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. If the answer isn’t some form of separation, then the answer has to be that we hold one another accountable–truly accountable–to our shared covenant embodied in the Book of Discipline. I don’t think that’s an acceptable answer to the progressives; they will either leave, or they will continue agitating in ways just bordering on sedition. Or, they eventually prevail and get traditionalists and evangelicals to leave, either by wearing them down with their agitation or by successfully changing the BOD (which seems an increasingly remote possibility to both parties).

  2. Very reasonable, David. Thank you for your thoughts.

    Unfortunately, Dr. Witherington’s post verged on being a polemic, which is disappointing. Though he doesn’t call me a heretic for supporting full LGBT inclusion, it feels like he comes close. Is it really so troublesome to have some members, church, and clergy performing marriages that he wouldn’t? I guess so. We who are “progressive” are not fundamentally bothered by being in a church with conservatives. We take it for granted. But it seems that those who are conservative cannot stomach being in a church with progressives.

    If the separation comes, I’d vote for a “Methodist Episcopal Church” and an “Evangelical Methodist Church.” Those names seem more appropriate for our theological orientations.

    Final question: Will women still be ordained in the conservative side of the split? I don’t see how their hermeneutic will allow it.

    • Thanks for your comment, Brad. I appreciate the dialogue. There are a couple of items I’d like to follow up on here. First is the question, “Is it really so troublesome to have some members, church, and clergy performing marriages that he [Witherington] wouldn’t?” My own opinion is that there is a problem if such marriages are specifically prohibited by the Discipline. The issue here is not disagreement with the Discipline. We gather every four years in part because we recognize the need to revise the Discipline at times. Yet there is no point in our coming together at considerable expense every four years if the decisions we come to, some of which constitute canon law for our tradition, have no real authority. I have no problem at all being in a denomination with progressives and evangelicals. I do, however, object to the practice of using the authority and privileges of ordination, which are bestowed by the church through our bishops, in ways that violate the same church’s collective decisions.

      Second, I would say that if there is a group within the UMC that will not abide by the collective decisions of the General Conference, that group should identify a new name and identity, while the body that did abide by the collective decisions of the GC should maintain the same name.

      Finally, I can’t imagine that women would not be ordained in the conservative side of the split, though I think I see the logic of your argument. I would suggest, though, that in both the progressive and evangelical camps, there is not a single hermeneutic being employed, but rather a variety of hermeneutics that bring people to similar decisions.

      • Dear David, I believe I follow that line of thinking, though I suppose it amounts to “If you don’t like the rules, stop playing the game.” The potential for chaos is real, I admit. Progressives know we’re breaking the rules and potentially stirring up turmoil.

        However, we can’t quit every group whose practices or rules are problematic. I don’t like plenty of the laws in the United States, and I’m willing to break a few of them (I suppose), but that doesn’t mean I should leave the country, does it?

        Civil disobedience has a long history of being a force for meaningful social change. Yes, it can be messy. And people who are in a privileged class will see us as fomenting chaos. But to us, we believe we’re taking the best moral action possible, given our commitment to our community. In other words, we love the United Methodist Church, and we don’t want to leave it in its current state. We don’t want to abandon a church that has done such good things for us, especially when we see the church enslaved to the sin of homophobia. We refuse to be enablers of ignorance and hatred, and we refuse to abandon a church that wishes we would simply enable its bad habit. We see civil disobedience as a difficult but necessary act of healing for the church.

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