Is “schism” okay? What to make of the Methodist split [Theological memoir#7]

Ted Grimsrud—January 3, 2020

I just read a news report in the Washington Post, “United Methodist Church is expected to split over gay marriage disagreement, fracturing the nation’s third-largest denomination.” According to this article, the decision appears to have been a mutual one among the two major UMC factions, one that seemingly gives both sides much of what they want. That is, of course, if the new proposal is affirmed by the denomination’s legislative process.

I don’t have any close contacts in the UMC and have not been following the drama closely these past several years. So this article comes as a bit of a surprise to me. I don’t have any insights to offer on the Methodist drama. But the news strikes me as very interesting, and it has triggered a few reflections.

Can “schisms” be good?

I experienced first-hand, in a very small way, some of the anxiety related to churches splitting about 30 years ago. I began my first pastorate in a tiny Mennonite congregation in Eugene, Oregon, in 1987. After my first year, I was up for consideration for ordination. Conservative elements in the regional conference had an advocate on the conference leadership committee who blocked my ordination. One of the tools in his arsenal that gave him some power was the threat that a number of conference congregations would leave the conference if I were ordained.

After three years of painful deliberations, I was finally ordained. About the same time, two women pastors (one a congregational minister, the second a chaplain) were also ordained (the first women to be ordained in the conference, over the objections of many conservatives). As threatened, a couple of congregations did leave the conference. However, in a delicious irony, the congregation the leadership committee member pastored refused to leave the conference. Instead that pastor was asked to leave the congregation.

This was all pretty traumatic for me, and when the opportunity arose to pastor elsewhere, I did so—leaving Oregon in 1994. Over a quarter of a century later, I still deeply miss living in the state of my birth. However, I am grateful for the opportunities that opened up after we moved on.

I have not remained in close touch with the people in the Pacific Northwest Conference. I did hear, though, in the several years after we left, that things actually worked out pretty well in many ways. New congregations loyal to the conference arose in both settings where the existing congregations left—and seemingly at first anyhow, had meaningful ministries. The pastor whose congregation didn’t want to leave found a position in a non-conference Mennonite congregation and finished his career there. And, especially interesting, people on both sides of the split reported that they actually got along better with each other afterwards, continuing to cooperate in intra-Mennonite ministries such as Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Disaster Service.

I have used that experience of “schism” in Oregon as evidence that sometimes it’s okay when churches split. Sometimes it’s okay to acknowledge that we might get along better and be more free to follow our sense of purpose if we aren’t trying to co-exist in the same structure. It does seem that there is a way to split that leads to more good. I hope that that will be the case for post-United Methodist Church “Schism” Methodists.

Decentralizing Christianity

Being a person with anarchist leanings, I certainly am not a fan of large, centralized denominations. And I do think Christians have tended to make a fetish of being “united” when major differences remain unresolved and submerged. The ideal of embracing diversity under the umbrella of this or that “united” or “catholic” church institution does have genuine appeal, but all too often it has fueled a kind of mystification about authentic unity actually existing when it does not—and it has strengthened the leverage of institutionalists who have resisted prophetic and transformative ministries that have sought to do peacemaking work while also threatening more conservative elements.

Apparently, the United Methodists who oppose same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly LGBTQ clergy will formally be the ones to leave the UMC and will presumably form a new denomination. I wonder if that might not be problematic for the progressives in the sense that retaining the structures of the centralized denomination might not be terribly conducive to creative ministry. In any case, I do hope that, freed from the interminable conflicts and the political machinations of the conservative faction of the UMC, the progressive forces in that denomination might find a new sense of empowerment not only to be a welcoming place for vulnerable people but also more broadly a force for genuinely healing social ministry.

The picture at the top of this blog post comes from the Washington Post article I cited that reports on this Methodist decision. I use it here with a sense of irony and hope. The picture with the church steeple, American flag, and rainbow flag comes from a Methodist congregation in the midwest. I find the juxtaposition of those two flags deeply unsettling. My dream is that this new direction for Methodists might, in the long run, free them from their nationalism as more gospel-focused emphases are enabled. A truly liberated United Methodist Church might become a place that proudly flies the rainbow flag and leaves the American flag out in its vision of embodying a truly welcoming and peace-oriented Christianity.

