferences have similarly utilized a “parting rite” during meetings in recent months as they reflected on their past time of shared ministry and their familial relationship even as they choose divergent future ministry paths. So this issue of A Public Witness attends multiple disaffiliation blessings to consider a different model for denominational partings.


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