Lots of people are talking about schism in the UMC. I’m one of them. I don’t want a schism, but I recognize that one may be inevitable. Is it possible, though, that United Methodists could separate into two denominations without constituting a schism?
There have been many schisms, separations, and splinters in the history of the Church, but two stand out as most significant. The first is the schism between the East and West, which actually took place over centuries, but was made official in 1054 when Cardinal Humbert, the envoy of Pole Leo IX, walked into Hagia Sophia and placed a document on the altar a document excommunicating Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius. Even after this time, Eastern and Western Christians lived and worshipped together. Eventually, however, a state of affairs emerged in which these eastern and western churches no longer recognized one another’s sacraments (including ordination), teaching authority, and liturgical traditions. There were other consequences as well, and over time they became two entirely separate communions.
The second major schism is of course the Protestant Reformation. We normally date the beginning of the Reformation to 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the church in Wittenberg. As with the first schism, however, this one was a long time in coming. The result was that we ended up with more Christians in separate communion from one another, without recognizing one another’s sacraments, ordination, liturgy, and teaching authority. Luther and many others were excommunicated. It wasn’t long, moreover, before Protestants began to break off from one another, each group insisting that it had the proper way to interpret scripture and the Christian life.
Ben Witherington of Asbury Seminary has recently written a blog post calling for another of these Protestant separations. He argues for the formation of a new Christian denomination that could be called something like the Progressive Methodist Church. Those United Methodists who cannot or will not live within the boundaries stipulated in the Book of Discipline, he says, should be allowed to go their own way in peace. They should be able to keep their properties and pensions. We should make all this as painless as possible, because the state we’re living in now can’t continue.
I’m not ready to endorse this idea, but there is something appealing about it. We have to find some way to let some air out of the balloon, or it’s going to pop. The last General Conference was a madhouse. I’m certain that the next one will be worse.
So let’s say we took Dr. Witherington’s advice and separated amicably into the Progressive Methodist Church and The United Methodist Church. This would not necessarily constitute a smaller scale version of the Great Schism of 1054 or the Protestant Reformation. It seems likely, for example, that we would recognize one another’s sacramental authority. Implicitly, then, we would recognize the ordination of the people who performed the sacraments. After all, we recognize the sacramental authority of many different traditions. In fact, the UMC is already in full communion with the ELCA (which ordains gay and lesbian people), which means, among other things, that we may exchange clergy with one another. We implicitly recognize the ordination of very broad range of traditions by recognizing the baptism of virtually every other Christian group. Last I checked, we don’t ask if the person who performed the baptism was gay. Problems could arise if the baptism was in some name other than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but that’s probably about it. Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, ELCA, PCA, PCUSA, UCC, Southern Baptist—it doesn’t really matter. If the minister was ordained in his/her tradition, we recognize his or her sacramental authority. It would require a full-communion agreement to bring their ministers into our churches, but we nevertheless implicitly state that their ordination is valid.
If the UMC separated into two different denominations, would we be less generous with one another than we are with, say, the Lutherans? It seems unlikely. What we’re talking about then, is not a schism, but a separation.
You may say, “You’re splitting hairs, here, Watson! You’re arguing semantics!” No, imaginary interlocutor, I am not. For Christians to recognize one another’s ordinations and sacramental authority is one of the most important ways in which we can promote unity in the body of Christ. It is the opposite of schism, and it is much more important than a denominational structure or some other formal means of identifying various Christian groups. Why? Sacrament is where the real action is in Christianity. The sacraments are where we most directly encounter God. When we say that we recognize one another’s sacraments and ordinations, we’re saying that in these sacramental activities, God is really showing up. Christ really is mediated to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Is there anything more important than that?