So who profits in a split of some sort? The Evangelicals. The UMC is ripe for the pickings because of the fragile nature of our connection and the massive underlying financial assets.
First, the Cypriot situation
Recently, as part of a cruise to the Middle East, we landed on the island of Cyprus for a brief one-day stop. Being one who likes to plan things out well in advance, I tend to pick the tours we will take at any given stop about four or five months before the actual cruise takes place. This also means I tend to forget why I pick any particular tour.
However, the tour description included seeing a dance by the famed Whirling Dervishes, and that was reason enough for my choice. What I didn’t realize was that the day would take us firmly into the political mess that has cruelly divided this beautiful island since 1974.
As with all nations in this part of the world with its thousands of years of histories, Cyprus has experienced its share of invasions and conquerors, the latest being Greece, Great Britain, and Turkey. But in 1960, it finally became an independent nation with a parliamentary system of government.
At the time of independence, the population was primarily Greek, Greek Orthodox as their religious identity, with a fair number of those from Turkey, Islam as their religious identity. Greeks and Turks grew up together, each fluent in the language of the other. Even so, there were always tensions, with the minority Turkish population struggling with what they saw as inadequate representation on the highest levels [NOTE: this is a radical over-simplification of a complicated situation], and it didn’t take long before a UN intervention became necessary.
The Greeks carried off a coup d’etat in 1964. Turkish forces invaded Cyprus in 1974. The Turks took over 38% of the island, the northeastern portion, near Turkey. About 200,000 Greek Cypriots fled to the southern part, and 60,000 southern Turkish Cypriots were forced to leave their homes and relocate to the now Turkish-controlled portion.
Cyprus and UMC parallel strong
Today, they remain nearly hopelessly divided. A UN patrolled, walled, no-man’s-land cleaves the island. Until recently, almost no movement was allowed between the north and the south, but now, nine checkpoints have been set up to let people move more freely back and forth but with careful identity checks on both sides.
The UN recognizes the Greek government as the official one. The European Union accepted it as a member. With EU membership, the southerners enjoy a significant financial advantage over the far more impoverished Turkish part.
The northern portion declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, but only the nation of Turkey sees it as a legitimate nation. Anyone carrying a passport from the Turkish Republic section can travel ONLY to Turkey. Period. No other country accepts that passport.
During our tour, we were privileged to meet with two journalists, one a Greek Cypriot and the other a Turkish Cypriot. The two, obviously good friends carrying a great deal of mutual respect for one another, explained the situation from their points of view. But no longer, sadly, do each speak the other’s language: their common language now is English.
The sum: generally, the people would like to reunite, possibly under a compromise government that would alternate power between the Greeks and the Turks. In other words, many in the big middle seem to think, “Let’s stop this and all be Cypriots. End this useless infighting and come up with a workable situation so we can all do better.”
However, the people with the most power, i.e., the Greeks, vigorously decline to relinquish any control to a minority view.
Furthermore, forces on the fringes, both north and south, find compromise solutions untenable. Complicating the issue almost beyond hope, it is apparent that a fair number of outside forces, particularly those with a vested military interest in this strategically placed island, see many benefits in keeping the division going.
Does anyone here see the parallels to The United Methodist Church and our issues? And why we may not ever be able to sort them out, even though the big middle of the church says, “Let’s stop this and just be the church”?
Cypriot population is less than two million. We have twelve million United Methodists. Cyprus is a small country, an easy drive from one end to another. The UM’s are scattered all over the world. Cypriots have two languages, and one common language. UM’s, while at this point conducting much business in English, must also have all official documents translated into French, Portuguese and Swahili, plus all official global meetings must have simultaneous translations for those other languages and sometimes more.
Who profits from UMC dissolution or splinter?
But more importantly, and this is what struck me when in conversation with the journalists, is this: what outside forces gain to benefit by keeping us divided and contentious?
In other words, who benefits if we break up? If we splinter into multiple smaller denominations? If we end up dissolving?
As with almost every conflict known in human history, fundamentally, the issues come down to money and power. And that, for me, is what makes the UMC situation so much more tragic than this tough Cypriot situation.
Their situation is clearly political. Ours is supposed to be spiritual. We are supposed to be a group of people who follow Jesus, who, in our sanctification processes, have learned that power and money are the two most corrupting forces around and that those seeking either have no place in church leadership. Ever.
Yes, I am an idealist, but if there is one place to pursue ideals, surely, surely it is the church that claims to be the visible representative of Christ in the world.
The big middle, who contributed the most, get hurt the most
So, let’s talk about money.
