“We live in a time when there is more talk of walls than bridges, more fear about being stuck in gridlock rather than seeing a way across or through,” wrote Rev. Alfred Day, executive for the United Methodist Church's General Commission on Archives and History, in a recent newsletter. Many of us would echo that statement. Whether it’s the political climate, internal struggles in our own church, or simply our changing communities, we see the fear and we see the gridlock.
Recently I have found myself buried in similar realities of our past. For my doctoral work, I study and write about Matthew Simpson. Some of you will know the name. He came out of the Pittsburgh Conference, taught at Allegheny College, and was later elected a Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church. You can find windows, and sanctuaries, and lots of other memories of his past in communities around Western PA. Simpson lived in turbulent times in the church and world, as the church dealt with slavery and war and division.
In 1844, Simpson found himself part of the delegation at General Conference. United Methodist history buffs will know 1844 is the year the Plan of Separation was crafted and adopted by the MEC. What have been interesting to me are Simpson’s personal reflections on the events. He writes: “I object to a speaker being allowed to discuss the questions of dividing the church and the Book Concern.” Then as he reflects on the Plan of Separation says, “the measure was passed with comparatively little debate, but with different understanding on the part of the different delegates.” (Box 15, Matthew Simpson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)
Complicated, personal, painful, misunderstood: all of these words could describe the 1844 conference. I have to imagine the people there felt like there was more talk of walls than bridges, more lines in the sand than coming together. Much like we often feel in the present. Yet, we know the story does not end in 1844. The story changes, but it does not end.
Maybe that hindsight, maybe that wisdom can inform something we’re doing today. Maybe the past offers us something of the perspective that God’s work is never done. Our gridlock is not the end. God is still moving. With that vision we can move forward as bridge builders rather than as a people who freeze up in the gridlock.
The work of our archivists and historians is to help us understand the past so we can engage the present and envision the future, says our GCAH. They can help us build bridges. Listen. We’ll hear hope.