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An interesting perspective on splitting the United Methodist Church

Much has been written since the St. Louis General Conference on the reasons for the United Methodist Church to remain together or to separate.  I commend to you this article outlining the reasons why the denomination should split.

If you wish to read more about the General Conference, please read this article by Emma Green of the Atlantic Magazine.

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Humpty Dumpty Can’t Be Put Back Together Again: Why the United Methodist Church Must Split

Wesley Allen, Jr.  Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics
Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church has been arguing for nearly a half a century, about 20% of the time the Methodist church in America has been in existence. As the years have passed, the divide in the denomination has become deeper and deeper. Rumors and suggestions of schism bubbled up from time to time, especially starting in 2004 when some conservatives suggested the possibility of an “amicable separation.” At that time I, as a progressive who represented no one but myself, wrote a short piece for the Christian Century agreeing with those voices in the Confessing Movement that the time had come to consider such a possibility (“Let’s talk theology: How Divided are United Methodists?,” June 15, 2004), but the vast majority of those on the left and in the denominational bureaucracy would not even engage in such a conversation.

In the 2016 General Conference, the division had become became so strong…and so ugly…and so dysfunctional…that no force applied by Robert’s Rules of Order could help the denomination get any real work done. Division (and not an amicable one) seemed inevitable, but the body tried to apply one last drop of superglue to the denomination in the most desperate and unlikely of strategies: beg the bishops to lead the church into a way forward.

So in good episcopal fashion, what did the Council of Bishops do? They passed the buck. Maladapted to leading as a group, they formed the Commission on the Way Forward. The Commission spent months to present three models that everyone already knew were our basic choices (albeit details were spelled out in new ways): the Traditional, One Church, and Connectional plans. Then the bishops voted to support the One Church Plan…well, sort of. The bishops would not (i.e., could not) do the work of coming to a point of full consensus to lead the church. The moment the Council of Bishops decided to bring all three plans to the General Conference, further conflict was inevitable. Then the moment the Judicial Council determined other proposals on moving forward could be submitted for consideration (ultimately adding a modified Traditional Plan and a Simple Plan to the mix), chaos was inevitable. While the middle and the left of the denomination were filled with hope rooted in holy denial, the right was organizing…to win and/or to leave.

Supporters of the One Church Plan voted for unity in the midst of disagreement. They (we) hoped it could be acceptable to all (or at least enough to hold the bulk of the denomination together) because it allowed persons, congregations, and conferences to make decisions about homosexuality at the “local,” contextual level. But it could not be acceptable to those on the right because it still asked them to be in communion with gay ministers, churches performing gay weddings, and (most of all) a lesbian bishop. The middle and left came to St. Louis to vote for unity and inclusion (social holiness), but the right came to vote for purity (personal holiness). Purity won the vote of the day, but, as we shall see, it cannot win completely. So now split is not only inevitable, it is necessary.

A Demographical Argument for Splitting

Neither side can win this battle in the way they want. The moderates and progressives may be a vast majority in the context of the United States, but in a global denomination, they are a significant minority. Some centrist and progressive voices keep lamenting how close the vote was, but it actually was not close at all. In today’s cultural climate, any politician would love to have the kind of margin we saw at General Conference (especially given that a number of international delegates were denied visas and likely would have added to the margin of victory). Moreover, the number of international delegates to future General Conferences will continue to increase while U.S. delegates decrease. In no time in the near future will the numbers add up to the moderates and progressives having enough of a majority to change the denomination’s stance on homosexuality. This is why the possibility of the Judicial Council ruling in April that parts of the Traditional Plan are unconstitutional does not really diminish the victory the traditionalists won.

On the other hand, the conservatives do not have enough support to achieve the level of purity they seek either. They can keep the official language prohibiting homosexuality in place (and strengthen it or expand upon it) forever, but they do not have a wide enough majority to change the constitution to put in place the kinds of accountability and penalties they are calling for. Thus, in no foreseeable future will they be able to force the Western Jurisdiction to remove a lesbian bishop, Boards of Ordained Ministry to exclude homosexual candidates for ordination, or bishops to punish clergy for presiding at same-sex weddings.

We are left with the worst sort of stalemate: the Traditional Plan is in effect in denominational law while in parts of the denomination the One Church Plan (or the Simple Plan) is being practiced in different congregations, conferences, and jurisdictions of the church in parts of the U.S. and Europe. All the while each side demonizes the other. Ecclesial disobedience will more and more become the new norm for the progressives, and the conservatives will cry foul with louder and louder voices. Meanwhile, congregations and conferences that are moderate and/or divided will lose members and likely become existentially distant from both the left and the right.

We must split.

