Separation Without Schism?

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?

53 thoughts on “Separation Without Schism?

  1. I agree with Brad on much of what he says. My question is this: if the so-called “progressives” split amicably with the UMC, what happens if members of the (more conservative) UMC continue to give birth to babies that five per cent of the time turn out to be gay? I say this in all seriousness. Will the issue of full inclusion and marital rights for gay and lesbians go away with a split? This issue will forever be before our body– both sides of the split– until people quit giving birth to people who turn out to be gay. Since all of us know this is an impossibility, I suggest we figure out how to remain the same church and give pastors and local churches the privilege of choosing for themselves whether they will marry same-gendered couples or not. I say we figure out how to admit in 2016 that United Methodist Christians in good faith disagree on this issue, and then find our way forward. One good thing about weddings– nobody except the two getting married are required to attend.

  2. What I’m hearing from Brad particularly is that the progressive view is the correct one, and the progressives are not willing to let the UM Church continue in its error. Therefore, they will stay in the church and agitate until the church gives in to the rightness of the progressive view.

    That is why separation is necessary. Why should the church continue to fund, support, and accept as members people who believe the church is fundamentally wrong about this important issue? I agree with David that the breaking point is not disagreement, but disobedience. I am happy to live in a church where people disagree with one another. That’s called a family. But when members of the family refuse to go along with the family’s joint decisions, they are in effect taking themselves outside the family. At that point, their continued disruption of the family’s life together is not only unhelpful, it is unhealthy for the family.

    • Tom,

      I’d be more sympathetic to your perspective on separation (given where I am theologically) if I did not perceive that this conversation was being led by the pastors of the largest and wealthiest churches on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Where does a small to mid-sized, community/neighborhood-based, socioeconomically, politically, and possibly racially diverse congregation fit in between the two “sides”? If there are elements within the denomination who simply cannot co-exist with the way the UMC currently interprets Scripture as it relates to human sexuality (as it appears there are such people/pastors/congregations), then maybe allowing their members, pastors, and their property to leave to a like-minded denomination (ELCA, TEC, PC(USA)) MIGHT be appropriate, as much as it would grieve me to see some of my seminary classmates and current colleagues leave. But to split the UMC into two “sides,” with the implied (if not intended) message that churches belonging to those bodies uniformily agree with the given side they’re a part of, will not create a clean separation. As many others have commented on this comment thread, such a “separation,” driven by churches that are not representative of the average congregation in the UMC, will create a shattering of the denomination, with either functional congregationalism and/or several weak and unsustainable denominations as the result of such a separation.

      • Good News has been building an alternative denomination for at least the entire 34 years I’very been a United Methodist. Lambrecht’s claim of “reluctance” to separate strain credulity.

      • I have been involved with Good News since 1992, and I can unequivocally say that we have never undertaken a project or ministry with the intent of building a separate denomination. You can call me a liar if you want, but that is God’s honest truth. For over 45 years, our purpose has been to strengthen the United Methodist Church, not to divide it. We believe it is those who have departed from United Methodist doctrine and moral teaching who are dividing the church.

        To Joe’s point, let me say that no one thinks this would be easy or clean. A separation would be messy. And we are in a messy situation right now. Which mess is worse? If separation is the course chosen, the hope would be that the mess would enable a reboot of the church that would clear the way to more single-mindedly pursue the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ–for both groups, according to their theological perspective. As it is, the current mess is only getting messier and seems to have no resolution goal possible.

      • The claim that “Good News has been building an alternative denomination for at least 34 years” is not the kind of discourse that I find helpful on this site. It is a simple, unfounded, assertion made without supporting argument. If there are reasons for saying that this evangelical group has somehow been building an “alternative denomination,” please make the case for this.

    • Separate Mission organization, Separate Public policy advocacy organization (IRD), separate publishing house, separate women’s organization. What else do you want?

      • It is true, Jon, that all those organizations exist. Good News helped form some of them, but not others. In every case, the reason the organization formed was to better engage the UMC in the efforts of renewal and reform, not to create another denomination. Good News has been accused of divisive intent over the years, but we categorically deny such intention.

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