When I think of the choppy ecclesial waters our denomination is heading into and the possible impact they may have on lay women, an image from a medieval ballad of St. Patrick Spens flashes across my mind: the new moon with the old moon in her arms. The context is a plan by the king of Scotland that a ship be sent out to Norway to bring the Maid of Norway to succeed to the throne of Scotland. But the seascape was bleak and stormy in the dead of winter, and a seasoned sailor spoke aloud his concerns: “Late, last night, I saw the new moon/ With the old moon in her arms." 1 The king could not interpret this sign in the sky, but the skilled seafarer did. The sign foretold a treacherous sea to the voyagers, but the king and his courtiers could not see this sign of danger, because they were safely on land, concerned only with getting the young woman from Norway to Scotland. The perils of the passage across the North Sea were of no interest to them. As for the young woman, her will is non-existent in the king’s frenzied decision-making process.
If there is an image that captures what the lay women, especially the United Methodist Women and their forebears, have gone through in the turbulent restructurings in the denomination(s), it is this sign in the sky: an emerging moon that holds in its arms the shadow of the old moon. This image speaks of the chronic structural changes that have taken place over the decades in the Methodist Church in the name of either separation or unity, and the hidden trauma these have left on the lay women organized for mission. The emerging moon carries the shadow part of the structural changes.
Gender and restructuring
The Methodist Women in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, had “neither voice nor vote” in the decision-making body that recommended to the General Conference that the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society and Woman’s Home Mission Society be merged into one organization. In fact, in 1906, Methodist women learned from the Associated Press that the two societies of the women would be united in the restructuring at the upcoming General Conference.2 In the midst of these unforeseen changes, the women adopted a survival motto, “Grow we must, even if we outgrow all that we love.” 3 They forged ahead in their newly merged organization, Woman’s Missionary Council, under the leadership of their new president Belle Harris Bennett. Living into a restructuring demanded collective strength. For lay women, it is “sisterhood” then and now. In Bennett’s words, Methodist women “under the divine guidance” have already entered “into a great, loving sisterhood and established a work that to the end of the ages must make for righteousness.” 4 Prophetic, indeed!
Gender, race, and restructuring
Gender and race played a role in the restructuring of 1939 when the merger of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South; Methodist Episcopal Church; and the Methodist Protestant Church took place. The combined membership of the multiple committees that worked out the details of the merger of the three denominations was 172, of which 9 were women. The General Conference of 1939 “recognized” the continuity of women’s mission, and the newly created Woman’s Society of Christian Service (WSCS) brought together six different women’s groups from the three denominations and merged them into one. But the creation of a segregated Central Jurisdiction for African American membership was a historic wound inflicted in the name of structural unity.
During the years of the Central Jurisdiction (1939–1968), the Woman’s Division of Christian Service resorted to a “field-work model” 5 in order to stay connected with the segregated sisterhood. That is, they hired professional church workers to interpret the purpose and program of the Women’s Society of Christian Service (WSCS). One of these workers, Theressa Hoover, later became the Deputy General Secretary of the Women’s Division. From the inception of the Central Jurisdiction, the WSCS set out to “unite all women [emphasis added] of the Church in Christian living and service,” and to “help support Christian work among women and children around the world,” while keeping the core “concept of church as mission and women as full participants in that mission.” 6
Restructuring for unified mission and its impact on women
Denominational restructuring has more often than not resulted in disproportionate structural strain and trauma on lay women organized for mission. The year 1968 was the structural birth of United Methodist Church, with the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church, and the abolition of the Central Jurisdiction. Prior to that merger, in 1964, representatives of the Council of Bishops and the Board of Missions, “overwhelmingly male at that point in history,” entered into an agreement that was “never ratified by the Woman’s Division,” 7 and forced the women’s organization to merge with the denominational board. The women “retained control of property and finances, making annual appropriations to the Board of Missions to sustain (pay for) the work they formerly managed.” 8 For lay women, during restructuring, there is a collective struggle to find and regain one’s identity within the denomination. The period of 1968–1972 was one such turbulent moment when women once again spelled out their core commitment to mission with women, children, and youth, while embracing the unity of Christian mission and the centrality of Christian action in the public sphere.9
I am sure there are more attributes that are important in the new world in which I awake daily: praise God for opened eyes each morning. I know, too, that my perspective is colored by being the “old guy.” But I also believe that the Christian community is called to faithfulness, and that the faithfulness to which we are called will be difficult to put on a church sign. The world is different, but the witness is the same. God loves you, and me too, no matter your ideology or identity. And together, we will show the world what it looks like to love, which is what Jesus did on the cross.