[The “Theological Memoirs” series of blog posts]



6 thoughts on “Is “schism” okay? What to make of the Methodist split [Theological memoir#7]

  1. Having been United Methodist as part of my journey of faith and life, I have watched the development for many years. The Western Jurisdiction had already decided to allow persons of any sexual orientation to become clergy and many congregations have become “Reconciling” (as they call welcoming and affirming.) There is already a married lesbian bishop in Colorado. Back in 1987, when I was licensed by the Central District Conference of the GC Mennonite Church, I had been asked if I would preside over a homosexual wedding, but I wasn’t asked how I love God and neighbor. I hope the obsession with sexual and gender orientation someday recedes and compassion and justice come to the fore. I also hope that someday the UMC will more fully embrace this denominational statement:

    War and Peace
    We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy. We oppose unilateral first/preemptive strike actions and strategies on the part of any government. As disciples of Christ, we are called to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict. We insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to work together to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them. We advocate the extension and strengthening of international treaties and institutions that provide a framework within the rule of law for responding to aggression, terrorism, and genocide. We believe that human values must outweigh military claims as governments determine their priorities; that the militarization of society must be challenged and stopped; that the manufacture, sale, and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled; and that the production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons be condemned. Consequently, we endorse general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.

  2. I enjoy independence when it comes to politics and religion and education. There have been far too many sensitive personal decisions to be made in those areas of my life for me to surrender responsibilities to either church or state. I do very much enjoy group discussions and college classes. I came from a long line of Methodist ministers and Joy and I were married in the Methodist church where I grew up. But then came Vietnam…. and by the time it was over, Joy and I were on our own. We have not regretted leaving the US Flag waving in the church yard and avoiding the draft along with getting past the sexism of Judaeo Christianity. We went from meat eating to truck patching, beekeeping and bird feeding and… what a wonderful trip it has been.

  3. My wife is a lifelong United Methodist. She told me that it seems to her the schism is being driven by members outside the US, that US congregations are generally more progressive. So, the US flag and rainbow flag pairing might really be pretty representative.

    That said… yes, please, take the American flag out of the sanctuary. And, though I’m a love-is-love kind of guy, no rainbow flags either. Seems to me Jesus, in so many examples, taught against allegiances to the nation state, and against divisions among peoples based on class and social status. My thoughts, anyway…. Thank you for sharing yours!

  4. I don’t think we should accept that “schisms” are ever good. They are a sign of our sinful nature, that we always live with. We may need to accept breaking relationships, from time to time, but I don’t think we should bow to saying this is what is good for us or the church. “Schisms” remind me that we should all be reading more Process Theology, to understand this. God can meet us in our unfaithfulness and take us from there, even when we confess that there are better ways. Unity should still be our highest confession.

  5. Unity is always possible for those who are submitted to the authority of God through the scriptural teaching of Jesus in the witness of the apostles. There are many not willing to submit to that authority. When it becomes apparent that submission to Christ as revealed in the recorded witnesses of scripture is not what individuals and groups are committed to then schism has already occurred and must be acknowledged by those who are committed to it and the historical Christ’s teaching. Hence sometimes removal from organizations that have abandoned the teaching of the apostles is required of the faithful; the schism is not their doing.

  6. I happened across this post, and assume (maybe wrongly) that the writer is either a progressive or has bought into the false narrative on the issue of gays in the UMC. The denominations book of discipline (church law) has stated for many years that gays are welcome in the UMC. In fact that has been the practice of most all UMC churches. That said, the book of discipline did draw one line in the sand and that was over same sex weddings in the church and the ordination of gay clergy.

    Traditionalist who opposed changing the law to allow gay clergy and same sex weddings do so based on scripture. Progressives, have been led by Adam Hamilton down a road that proclaims some scripture no long applies to todays social norms. Let that sink in, progressives are saying the scripture needs to change to reflect today instead of the other way around. The scripture has worked for thousands of years, until now say the progressives. They go on to say that scripture they oppose was written for a different people in a different time. This leaves me to wonder how they select the scripture that they believe applies today as opposed to scripture they no longer believe applies.

    The progressive outlook on scripture and the Bible seem to be at odds with …. well …. the Bible. Up until recently the Bible (the most published book in the world) has stood on its own. But in todays society, progressives have made it an à la carte source for some new religion. The UMC which is led by mostly progressive bishops even voted years ago on affirming a woman’s right to end the life of her unborn child. This schism has been long coming, and is finally welcomed by both sides.

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