The Liabilities of Thought

For some time I have lamented the fact that our conversations in United Methodism have been so myopic. We argue about human sexuality, and this topic dominates social media, discussions related to the Connectional Table, annual conferences, and the General Conference. Of course, human sexuality is an important topic, one worth talking about, but there are many important topics, and most are lost in our current denominational shouting match.

I never thought there would be a topic that would dethrone human sexuality from its privileged place at the top of the UM agenda. I was wrong. We have now entered into a period of unprecedented navel-gazing. We have fixated on avoiding “schism,” and even the mere mention of the word has the power to shape delegations and bring together groups that seem to have little in common otherwise.

I have to admit, I have been taken aback by the power of this political strategy. In West Ohio, evangelicals, who usually make a strong showing, were just royally trounced by a coalition of centrists and progressives. One evangelical clergy person was elected to General Conference. The centrists and progressives in our conference combined their slate, while raising the specter of “schism” in social media. It was a kind of Methodist Red Scare. And it worked.

None of the evangelical leaders in West Ohio has supported a denominational division. The leadership of the Evangelical Fellowship of West Ohio was approached about this, but they declined to participate. As one who was on the evangelical slate, I was implicitly thrown in among the “schismatics” despite my many public statements against dividing the denomination. United Methodism is the church of my baptism, confirmation, and ordination. I have never belonged to any other tradition. I grew up in UMYF. I attended a UM seminary and took vows to uphold the doctrines and disciplines of this tradition. My wife and I were married in a UM church by a UM minister. I served on the staff of a UM church in Dallas, and now serve as the Academic Dean of a UM seminary. I have served on the Miami Valley District Committee on Ordained Ministry, the West Ohio Board of Ordained Ministry, the Inclusive Body of Christ Ministry Team, and the University Senate. I attend a UM congregation weekly with my family and am raising my children in this tradition. Heck, I co-wrote a book called Key United Methodist Beliefs. Perhaps you can see, then, why I would be a bit offended at the implication that I want to destroy this church.

In times of crisis, however, facts and rationality become luxuries many feel we cannot afford. Let’s think for a moment about the possibility of “schism” in our denomination. Would election of more evangelical candidates to the General Conference likely result in a denominational division? If we answer “yes” to this question, we are assuming that the tendency among evangelicals is toward division. Keep in mind, however, that when a few key leaders associated with Good News called a group of eighty or so evangelical United Methodist pastors and other church leaders together to discuss division, the group ultimately opted against a split. They made a conscious decision, at least at that time, that the division of the denomination was not something they wished to pursue. Yet rather than take this as a sign that evangelical UM leaders favored keeping the denomination together, many in the UMC have taken this as a sign that evangelicals wish to split the denomination. It is contrary to reason, but reason be damned. The possibility of division is a powerful political tool.

Even if it were true, however, that the majority of evangelicals wished to split the denomination, and even if these church-splitters could in fact get enough of their ilk elected to GC, how would they go about engineering this split? Maybe I’m missing something. That’s entirely possible. Yet I can’t see any way that a legislative division could take place. As I have argued before,

The idea that evangelicals will vote the church into division at General Conference is simply unrealistic. Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume for a moment that most evangelicals do want division (an assumption that I do not in fact hold). Let’s also assume that enough of these divisive folks were elected to General Conference to gain a majority vote. How would they go about dividing the denomination at General Conference? Through legislation? What form could such legislation take? It would either require a constitutional amendment or violate the constitution of the UMC. In the first case, it would take a supermajority of delegates and annual conferences to pass. That such legislation could gain such widespread support seems exceedingly unlikely. In the second case, it would be struck down by the Judicial Council. It would be pointless, and any delegate worth his or her salt will know this. If the division of the church does happen, it won’t happen through legislation. It will happen by individual churches leaving the denomination, and possibly forming some other type of association among themselves.

Yes, individual churches may simply leave on their own. Faced with mounting legal costs, annual conferences will likely let them go. This scenario becomes more likely as certain bishops continue to facilitate violations of the discipline, the Connectional Table continues to act like a left-wing advocacy group, and the newly-constituted United Methodist Centrist Movement and other like-minded folks continue to advocate for a “unity” that has no basis in theology or ethics.