A Hermeneutical Argument for Splitting

I believe the left has long misunderstood the right when it comes to the current division (thinking of arguments about homosexuality only in terms of social justice), and that all have misunderstood what is really at the root of our current division. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not the root issues. As a straight, cisgender, progressive ally, I care deeply about these issues and view the discrimination against and oppression of LGBTQIA+ persons as unjust and against God’s will (e.g., see my work with Emily Askew, Beyond Heterosexism in the Pulpit {Eugene: Cascade, 2015}). But I must also recognize that my passion about the issue does not necessitate that it is the core issue at hand. The church’s debate about sexual orientation and gender identity is a symptom of a much deeper divide.

One might immediately assume the root issue, then, is biblical interpretation. Some read the Scripture literally, others do not. Some read passages related to sex with people of the same gender as eternally relevant and others see them as outdated, based on their ancient cultural context.

Speaking more broadly, the hermeneutical divide is related, on the one side, to UM evangelicals calling for orthodoxy. By “orthodoxy” they mean adherence to classic, traditional expressions of the Christian faith as literal (inerrant?) Truth—absolute Truth with a capital T. Progressives, on the other hand, hold the ancient expressions of the faith as authoritative but also as culturally-bound expressions that require translation into current idiom to be relevant and meaningful.

The conservative use of “orthodoxy” is pejorative in that it implies everyone else is heretical, and I am unwilling to accept that every theological position that follows the lead of Schleiermacher is in some way or another outside of Christian faithfulness. I believe progressives and revisionists need to reclaim the language of orthodoxy—the early, “orthodox” church was in a constant state of revising its theology as the church grew and moved into new contexts. To be orthodox is to be about the task of interpreting anew. The vocabulary of orthodoxy aside, the hermeneutical differences show we United Methodists employ the Wesleyan Quadrilateral in radically different ways. Evangelicals see the progressives as making what they will of ancient Scripture and Tradition, and progressives see evangelicals as denying the relevance of contemporary reason and experience.

We must split.

A Theological Argument for Splitting

While hermeneutics is, to be sure, a deeper part of the issue than the debate concerning homosexuality, it too is a symptom of something deeper still. As one biblically trained, I would like to think that exegesis shapes our theology, but in reality it is usually our theology that shapes our exegesis, and then we work in a circular fashion within our complementary biblical interpretations and theological reflections, leading us to predetermined stances on issues like sexual orientation and gender identity.

It is a basic difference in theological orientation that lies at the foundation of our current impasse. In Preaching and the Human Condition: Loving God, Self, and Others (Nashville: Abingdon, 2016), I argue that regardless of their theological orientation, preachers need to deal with all three dimensions of brokenness in the human condition: the vertical relationship between humans and God, the horizontal relationship between humans and humans, and the inner relationship between a human and herself or himself. But I also recognize that one of these three dimensions is theologically primary for each preacher (with the other two flowing out of that dimension).

That starting point makes all the difference in the world, and the current divide in the UMC is shaped by two very different starting points. The traditionalists emphasize the vertical relationship characterized in the command to love God with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. In traditional evangelical vocabulary, this is often expressed in terms of the importance placed on individuals having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The result is an emphasis on individual morality and devotion, with sin being viewed primarily as disobedience to the Sovereign God.

Progressives (and to a great extent, moderates), however, start with the horizontal relationship. In this view, the command to love our neighbor as ourselves is seen as the primary (perhaps even synonymous) expression of loving God with our whole being. The liberal theological program of the mainline church of the last two and a half centuries, the social gospel movement, and more recent liberation theologies grow out of this orientation in different ways. The result is an emphasis on social ethics, with sin being viewed primarily as systemic, structural, corporate evil in which we inescapably participate but against which the God of justice and peace calls us to struggle prophetically.

There is much overlap between these two positions (obviously conservatives care about social ethics and progressives care about individual morality). But with the different emphases, the depth and width of the chasm between these vertical and horizontal starting points has become so significant that at times the different UM camps seem to be practicing two different religions or Christianities, in spite of the vocabulary and practices we share. Indeed, we view the Missio Deiand the church’s participation in that mission in radically different ways on the two sides of the current divide.

Consider the divide from this perspective: Following the Reformation, the first divisions in Protestantism dealt to a great degree with differences in liturgical and especially sacramental theologies and practices. Consequently and over time, differences in polity drove further wedges in the Protestant movement. Now, after a century of liturgical reform (and especially after Vatican II), worship across the so-called mainline denominations looks very much the same. The flow of the liturgy and sacramental prayers are so close that most people in the pews couldn’t tell the difference. Moreover, most laity are less committed to certain forms of polity and ecclesiastical structures than they once were. Instead today, the divide in Protestantism is very much in terms of right and left, vertical versus horizontal. Evangelicals in the UMC are more at home with evangelicals in other denominations than with progressive United Methodists. Similarly, progressive (and moderate?) United Methodists are more at home with mainliners in other traditions that emphasize social justice than with conservatives in the UMC.

We must split.

Homosexuality as an Argument for Splitting

It is only when we view the issue of inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ community in the church through the lens of the hermeneutical and theological polarity described above that we can see why it is the symptom of our conflict that has garnered so much of our attention and passion and why neither position will or can budge. The two sides view the issue from completely different angles of what they think is being faithful to the gospel.

