Returning from annual conference each year offers a great opportunity for reflection on the unity of the church in her witness and mission. Our annual conference session a few weeks ago in Arkansas was especially encouraging.
The Holy Spirit was present in worship, the teaching was encouraging, and conference initiatives like 200,000 Reasons to Fight Childhood Hunger were inspiring. It all made me excited to be among the People Called Methodists!
And yet, you only have to look more broadly within the United Methodist Church to see ways that the church is fracturing. Particularly in other parts of the United States, the actions of some bishops, boards of ordained ministry, and whole annual conferences are putting stress on the United Methodist connection in ways that threaten to tear the church apart.
The actions in question are related to the way that some forces in the church have refused to recognize the authority of the General Conference, Judicial Council, and the Book of Discipline itself. When that happens, the very idea that we are a church bound by a common covenant starts to fracture.
The word that often comes up when talking with others about the current troubles in the UMC is “schism.” The word has to do with a split or a division. It’s also a loaded term, not to be taken lightly.
John Wesley had a perspective on schism that can help us think through what the word really means in a church context. That Wesleyan perspective offers us clarity in the present.
In his sermon “On Schism,” Wesley defines schism in the Bible as “a disunion in mind and judgment—perhaps also in affection—among those who, notwithstanding this, continued outwardly united as before” (¶I.2).
He’s talking about the way the word is used in 1 Corinthians, when the Apostle Paul is giving counsel to the Christians in Corinth about divisions in the church there. Wesley contends that true schism doesn’t happen at the point that a group of people leaves the church. Schism actually occurs before that—when the actions and attitudes of a group cause division within the body as it exists.
Wesley’s point is that the biblical meaning of schism “is not a separation from any church … but separation in a church” (¶I.1).
Wesley is also unsparing in his criticism of such action. As he puts it, schism is “both evil in itself, and productive of evil consequences” (¶II.10). It is evil in itself because it constitutes a “grievous breach of the law of love,” tearing apart that which God desires to be united. And it is productive of evil consequences in that it leads to anger and resentment within the body of Christ.
The issues that have led to schismatic actions within the UMC are no secret. The primary issue is the way that people read the Bible and understand biblical authority. Closely related to that is how we identify and interpret the work of the Holy Spirit. And of course, the actual presenting issues are those related to God’s intention for our sexuality, the definition of marriage, and the standards for ordination.
The current fervor of progressive theology aims to force change on a United Methodist Church that has chosen, time and again, to affirm the traditional biblical understanding of marriage and sexuality (including all the points in our Book of Discipline that support traditional doctrinal positions). What is different now than in the past is the strategy being employed. Whereas once upon a time, opposing voices in the church bided their time and waited for the church to “catch up to the culture,” now they have determined to ignore church teaching and church polity to impose their own views by any means necessary.
The consequences of schism are always tragic—as John Wesley well knew. The Commission on a Way Forward has yet to report its work, and there is a General Conference called for 2019. Yet what hope does the church have if the very church leaders responsible for upholding the covenant we share treat it as if it is entirely optional? It is a vexing question.
There is either a covenant, or there is not. If there is a covenant, then there is a church. But if those within the covenant insist on willfully ignoring it, then the United Methodist Church will dissipate before our very eyes.
The great dilemma that those who believe in the covenant of the United Methodist Church are facing now is what we do when schism is forced upon us by the actions of those who seemingly don’t care about the consequences of what they are doing.
None of this is easy. But I am convinced that God is not finished with us. There will surely be a covenant to embrace and a church to serve when our current schism has been overcome. Veni Sancte Spiritus!
This essay also appeared in the Arkansas United Methodist newspaper’s July 7, 2017 edition.