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.