The overall denominational giving base is declining with the aging of the average financially comfortable UM. Nonetheless, the UMC, as a whole, sits on a several billion-dollar asset base of various properties and entities. These assets include all church properties, all UM-owned buildings, universities, seminaries, and hospitals.
If we dissolve, splinter, divide, etc., those assets also have to be allocated. Now, keep in mind that The United Methodist Church itself is not a legal entity that holds overall ownership over anything. Ownership instead is held by various agencies, annual conferences, and jurisdictional conferences.
So if we decide to dissolve to restructure and/or vote on an “amicable separation” (yeah, right), how are those properties and the billions of dollars of assets they represent to be divided?
Should they be allocated by number of members? Well, that means that the rapidly growing but essentially impoverished African/Filipino churches and their bishops will suddenly find themselves VERY RICH, as they have the numbers to get the lion’s share of the assets.
Now, they have contributed almost nothing toward them, not because they are bad people or freeloading but simply because they cannot yet build a healthy financial base. But those who have assiduously courted this particular population segment, i.e., the far-right-wing groups, Good News, etc., including the separatist movement called the WCA (i.e, Wesleyan Covenant Association), will also have their hands on all most of those assets.
The far left of the church, i.e., east and west coast churches and other reconciling congregations scattered around the US, don’t appear to benefit much from a distribution of assets as their numbers are considerably smaller.
The big middle, those whose funds have created most of those assets, appear to lose the most in a dissolution or the redistribution necessary for this so-called “amicable separation.”
The UMC is ripe for the pickings
Anyone who has ever read my work knows two things about me.
First, I came from the world of far-right evangelicalism. My roots dig deep in that world. I know it very, very well. I reveled in the certainties, in being able to say, “But the Bible says . . . ” and expect my pronouncements to end the argument.
Second, my move to the left, to a far more inclusive understanding of the Christian message, emerged from an intense study of the Bible after I had learned to read both Hebrew and Greek fluently. Those skills, combined with a background in Anthropology (Rice University, 1971) shoved all my previously held certainties out of my brain, replacing them with the humility of awe and a continually growing awareness of just how little I do know about the nature of God and of grace, despite the years of study and investigation.
So who profits in a split of some sort? The Evangelicals. The UMC is ripe for the pickings because of the fragile nature of our connection and the massive underlying financial assets. In addition, our governance with its reliance on Robert’s Rule of Order for discussion and the distinctly unchristian nature of majority votes means that skilled political operatives, working in a well-funded manner behind the scenes, can hijack the less politically sophisticated who, clearly naively, think there is space for everyone here.
High walls and tight certainties win
In other words, we are seeing the UM equivalent of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Behind high walls, now being constructed, the group of “we represent the only correct way to think” believers will find their safety in their certainties.
In their case, as opposed to the Turkish separatists, they’ll have the financial resources, but their spiritual and mental resources will become depleted in the smallness of their echo-chamber of “right-think.”
Yet I keep asking, “Can this listing ship be righted? Have we tilted so far in our lack of cohesion and perpetual infighting that we will indeed perish in the depths, swallowed by whatever leviathan lurks underneath?” Because what is getting ready to happen hurts every single person connected with the UMC.
I will write more about this later, but these last few weeks of travel, with my immersion into ancient history and the world of never-stable nations and institutions, leave me fairly pessimistic. There will always be those who are convinced of the rightness of their certainties, of their special calling by whatever god who agrees with them, who are sure that those who don’t agree should be in some way eliminated or expelled or conquered.
Easier, but not Christian
Those convinced of their rightness and secure in their tight boundaries tend to attract those who also need certainties and high walls to function.
I know. Do not forget that I was one of them.
That kind of belief-sameness, especially when described as a divine mandate, energizes the insiders to conquer others, to expand territories, to spend whatever funds and resources necessary to gain more power, to convert, by force when necessary, those who protest or who are damaged by the conquerors. They are convinced they hurt others in the name of God and all that is holy. Think: Holy Roman Crusades, leaving much devastation in their wake.
That’s human nature. But the church, seriously, the church, is supposed to operate differently. The church is the place where we are to practice being Jesus-followers, to learn to love our enemies, to be prepared to lay down our lives for the other, to be the safe haven for the formerly despised and spat upon. That is the core of our function.
So, when we let the desire for power and the often-unacknowledged hope for more financial resources, assume top priority, no matter what the cost to others, we become those whose lips say the right words but whose souls have been corrupted.
Truly, it is difficult to be a Jesus-follower. Everything in us screams against living that way, intentionally taking the last position, offering the first to those whom we think didn’t earn it, don’t deserve it. Much easier to muscle our way to the front, to claim prominence and, again, divine mandate for our positions. Easier, but most definitely not Christian.
Photo credits: (c) Christy Thomas, all rights reserved.