Keeping Our Vows: A Response to the Proposal for a Methodist Schism

Recently a group of over 80 United Methodist pastors and theologians released a press statement recommending a plan for the separation of the United Methodist Church into two denominations based upon beliefs and opinions around the issue of human sexuality. Among the men supporting this notion (I say men, because no women have been mentioned in the press statement or have come forward saying they were involved in the discussions) include Maxie Dunnam, former president of Asbury Theological Seminary and co-founder of the Confessing Movement. This struck me as surprising, being that Dr. Dunnam was among those who strongly opposed schism over the narrow issue of homosexuality a decade earlier. In 2004 following General Conference Dunnam made the following statement:

I don’t want us to talk about separation. That’s not a game where our energy needs to be focused. (Dunnam quoted by Religion News Service).

Now Dunnam has changed his tune:

Forty years of wrestling with the issue is enough, and has proven the solidity of the belief systems of the two groups. (Dunnam quoted in Good News Magazine)

The statement gives no clear instructions for how separation might occur or perhaps which side gets to still call itself “United Methodist” or how property and finances will be handled. I guess they trust General Conference to work all that out on its own. But they make fairly clear they believe separation to be absolutely necessary. They believe neither progressives nor conservatives can remain in the church together as it currently exists, even though the fact that they have remained in the same church for the past “forty years” would suggest otherwise.

The Gang presents schism as a win-win scenario for progressives and conservatives, allowing both to pursue their beliefs on marriage and human sexuality freely within the church. What struck me as particularly interesting was a line I found in the Good News Magazine article on the statement:

The group lamented the irreconcilable differences that have been manifest over the last four decades within the denomination. At the same time, they agreed that a peaceful parting could be in the best interest of United Methodists. (Good News Magazine)

“Irreconcilable differences” a phrase straight out of divorce court. A phrase used by couples to suggest an inedibility to their divorce, but without having to explain what really drove them away. It is also a very unchristian phrase making its presence in the Good News article all the more disappointing. What is Christianity if not a celebration of the moment in which Christ made the impossible reconciliation between God and humanity possible? Paul declared nothing could keep us from the love of God, yet we seem to find plenty of things to keep from each other. How after the miracle at the Cross can we claim any difference as irreconcilable?

The phrase is also evidence of a particular gap in contemporary, conservative Christian attitudes toward marriage many have noted over the years. They are adamant in proclaiming the great potential threat to marriage they believe homosexuality poses, but are virtually silent on the immense harm a culture of divorce has already done to marriage and to families. They quote Jesus when he talks about God bringing together man and woman in marriage when they are combating acceptance of homosexuality, but they generally overlook the fact that Jesus brought this up specifically to condemn the common practice of divorce during his time, a practice which has become if anything more prevalent in our time. Marriage has become little more than a legal contract for many today, something we can enter into and out of easily based solely on how we feel. Yet Jesus is pretty clear on his thoughts on marriage:

What God has brought together let no one separate. (Mark 10:9)

Then I realized what it was the Gang of 80 was really advocating: divorce. Like a marriage that’s gotten rocky, they want to split with others in the church. They no longer wish to share a church with the progressives. They want out. And they are trying desperately to save face by presenting this proposal as mutually beneficia for both parties:

Are we not at a point where we can acknowledge, after years of dialogue and debate, the depth of our differences and together, progressives and traditionalists, give each other the freedom to pursue our understanding of God’s will?(Press Statement as appears in Good News)

They claim they want to still be friends:

A way where there are no winners and losers, but simply brothers and sisters who part ways amicably, able to wish each other well? (Press Statement as appears in Good News)

They did everything short of offering the “it’s not you, it’s me” line. Their statement is the quintessential break-up letter full of all the clichés. It fits right with the times and culture we live in.

But the point remains that this schism would be the breaking of union and a holy one at that. No matter how you try to dress it up, no matter how it fits with the modern American culture of divorce and church splits that happen every day, it is the breaking of sacred fellowship and it is tragic even under the best of circumstances. But that’s the message we hear in the culture today isn’t it? Long before these pastors and theologians talked of schism I would read comments and posts online from people saying the that they were switching denominations because of the way the church was handling the question of homosexuality. They told us there were plenty of churches out there that fit their view on the subject better. They reminded us that this country is a religious marketplace. If you can’t find the product you’re looking for here, try the next aisle. We’ve applied this mentality to church, expecting it to be a place where we are served rather than a place where we serve. Our society switches churches like laundry detergent.