What we have at the moment is an emerging Methodist McCarthyism. Don’t be branded as one of the “schismatics,” or your voice will be marginalized. And if you are an evangelical, you are likely a “schismatic.” Of course, this claim is nonsense, but that seems to make no difference. In our current cultural climate, we often hear the maxim, “Perception is reality.” This is a dangerous position to take. Perception is not reality. Perception can be skewed, and reality really does matter. The reality is, it is a vocal minority of UM’s who want to divide the church right now. The perception, unfortunately, is otherwise. If we took time really to think through this matter, we would see this. It is regrettable that thinking is apparently too great of a liability.

22 thoughts on “The Liabilities of Thought

  1. Every plan being proposed/promoted will end in division, either explicitly or implicitly. Even those plans that seemingly preserve unity will ultimately divide us. Oh, we will be “united” in name only, but when annual conferences and individual congregations end up having to vote on whether to affiliate with this group or that group, this jurisdiction or that jurisdiction, people will leave in even larger numbers than they do now. Though we end up with a “unified” body, it will be a much smaller body, and the financial sustainability will be in greater question than it now is. Yes, we’ll have unity, but unfortunately, we won’t have much else.

    • It is not unity in the Church that I seek, it is unity in the Will of the Lord according to the Word of God. This call is a no-brainer, unless we are going to allow sodomy as an acceptable conveyance of love blessed by God. Now, go figure it out and stop insulting the congregation. And if a layman has to tell you, I suggest you pick up your Bible, not your Book of Discipline. Once in His Will, destroy this beast from the pulpit to the cracks of the sherutim.

  2. Social media references to this post caught my eye. I was concerned by accusations that some are not playing fairly. That concerned me as one who is committed to dialog with hope of bridging differences and remaining united.

    I’m not from W.Ohio, but I did find online three sets of lists: (1) pre-organized slate of evangelical candidates, (2) pre-organized slate representing a coalition of both centrists and progressives, and (3) the actual election results. And if I’ve counted correctly, it doesn’t seem quite so lopsided after all.

    What you describe above as a 7-1 rout, would be better described as a 10-6 win (W.Ohio’s GC delegation) or an 18-14 split-decision (W.Ohio’s full delegation at JC) for the coalition slate. True, the evangelical caucus won only one clergy slot for General Conference, but they won the laity slots for GC by 5-3 and the additional votes for Jurisdiction (and alternates too) were evenly split. Thus it’s 18-14 when it’s time to elect new bishops. And of the 18 from the centrist/progressive slate, how many of the 18 are truly centrist and how many are truly progressive? It may well be the case that the Evangelicals will be found to have won a plurality. The “losers” seem to be any hopeful candidates who were not pre-selected by some caucus to run on a slate.

    As for schism accusations, I feel your pain, David. I accept that you are deeply committed to the UMC. So am I and for similar reasons. We have different approaches to moving forward in unity, and we both get called schismatic for our efforts when we point the way. Indeed, I’ve heard accusations of “schism / division / trust-busting” for any of the following proposals: (1) ecclesial disobedience to advance justice (i.e., marrying same-sex couples), (2) urging bishops to avoid Schaefer-like trials, (3) structural changes that make the US more like Central Conferences in terms of adapting the Book of Discipline, (4) structural changes that wall off of progressive churches into their own niche, (5) temporarily lifting the trust clause so unhappy churches can exit with property, and (6) meeting / planning / imagining what two or three new denominations could emerge from an amicable split of UMC similar to PC(USA) and ECO. I’ve supported #2 and you have supported #5. Neither rises to the level of #6 which meets my definition of true schism. But I hear that even some tinkering with #6 somehow don’t even see that as “schism.” Sometimes the name-caller simply sees a bad consequence stemming from another person’s good intentions. Of course, we do need to vet the plans and pick our best delegates. But maybe we all need tougher skin.

    • Dave, we may not always agree, but I appreciate how you present your arguments in ways that facilitate dialogue. Thank you. You are a kind soul. You make several good points in this comment. On the whole, the delegation was not entirely lopsided. My comments related primarily to the GC clergy delegation. Thanks for offering this bit of clarity.

  3. So you decry being labeled schismatic, and I’ve said that I feel your pain. But you also say “The reality is, it is a vocal minority of UMs who want to divide the church right now.” My question is “Who?”

  4. I don’t know Davenuckols or where he’s from, but I do know my own conference politics and how disobedience has become so threaded into the fabric of church culture here that schism is a fait accompli. Of course to accomplish this, there was a (virtual) purge of opposition.

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