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.
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.