But we have to face the truth, that by splitting the church in two, breaking our fellowship, and limiting our resources we are breaking vows, vows each and every one of us took at some point in our lives. When I was confirmed at Trinity United Methodist Church in Memphis at the age twelve I was asked to make the following pledge:

As a member of Christ’s universal Church, will you be loyal to Christ through The United Methodist Church, and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries? (United Methodist Book of Worship)

To be loyal to Christ through the “United Methodist Church”. There it is. I pledged my loyalty to this denomination and to do “all in my power to strengthen its ministries.” In truth I probably did not comprehend what that vow meant and where it would lead me at the time, but I remind myself of it daily. I have not agreed with every decision or policy of the United Methodist Church and when I haven’t I’ve not hesitated to be vocal about it, but my greatest desire for it every day since has been the fulfillment of its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ and for the sanctification of all its members.

Try as I might I can’t square this call for schism with my vow to strengthen the United Methodist Church. The splitting of its membership and resources, the great loss of saints on both sides, and terrible example it will set for denominations all over the world would be detrimental if anything. But none of that bothers me as much as the fact that by splitting our church, by cutting away at parts of our holy body, we would be inflicting wounds not only on ourselves and our mission, but I believe upon Christ himself. How can we possibly be better hands and feet of Christ when have fewer hands and feet to serve with than before?

If it were not pastors talking about dividing their church, but instead citizens talking about dividing this country, we would have all manner of strong words to offer them in response. We would have little doubt that the result of such a venture would be to the detriment of our country and freedom. Is our faith of less importance to us than our country? Are we not still nursing the wounds from the great schism of 1844? Do we expect our heirs to look more favorably on us for making the same mistake again than we do on our predecessors when they made it first time?

I propose something different from schism. I propose we keep our vows and remain the United Methodist Church not only in name, but in spirit. I propose we endure our differences, which however great still look insignificant when placed beside what Christ endured for us. I propose we not be so quick to put ourselves through the same tragic ordeal our founder John Wesley sought to avoid with all his might. Let’s show the world how a church whose members hold each other ever more tightly in midst of disagreement can be greater than the church that pulls away to try to obtain complete uniformity. Let’s stop following the lead of other denominations that have torn themselves apart over the question of human sexuality and give the world another example to follow, one that is stronger and all the more hopeful. Let’s show them that promises made in the presence of God matter. Let show them that Christians can keep them.

Remember your vows.

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18 Responses to Keeping Our Vows: A Response to the Proposal for a Methodist Schism

  1. Mattie Tolley says:

    Amen. WE Methodists have celebrated our diversity in the past. I know the pace of change is stronger now and faster now and people are living longer so the changes seem more intense. But if God could accept us all, we are still called to all accept each other and be in dialogue about the nature of our differences in peace and love.

  2. Daryl says:

    Now that is a novel concept. Unfortunately the covenant was already broken and it wasn’t by those now calling for schism. Not keeping vows is exactly what has led us here. The words you quote require loyalty to Christ first.

    • Philip Brooks says:

      Daryl,

      Thanks for the comments. Let me make a couple clarifications here. I have never given my support to current practice among some ministers of civil disobedience against the policies of the Discipline. That being said I do sympathize with their crisis of conscience under the current circumstances. There are literally hundreds of reasons I am not a pastor (this one not even being in the top ten), but I do know that if I were I might be placed in a similar dilemma as them between obeying the church and following my conscience and can’t say for sure how I would respond. Certainly the church can get things wrong and depending on how serious the error is, the justification by some that they were “obeying orders” doesn’t always fly.

      I was mostly pointing to what I saw as an obscurity in the proposal for schism. It’s as if the authors were saying they had to destroy the United Methodist Church in order to save it. What’s more their motivations seemed to come from a very different place. Let’s say the next General Conference changes the language in the Discipline concerning homosexuality. I don’t think this is likely, but let’s just pretend that the worse fears of this Gang of 80 came true. If afterwards they all announced they could no longer be a part of the denomination that believes thus and left I would not hold it against them because they would be following their conscience.

      But instead of trusting in the process of the church’s policy-defining methods they are co-opting them by calling for immediate separation now and in a manner that is not really legal according to the Discipline. The United Methodist Church has no actual policies around how to split its church. In fact it has very clear restrictions in place such as the model deed to prevent such an event. Most of the so-called schisms of our denomination have actually not been so much schisms as mass walk-outs. The one exception was the 1844 schism which was most irregular. It occurred by both sides largely ignoring the church’s actual policies. It happened because you had a large enough group with bishops and entire annual conferences behind them that were situated in a specific geographical area. Ultimately it happened because the church ignored its own policies, which is exactly what the Gang of 80 is asking the denomination to do now, only this time no matter what the break would be a lot less clean. They want a no-fault divorce, something not written into the Discipline. Power, not conscience is driving this proposal. I can’t square this with my own vows. If I decided to leave the denomination on my own for moral reasons that’s one thing, but demanding the church suspend its own rules in order to allow me take part of its property and institutional status with me is another.

