Good News has just published a press statement regarding some eighty pastors and theologians who are calling for a division of the denomination.
A group of leading pastors and theologians released a progress report on their considerations regarding the future of The United Methodist Church. Hailing from all five jurisdictions, the more than 80 pastors and theologians have engaged in sober and prayerful conversations via conference call over the past two months. The discussion was launched because the group believes that our denomination is facing a crisis regarding 1.) covenant, 2.) organizational discipline, 3.) authority of Scripture, and 4.) discipleship.
“deep breath* Ok…
First of all, on whose behalf do these eighty leading pastors and theologians speak? I can’t discern a direct affiliation with any particular caucus group. I’ve heard about these conversations, but I really don’t even know who was involved with them, with the exception of a few people. The fact that eighty pastors and theologians are calling for a split is not necessarily compelling for me, particularly since I don’t know who most of these folks are, what their positions are, or how they were selected to participate in this conversation. I would like to know how these folks arrived at this decision, and what plans they have for executing the division.
Additionally, before I support the formation of a new Wesleyan/Methodist denomination, I’d like to know what I’m signing on for. I have deep commitments to doctrinal orthodoxy, and I’m not in the least appreciative of the “ecclesial disobedience” that has taken place on the progressive side of our arguments. If there were a split, I would very likely go with the more conservative branch of the two divisions (assuming I went with either). It’s premature to make this judgment, however, without knowing what we’re getting into. How will the two groups describe the nature and function of scripture? What statements will each group make about human sexuality? How will each group determine its doctrinal standards? How will its polity be organized? How will it handle itinerancy? What will each group have to say about seminary education, and which schools will each group support?
A few more concerns:
There are some large churches that pay very large apportionments to their conferences. If I’m at a Ginghamsburg or a Church of the Resurrection, why would I wish to affiliate with either new denomination? How does that benefit my congregation? I could see many larger, wealthier congregations simply going independent.
What will happen to missionary work, schools, and other ministries that rely upon support from general boards and agencies of the denomination?
Can our current polity allow for a split? This may sound like a rather silly question, since if we divided we would no longer share a Book of Discipline. But the decision to split would have to come from within the UMC, and it would not surprise me at all if it were struck down by our Judicial Council. If that happens, then the only recourse will be to do what some progressive churches are doing right now, essentially divesting from the denomination. That could well lead to legal battles.Before going down this road, we would do well to learn from what has happened to the Episcopal Church.
I don’t believe in the reality of an amicable separation. Yes, we may separate, but it will not be amicable. It will be brutal. Will it be left to individual congregations to sort out which side of the dispute they want to go with? Top-level leaders sorting out the division of our pension fund may behave with all due civility, but the church council meetings that will follow will be ugly. The folks I really hurt for in all of this are the people of the local church whose lives are not wrapped up in the political realities of our denominations, people who just want to attend church, worship God, and do good. Many of those people will leave and not come back. They will go to Bible churches, other denominations, or simply never return to church.
All this having been said, I stand by what I wrote on ecclesial disobedience: if it continues, the inevitable result will be division. There is no way around it. Ecclesial disobedience represents a breakdown in the way in which we order our lives together. That breakdown has already been quite costly, and it may cost us much more going forward.