The Coming Methodist Schism
A Methodist pastor responded to my request yesterday for someone within Methodism to explain what’s going on in the church in light of the news that the Methodist pastor who conducted a marriage service for his gay son would not be tried in church court for violating church discipline. Will there be a schism? I asked. The pastor responds:
You ask will there be a schism? Yes. The UMC has one body that speaks for it. The General Conference which meets every presidential election year. At General Conference United Methodists from all over the globe attend. The UMC is in decline in the US, slower then our fellow mainline denominations but declining nonetheless, and that pace of decline will soon pick up as more and more of our members die off. I serve a church that worships around 300 and the average age of my congregation is around 60 and we are considered young and relatively healthy. Despite the US decline there are more United Methodists now then ever, over 12 million (7 million in the US). The church is growing everywhere else in the world. The largest religion in South Korea is United Methodism. Methodism is growing in the Philippines, Latin America, and even Eastern Europe. As great as that is it pales in comparison to Africa.
The Holy Spirit is doing an amazing thing in Africa and the United Methodist Church is reaping quite a harvest for Christ. There are some estimates that say by the time we meet again at General Conference (2016) almost 40% of the attendees will be from outside the United States with most of them coming from Africa.
At General Conference clergy and lay delegates from the many conferences around the world vote on what will be included in our Book of Discipline. One former bishop of the Baltimore-Washington Conference called this the “book of the covenant.” In the Discipline is all of the rules and regulations that we covenant to uphold. It includes everything from our history, to Wesleyan theology, to how to sell church property when a church closes down (something that is happening at a faster rate). Some of our social teaching is in there as well including the United Methodist Position on homosexuality, homosexual clergy, and homosexual weddings. The 2012 Book of Discipline states:
¶ 4. Article IV. Inclusiveness of the Church: The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection.
¶ 304.3: The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church
¶ 304.3: The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. (My comment: You can be a non practicing homosexual and be ordained)
¶ 341.6: Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches. (My comment: This is the part of the covenant that Rev. Ogletree broke and will not pay a penalty for. In addition one of our retired bishops, Melvin Talbert, also broke this part of the covenant and to the best of my knowledge has not faced any penalty either)
Every year for at least the past twenty something years the liberals in the church try to force a change in the language and I believe in 2008 where very close to doing so. Usually when the liberals lose they stage some sort of protest like draping the altar in black. In 2012 thanks to the large African and foreign delegations and because the conferences that are shrinking the fastest in the US are the most liberal ones the vote was not even close. The liberals threw a hissy fit and decided “the gospel” was calling them to break with this “unjust” part of the covenant. So that is where we are today. In fact even when a pastor like Frank Schaefer is defrocked there is usually a liberal bishop in a liberal conference who will offer them a pulpit.
Your second question was how do you avoid one? I do not see how. The covenant, and that is what the Book of Discipline is, has been broken. There is no fixing it. Now like a good Wesleyan I believe there is always God’s grace and through the power of the Cross of Christ all things can be made new but I don’t see it happening. In order to receive God’s grace and for the atoning work of Christ to be done in our lives one side or the other must repent of their sins. Without repentance there can be no acceptance of grace. Neither side wants to repent. When I attended Wesley most of my fellow students and all of our professors were theologically and politically liberal. While George Bush was president the students and faculty wrote letters and held candlelit vigils protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (nothing wrong with that by the way). When President Obama ordered the surge in Afghanistan there was nary a peep. One of my more moderate theology professors once told me that you could take the platform of the Democrat Party, take out the Party name and replace it with God and the UMC and most all of the faculty, staff, administration, and student body would whole heartily support it. He was right. For my liberal colleagues the most important thing to them about faith is social justice. Now I am not against social justice at all and believe it is the duty of every Christian to attend to the least, the last, and the lost but they raise social justice to the level of an idol. It becomes the very foundation and bedrock of their faith. Things like the Cross, the Spirit, worship, the sacraments, the church, doctrine, and creed all take a back seat to social justice. In homosexual rights, marriage, and ordination they believe they have found the social justice issues of our time. I was finishing up seminary not many years ago and I can remember as I was getting ready for graduation a delegation of homosexual Wesley students (keep in mind that no avowed homosexual can be ordained in the UM) were preparing to head to the General Conference to whip up support to change the Book of Discipline. I cannot see them changing their minds or their hearts over this.
For our part, those of the theological right, we are in the ascendant (in United Methodism) and therefore I cannot see us changing our minds and repenting of our sin either. I pray everyday for humility in all situations but particularly this one and I pray my fellow conservatives do too. I fear that given our fallen and sinful natures that this will not be the case. When someone breaks the covenant I am all for trials but if the accused repent I am for offering them grace and restoring them to fellowship as Christ has done for us who though we were sinners have been saved by God’s grace and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. My fear is that we will instead turn this thing into the Inquisition.
Finally you ask if it is desirable to avoid schism. Two years ago I would have said at all costs. Now I do not think we should avoid it and indeed I think the sooner we get it over with the better all involved will be. As I said before I love the United Methodist Church. I serve Jesus Christ through the UMC, I am employed by the UMC, I have a health care and retirement plan through the UMC. I have a lot at stake here. Most importantly I want to get on with ministry. I want to make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (the UMC’s motto). I want to pastor my flock, lead worship, preside at the sacraments, preach the word, and serve the least of these. I do not want to argue about things on which the Bible is clear. I do not want to see this happen but at this point there is no other way. The covenant is broken. There is no repentance. No repentance means that grace cannot be accepted and healing begin. I wish my fellow liberal colleagues who support breaking the covenant well. I pray that if I am wrong in this God will show me where and I pray that He will give me the courage to repent. As of right now I have read and reread the Scriptures concerning this issue. I have prayed about this issue. I believe I stand in good faith with God’s will on this issue. I believe that Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience have shown what the church’s witness must be in regard to homosexuality. I think that the current stance of the UMC on the issue is the right one as it affirms our sacred worth and sinful natures (both heterosexual and homosexual alike). To paraphrase Martin Luther “here I stand I can do no other”.
I asked him if I could publish his letter, and he agreed, as long as I didn’t publish his name or identifying details. He adds:
Please do protect my anonymity. I am still low on the totem pole within the conference and there are people in powerful positions who, despite our denominational stance on homosexuality, could ruin my career (which I couldn’t care less about) and prevent me from following my calling (which I care deeply about). You can tell Andrew Sullivan that even within a Christian denomination that publicly holds to a scriptural understanding of marriage and a traditional understanding of ordination for ministry regarding human sexuality (heterosexuals must be celibate too at least until marriage) there are powerful forces at work to silence and ostracize.