      • Daryl says:

        I had not noticed an immediate call for breaking up. My readings thus far seemed to point toward action at the next general conference. I could easily have missed it though.
        To my understanding it is a lack of following our discipline and covenant that has led here.

  3. Sometimes a party to a marriage needs some protection but for religious reasons or otherwise, does not want a divorce. Perhaps the other party is continually unfaithful to his/her wedding vows with no repentance, or is violent or disruptive endangering the regular order or the home, Mindful of his/her own vows, the aggrieved party is able to file an action for Separate Maintenance (commonly known as a legal separation) as opposed to filing for divorce. The Judge is then able to issue orders dividing property and preventing the disobedient partner from further disrupting the home, but the marriage is still intact. That is important to many people (and would be for me if I was in that unfortunate situation), as they have made a vow they want to keep, but need the Court’s protection to do what is necessary for themselves and their children.

    The UMC’s situation is analogous, and what the orthodox are seeking is a separate maintenance and not a divorce.

    Like in a marriage, some progressive pastors and bishops are unfaithful to their vows, have said they will continue to be unfaithful, and show no signs of repentance. Some also disrupt the regular course of business of the church family through protests, demonstrations and other behavior design to keep a particular church function from proceeding. The regular order of the church is endangered.

    What the orthodox propose is, like a separate maintenance, a division of assets so they are able to proceed with the regular course of the church family’s business, and so the other party is able to do so as well. Because we still are Christian brothers and sisters, it is not a divorce. A divorce means two people head down their separate paths, with no regard for the other. Assuming that the only major difference between orthodox and progressives in the UMC is the issue of homosexual marriage, we should still be able to have a good relationship.

    If something like a separate maintenance or a divorce does not occur, we might as well fold up our tents, anyway. Currently, we are spending too much energy, time and money on this issue, and ignoring the other needs of our church family and community. The progressives have made it clear that without acquiescence to their position, the disobedience and disruption will continue. Without a “separate maintenance,” our family will no longer be able to function.

    In Christ,

    The enemy hates clarity

    • Philip Brooks says:

      I don’t know what call you, since The Enemy just doesn’t right to me, so I’m just going to call you TEHC. What the time of arrangement you’re describing, which I’m not sure is what the proposal actually called for, sounds very similar to the motion at the last general conference brought for by Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter which would have allowed individual churches getter freedom in how to minister and include LGBT persons in their congregation from the current restrictions in the Discipline, but would not have forced such changes on churches not wishing to change their practices. This motion was defeated, largely by the efforts of the same group that is now proposing schism. They also defeated a motion that would have altered the language in the Social Principles (which do not constitute church law) only to say that there is serious disagreement among United Methodists over the question of homosexuality. Something the Gang of 80 is loudly proclaiming now. So I have to question whether the type of arrangement you’re suggesting is really the aim of this group. All I think the majority of Progressives have demonstrated as they don’t wish to have the current restrictions on their ministry to LBGT remain in place.

      The thing about schism is that it wouldn’t only narrowly allow for each side to continue its course on matters of marriage and human sexuality while otherwise maintaining their current relationship. The division of assets would mean divergent in many other areas whether intently or not. The reason I think the proposal is calling for schism rather than simply greater autonomy on human sexuality is because the Gang does not simply want to be allowed to follow their own course on this issue, they don’t want to be associated with those who follow a different course. That is why I say it is like a divorce, because it would mean they no longer what share our name. They want the world to see a clear distinction here between “us” and “them”. They want separate paths.

      On a further note, we shouldn’t assume the conservatives or the progressives form the only sides in this debate. This will put persons with conflicted views on the matter, or who are ready for gay marriage in the church, or who don’t like the conservative rhetoric in a very difficult position. I think the idea that this one issue and these two sides can effectively divide our denomination into two whole bodies unfounded as is the idea that all persons in the church should be divided solely on the basis their view on this single issue.

  4. What we have seen is an escalation of mutually assured destruction. It is a reality that some Gay weddings have been performed by clergy in the past without discipline and without anyone saying that they are no longer able to be in covenant with them. Look at the Frank Schaefer trial. It was several years(with clergy/ds aware) after the ceremony that a complaint was drawn up, and the complaint was not brought up because of the wedding but because the person bringing the charges mother was fired from her job as music director. Otherwise it would have passed the statute of limitations and everything would have gone on.

    Then we see a few high profile trials costing tens of thousands of dollars with the goal of scaring other pastors from performing a ceremony ever again. This escalation in trials leads to an escalation of clergy willing to make a show in the opposite direction where you have 50 clergy performing one ceremony. The only reason to do that is to make a statement that stands up against the trial.

    Both sides will continue to escalate and the primary means of the covenant “To care for one another and uphold one another in prayer will be lost in the shuffle.

