Meeting the Middle: Further Response to Schism Proposal

Earlier this week I wrote about the recent proposal by the Gang of 80 to split the United Methodist Church. In my response I talked mostly about the theological ramifications of the proposal. The responses I got and other posts I saw on the subject made me to decide to say more on one the practical ramifications of schism. The idea first came to me after reading Morgan Guyton’s blog entitled “What if Conservatives and Liberals need each other?” I highly recommend everyone read this post. I found it very hopeful because it reminded me that I am not alone.

One of the problems I see with this schism proposal is that it was submitted without any real intention to hearing from a quorum voice in the denomination first. Instead it presents only the views and desires of a conservative wing of the United Methodist Church, and the proponents make no secret of this. They are very careful in trying to explain their own position and that of the progressives in order to argue for an “amicable” separation. The problem isn’t that they misrepresented theirs or even the progressives’ position in the document. The problem is the sizeable number of Methodists whose opinions or interests they completely ignored.

I’m speaking of course of those among us who feel caught in the middle of this issue around human sexuality in the church. By middle I’m not referring to some imaginary fixed point the very center of the theological spectrum. The group I’m talking about might not even fit the proper definition of “moderate.” Rather by middle I mean those for whom the issue does not take center stage or seem as clear cut, but nevertheless feel pressured or torn over the issue.

The middle I refer to could describe any of the following people:

  • Those who would support some type of reform in the Discipline’s statements on human sexuality, but maybe not to same extent as some progressives
  • Those who generally support the current statements, but who do not feel as strong an attachment to them as the conservatives and would not leave the church because of changes on this issue
  • Those who do not see the issue as essential to our identity as Christians or even United Methodists
  • Those who may support one side or the other, but still desire a negotiated position that allows both groups to feel respected and tolerated by the denomination
  • Those who are afraid of the idea of schism because they have friends on both sides of the issue and like the current climate of diversity in the denomination

There are I’m sure plenty of overlaps in this group and probably other examples that could fit the description, but hopefully I’ve made my point. I know that at a sizeable number of these individuals do exist in the church and are sharing similar anxieties to myself right now. The reactions I’ve seen to the proposed schism demonstrate this.

I consider myself one of these Methodists. It is true that I support reforms to the Book of Discipline that would allow greater inclusion of LGBT persons in the church both in membership and ordination and that I also support recognition of gay marriage. That being said, I’m willing to entertain smaller reforms along the way and hope that however we get there, my friends on the right don’t feel disrespected or marginalized. More importantly, like my friend Morgan, I think the diversity and presence of both conservatives and progressives in the church (as well as those in the middle) has been a benefit to us. I wouldn’t feel at home is much in a church that forced uniformity in all things. Like Wesley, I believe in charity over non-essentials. Obviously, we Methodists don’t all agree on what constitutes non-essentials, but even the most conservative or progressive of us I believe still have some engrained appreciation for broadness in theology and opinion.

I also feel a connection to both sides. I agree with the progressives on gay rights and generally appreciate their way of looking at the church’s role in social justice. I also like their fearlessness in being critical when it comes to theological or Biblical conversations. That being said in terms of my own theology, I have a lot in common with the conservatives too. I’m a Nicene Christian who loves the Wesleyan model of grace, affirms the sola triples, and generally prefers the really old theologians like Athanasius and Origen to the more contemporary guys. Perhaps the thing I share most with the conservatives is a love of tradition. I take comfort in knowing the prayers I recite, the songs I sing, or the sacrament I take part in are centuries’ old practices. I take comfort in being connected to the past and feel all the more grounded because of it. That doesn’t mean I’m not critical of that past at times. After all we still need to learn from past mistakes, but generally I’ve found tradition to be a positive and deeply moving presence in my life.

Knowing all that about me do you think I should choose a church solely on the basis of how it views human sexuality? Should this one thing forever define me and where I belong? I hope not. Much as I admire the Episcopalians and Presbyterians, I think they’d get annoyed with my constant references to John Wesley every week in Sunday School. In all seriousness though, I hope I’ve made my point and it’s this:

I am neither a member of the United Methodist Church solely because of its position on human sexuality nor am I likely to leave the United Methodist Church solely because that position has changed. By trying to split the church, the Gang of 80 is, whether they intend it or not, trying to force me and all other Methodists to fight in their battle.

I do care about the issue a lot though. I want LGBT persons to feel as welcome and accepted in this denomination as I have. I want them to continue to be a part of it and to offer their unique witness to us. We are better for it. Of that I am sure. But I also wan the conservatives to still feel welcome as well, to still feel like this is their church and see themselves and the progressives as part of a greater whole. Maybe some of that sounds like pipe-dream, but it’s the best possible dream I can imagine.

I know from relationships with other Methodists and want I’ve read over the past week that I am not alone in this dream. I know there are plenty of other Methodists who celebrate rather than mourn our diversity, but when the Gang of 80 wrote that proposal, they acted like none of us exist. They gave us an ultimatium telling us to choose between them or the progressives. I for one don’t think that’s how members of a church should behave.

This is the real question none of the Gang or any of their supporters has answered:

If you get your way and the church does split into two (one conservative and one progressive), what will happen to us who don’t fit into your neat dichotomy?

If you are like me and find yourself in the middle of the debate without being invited to contribute to it, it’s time to make yourself heard. We have to remind them that this is our church too and we won’t sit idly by while they curve up pieces of it.

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3 Responses to Meeting the Middle: Further Response to Schism Proposal

  1. Nancy K. Gardner Shute says:

    Does the “Gang” not realize that folks from various theological perspectives will rise up within this proposed split church? As people grow in their faith understanding it is entirely possible that progressives will emerge with the conservative church and vice versa. Same holds true for moderates. A proposal for schism is based on the dream of the “perfect church.” I’m rather surprised that theological educators would even entertain such a naive idea.

    • Nancy K. Gardner Shute says:

      Oops! “Will emerge within,” not with.

    • Philip Brooks says:

      Good point Nancy.

      Just this morning I read a story about a church that left the Southern Baptist Convention so that it could change its policies and teachings around homosexuality. Now I can’t think of a denomination that tried harder in the 1970s to bring about strict uniformity and yet here we see voices of dissent emerging from within.

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