As for the inclusion of women in the United Methodist Women, the organization has been inclusive in its membership to all the women who believe in The Purpose of the United Methodist Women, regardless of sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, class, age, disability, and other marginalizing identity markers. “The Policy Statement of the Women’s Division” describes an inclusive body of women, with their core commitment to mission with women, children, and youth, with an ongoing efforts to bridging the gap between “women of various races, ethnic identities and languages,” “older women and younger women,” “lesbian women and the heterosexual women,” and “women in the United States and women in other countries.” 10
Which gap do we bridge, the gap that divides us over the issue of human sexuality or the gap between women in the U.S. and those in other countries? In such moments of hard choices, the timeless imperative of Theresa Hoover comes to mind: “Re-focus geographically.” She calls attention to the changing margins saying, “Every civilization has a center and a periphery. As the center matures, it is the periphery that becomes worthy of our attention. That is where the new forms of social organization are born, usually out of the struggle of an oppressed people against those who dominate.” Perhaps our attempt in creating a new ecclesial map during the 2020 General Conference might help us “re-focus geographically” 11 and concentrate our attention on the struggles of those oppressed in the respective regions.
As Professor Dana Robert says, while “The United Methodist Church has more women bishops, more ordained women, more women seminary professors, more deaconesses, and more women in charge of church agencies than any other church in the world,” 12 female delegates accounted for only 36% of the delegates to discuss human sexuality at the special General Conference of 2019.13
It is time to own the shadow part of our restructurings imposed on lay women organized for mission, whether done in the name of gender or race as in the past, or being done in the name of sexuality. Lay women have often endured the legacy of the shadow parts of prior structural journeys of the denomination, while being committed to their core mission with women, children, and youth. May we, as a denomination, own the shadow parts of our previous structural journeys, as we set our sails during these turbulent times through the uncharted seas, with the larger vision and a firmer logic of changed times.
Glory Dharmaraj, Ph.D., is the president of the World Association for Christian Communication-North America and the retired Director of Mission Theology for United Methodist Women.
“Sir Patric Spens” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Fourth Edition. Vol.1. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979), 396-397. Modern Translation.
Carolyn Stapleton, “Belle Harris Bennett, Model of Holistic Christianity,” Methodist History XXI. 3. P. 139.
Noreen Dunn Tatum, A Crown of Service: A Story of Woman’s Work in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South from 1878-1940 (Nashville, TN: Board of Missions, Woman’s Division of Christian Service, 1960), 36.
Bell Bennett’s “President Message to the Woman’s Missionary Council, 1911” in the First Annual Report of the Woman’s Missionary Council of The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, for 1910-1911 (Nashville, TN: Smith and Lamar), 96.
Grant Shockley., et al., Heritage and Hope: African American Presence in United Methodism, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1991), 137.
Robert J. Harman, From Missions to Mission: The History of Mission of the United Methodist Church, 1968-2000 (New York, New York: The General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church, 2005), 187.
Barbara E. Campbell, “Turning Prayer into Deeds” in New World Outlook, Fall, 2018
Peggy Billings, Speaking Out in the Public Space: an Account of the Section of Christian Social Relations: Women’s Division, The United Methodist Church, 1968-84 (New York, New York: The Mission Education and Cultivation Department for the Women’s Division, General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church, 1995), 13.
Ministries With Women, Children, And Youth: A Gift for the Whole Church, “A Policy Statement of the Women’s Division” (New York: Women’s Division, GBGM, 1992, Rpt. 1998), 11.
“Theological Basis of Mission” in Daily Journal, Board of Global Ministries, October 19-27, 1973. Page 151-152.
Dana L. Robert, “The ‘Other’ Issue of Gender: What Happens to United Methodist Women Leaders? UM & Global, March 2, 2019.
Magaela C. Bethune, “Gender Composition of 2019 General Conference and Reserve Delegates,” GCOSROW website.
Content originally published on "Emerging: God Is Doing a New Thing in United Methodism," October 17, 2019.