  5. Dean D. Ziegler says:

    What is the reason for labeling this group, “Gang of 80″? Dismantle their reasoning, counter the arguments and offer persuasive responses to their concerns, but ditch the ad hominem rhetoric which itself divides and separates us even as we read these posts. If we argue for against division and for unity in the church, can we not demonstrate our peaceable hopes by a practicing a more generous way of speaking?

    Calling this group a “Gang” casts them as nothing more than hypocritical bullies. And why does one writer above so easily mind-read and know that “they don’t want to associate with progressives”? Is that really the problem here? If this were a simple situation or ethical issue we would have resolved them long ago.

    I absolutely pray we can avoid schism; I do not like the proposal this group advocates. But I do not like the way we so easily ABOUT one another, rather than TO one another, as evidenced by the language we use.

    • Philip Brooks says:

      Dean,

      Thanks for the comment. I’m sorry my blog came across as overly harsh in some places, but I take talk of schism very seriously. As for the Gang of 80 term, I didn’t come up with it. I read it in other media sources and blogs on responding to the proposal. It’s not a reference to street gangs or the criminal underworld. Rather it’s a play on old phrase from legislative politics “Gang of 8“. It refers to several key groups of congressional leaders in government. I thought it was witty so I used it. I didn’t mean it to sound offensive.

      • Dean D. Ziegler says:

        Respected, Phillip. Thanks. The term has been around since Mao if not before and I get that it is rhetorically clever and irresistible. I wouldn’t call your blog harsh so much as illustrative of the ways we all use words that instantly marginalize and diminish those with whom we disagree rather than rigorously attack their arguments. Of all the indignations we suffer, few can compromise a rigorous Jesus-following more quickly than righteous indignation. And believe me, I can get a good head of steam up as easily as the next person. I think our conversations on these divisive issues consist far too often of “lording it over” one another. I abhor schism and separation. I take this talk seriously too. But I am also reflecting on the reality that the changes in thinking I have had on these matters over the years have come IN SPITE OF the conversations I’ve had with some of those most interested in convincing me. Reductionism is never nice. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, LORD have mercy on us all!

      • Philip Brooks says:

        Thomas,

        I have never supported the use of civil disobedience to advance marriage equality in the church. I sympathize with those who feel a crisis of conscience between their ordination vows and what their beliefs.

        That being said, I must disagree with your characterization of the progressives as forcing the divide. Resolutions were brought before General Conference that would have allowed both sides greater freedom in ministering to LGBT persons or that would have at least acknowledged in the Discipline that we are divided on this issue. Both resolutions recieved strong support from the progressives, but were roundly rejected by the conservatives. At least one of the names on this petition spoke against one of these resolutions at conference. Both these resolutions were compromises the progressives were willing to make to the ultimate goals. Now the conservatives want to paint the progressives as the uncompromising ones. You have to laugh at the irony. Two years ago the conservatives wouldn’t put in writing in the Discipline (in a part of the Discipline that carries no force of law, no less) that church opinion is divided on human sexuality. Now all of the sudden they’re ready to split the church over it?

  6. Pingback: Meeting the Middle: Further Response to Schism Proposal | Methodist in the Madness

  7. Thomas Topar says:

    All these post do is further divide us, which I hope will never happen. If we want to talk about facts, then we will see that the real problem is one of Biblical interpretation and authority as noted in the quoted Good News article. The LGBT issue just brought the real issue to a head and is pushing us closer and closer to divide where one side has to win and will not be silenced until it does.

    • Philip Brooks says:

      Thomas,

      How does admitting that church opinion on an issue is more complicated than two clear sides further divide us? Isn’t better for us to talk about this together as a denomination and be honest about how we feel, than form clandestine circles of all like-minded people?

      You’re right that it’s a matter of scriptural interpretation and I think if we were to allow all disagreements over interpretation of texts to cause schism then it would be a disaster. On top of everything I think this proposal could set a dangerous precedent for how to resolve Biblical disputes.

  8. Thomas Topar says:

    Philip,

    It is not that the church does not admit that there is a difference of opinion or that the issue is complicated that is dividing us, but that one side will not quite until they win that is dividing us. It is that one side can brake discipline and a call to stop upholding the discipline until we come to an agreement or change the discipline that is dividing us. It is name calling and demonizing the other side or stating the facts in a way that precludes the other side wrong instead of coming together in prayer and discernment that is dividing.

  9. Pingback: The UMC Is Not Heading for a Split — unless 0.00064 Percent Count as the Majority | CauseHub

  10. greg says:

    The real question is whether both churches will prosper…the danger in splitting is that one side might suffer even greater decline than the denomination has already experienced and some will not be willing to take that chance.

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