For evangelicals, who hold to a traditional hermeneutic rooted in a vertical starting point for understanding the human condition and God’s response to it, being gay and engaging in homosexual behavior is sinful and immoral. It is disobedience/an offense against God, whom we are to love with our whole being, in ways declared absolutely in the ancient Scripture and Tradition. The Church’s ethical response to homosexuality is to maintain purity/holiness as best as possible and call gay people to repentance so that they might better live according to God’s will.

For liberals, who hold to a historical-critical hermeneutic rooted in a horizontal starting point for understanding the human condition and God’s response to it, being gay is as natural and a God-graced gift as being straight. As informed by experience and reason (especially contemporary psychology), being gay is healthy and normal. Instead of thinking of sex as a moral issue in terms of whether sex partners should be of different genders (assuming a binary view of gender that many progressives would reject), progressives view homosexuality through an ethical lens. They seek a sexual ethic that applies to all, asking what level of consent, love, and commitment are required for sex to be appropriate in terms of God’s call for us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Apart from the question of individual ethics, the church’s corporate ethical response to homosexuality is to be as just, inclusive, and loving as we understand God to be—calling all people, regardless of sexual orientation, to higher ways of living according to God’s will.

The differences between viewing the issue of sexual orientation (and by extension gender identification) through the lenses of a traditional hermeneutic versus a historical-critical one, a vertical versus a horizontal starting point for reflecting on the human condition, and a moral versus an ethical approach to sexuality leaves the conservative and progressive camps of the denomination in irreconcilable positions.

We must split.

Shifting Metaphors for the Argument for Splitting

One place where progressives, moderates, and conservatives seem to agree is how to label the possibility of the denomination splitting. The metaphors usually employed relate to divorce. This metaphor is appropriate in that it names the pain, grief, and animosity at play in the current conflict.

Over the years since I wrote my piece arguing for amicable separation in 2004, I have shifted the metaphor of a possible split from the arena of marriage to the arena of siblings. Siblings are raised in the same household; and children growing up, leaving home, and going their separate ways is a rite of passage to be celebrated. And in spite of taking very different life paths and growing to hold significantly different values, grown-up siblings can still love and respect each other. They are and can still behave like family even when not living in the same house: distant family is still family. Shifting the metaphor for a denominational split from divorce to siblings growing up and growing apart allowed me to think of the denomination celebrating (even if the celebration had a melancholy tone to it) the potentiality of the futures of our different movements while we continue to be in conversation around our common heritage and look for ways to share resources and join forces in certain kinds of ministry (e.g., disaster relief) without demonizing each other.

The problem is that we have remained together in such deep conflict so long now that the animosity and pain are such high levels that the metaphor of siblings coming-of-age is flawed. A better image of our current situation is that of grown siblings whose parent has died. We are all mourning, and as with many families in situations of grief, our worst sides come out and we are not getting along well at all.  But we have three tasks at hand that must be accomplished. First, we must lay our beloved parent to rest, committing the past denomination’s being into God’s care. Second, we must dispose of our parent’s possessions, dividing them among the heirs. We can act out of our pain and anger and do this litigiously, or we can lay aside our brokenness for the moment and choose what each sibling gets with fairness and love. Conservatives are already starting to talk publicly about financial resources held by the denomination as well as influence over and control of church-related institutions (such as seminaries); progressives need to be having these same conversations or we will find ourselves in the situation of the moderates of the Southern Baptist Convention. And the two groups need to be talking to each other. And, third, we must get on with our lives without our former denominational parent being there for us, leaning into God’s future as new, discrete Methodist/Wesleyan movements of some sort or another. Maybe (hopefully) we will find ways in the future to sit at a table together for Thanksgivings or family reunions. Maybe not. But we can offer each other peace, love, and blessing as we go our different ways now, all children of the same parent, all sharing the same Wesleyan DNA.

It is time to lay aside any denial. Time to quit imaging the denomination as we know it somehow salvageable. Time to quit being tolerant of being together in ways that continue to inflict pain in a multitude of directions. Time to quit playing chicken to see if the other side will leave. “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t…”

As with fifteen years ago, I identify with the progressive end of the United Methodist Church, but I write as someone who represents no one but myself. While I am pleased that so many voices have arisen that speak loudly in support of our LGBTQIA+ members, I am dismayed that so many of those same voices continue to call for patience and for working within the system that is dead. The time for patience has long passed. It is time to organize and strategize on our side of the divide and work together with those on the other side of the divide to formalize the divide once and for all. There is no way forward for the United Methodist Church that is not a way out of the United Methodist Church.

We must split.

  1. Wesley Allen, Jr.,is an elder in the United Methodist Church and the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. Allen has published widely in areas of homiletics related to postmodernism, current social issues, theology, and the Synoptic Gospels. 
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