Unity, Schism, or Something In-between?

The bishops of The United Methodist Church proposed a path forward that forestalled debate on human sexuality when they offered a plan of action to the delegates of the 2016 General Conference of the church in Portland.

The plan includes a call to an extended time of prayer, review of the sections of the church’s law book referring to human sexuality, the creation of a commission to consider how to move the church forward and the possibility for a called session of General Conference at some future date to consider how the church manages its conflict over human sexuality.

Exclusionary policies regarding homosexuality spelled out in the law book of the church, called the Book of Discipline, are the source of the dispute.

I watched as an outsider after having been part of the general church staff for a number of years.

Parliamentary procedure became a proxy for action in a session that looked like the church was slowly unraveling. Delegates called for multiple points of order and made amendments to motions that brought the proceedings to a standstill.

One delegate even made an unprecedented request (at least I can find no precedent) to ask the bishop presiding over the session to step down due to “bias” and allow another to take his place.

This was an indication of how brutal the situation has become and how deeply entrenched are the different factions.

A Theological Problem

At root, this is a theological problem of great importance. But it also a cultural issue. And even some conservatives who are holding fast to exclusion concede that it is a battle lost. The church is fighting over values from a world that is already past, but not yet fully accepted by some.

It seems reasonable to say that there is no theological solution to the division. The differences are too great. The hurts too deep. The positions too fixed.

The denomination, once a cornerstone of mainline theology, has become irrelevant in the public conversation about human sexuality in the United States due to its exclusionary policies and practices.

On this issue, it is now in league with theologies that are more accurately situated in 19th and 20th century fundamentalism than in the traditions, teachings and practices of Christian faith over the centuries.

For a lucid discussion of this, see a statement by Timothy Eberhart, Assistant Professor of Theology and Ecology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Assistant Professor of Theology and Ecology at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

Only time will tell if the proposed commission can provide alternatives that keep the church from making a formal split. On the other hand, it may determine that a split is preferable to the theological differences that are eating away at the church’s mission and witness.

Revisiting Regionalism

Past proposals for reorganization into semi-autonomous regional bodies will likely be given greater consideration. This would, in theory, make it possible for the church in different parts of the world to follow the theological perspective most acceptable to that region—schism without calling it schism.

What it would do to common mission and witness is open to question. What it would do to the nature of the community and how United Methodists view themselves in the world is worth considering as well.

Discipleship and the Kingdom of God

The call to discipleship is a call to see oneself in relationship to the whole world that is God’s good Creation. It is not a call to sectarianism, chauvinism, or cultural isolation.

In fact, these are the very things that are tearing the world apart, many of them under the guise of religious extremism.

If the church moves toward regionalism and does not simultaneously begin to teach more intentionally that to follow Jesus is to become a citizen of a kingdom that knows no geography, and that demands that one become a globally aware citizen who stands for justice for all and respects the sacredness of human personality, it will have failed its missional responsibility.

The call to be a disciple is the call to rise above the divisiveness that so characterizes religion in these days, contributes to the diminishment of the global community, and continues to do great harm to people around the world.

This is the challenge the church must face.


There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Gal. 3:28.


This discussion by David Brooks of social fragmentation and decentralization is pertinent to the deliberations that will be conducted in The United Methodist Church in the future.

2 Responses to “Unity, Schism, or Something In-between?”

  1. Tom Clemow May 22, 2016 at 7:38 am #

    An excellent summary of our dilemma and our task. The Brooks piece is a solid analysis as well. Thank you.

  2. Joan Watson May 22, 2016 at 2:39 pm #

    A view from the UMC pew from one who was not only baptized into the Methodist/United Methodist Church but was also born into it: All this breaks my heart. But what I discovered three years ago is that The Methodist/United Methodist Church lost its teaching of basic orthodox Christianity a very long time ago. I know because it was only when I distanced myself from all things church did I stumble into teaching about God and myself that lead to an understanding I never thought possible. While my local church was chasing down a rabbit trail of relevancy, I was experiencing the power and relevancy of the plainly told story of God’s creation, our sin and rebellion and God’s amazing plan for our redemption. It was all a lesson in how much I did not know/understand about basic orthodox Christianity and that it has absolutely nothing in common with modern fundamentalism–which, by the way, now has two faces, conservative and liberal/progressive. My teachers have been from the communion of saints past and present; unfortunately, except for John Wesley himself, none of my teachers had any connection to the Methodist/Wesleyan camp. My favorite 21st century teacher is a Presbyterian pastor who made this accurate statement in assessing the biggest problem of American mainline Protestant Christianity:

    “Essentially, the Pharisees’ problem, and ours, is in understanding the difference between knowing God and knowing about God. We easily confuse the two. One implies information, while the other is a vital relationship…Typically Protestant churches are better at helping people know [some] things about God than we are at helping them know God as people who live with him.

    “It should come as no surprise that when Christians really need their faith, if [some] knowledge is all they have, they will soon wander away in search of a God worth worshiping. [The church version will no longer “do”]”…M. Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts: Finding New Life in Unwanted Change

    My life-long experience with The Methodist/United Methodist Church backs up his statement. As a life-long Methodist/Wesleyan, what I find most disturbing at this statement from a Presbyterian is that the United Methodist Church is in existence because John Wesley was a master at helping individuals know God as people who live with him. We currently have a corrupt and incomplete understanding of what the Wesley brothers did to bring Methodism into existence. Their primary goal was never social justice issues. Their primary goal never ever wavered from enabling individuals to live a life centered in God 24/7 in community with each other and regardless of their circumstances.

    One more comment from a different perspective: The current problem with the church is not the question of sexuality. The problem is that we have absolutely no trust that God is working through our processes–as messy as they are. When the apostles wanted to replace Judas, they narrowed the choice down to two, rolled the dice, accepted the answer and moved on. For 40+ years we have had a group trying to bend the will of the church to their way of thinking which has led us down a rabbit trail of insanity. Furthermore, embracing the liberal/progressive sexuality agenda is a dangerous proposition. It is not going to stop with same gender relationships. Pay attention to how the conversation is expanding. When this debacle started in 1972, the wording was strictly about same gender relationships. Over time the terminology has broadened to simply sexuality connected to the set of initials LGBTQI. These initials stand other sexual identities/expression than just same gender relationships. And Facebook has an even longer list of sexual identities/expressions. And most recently, as reported by the UM News Service, .the letter “I” has been identified as representing “Intersex”. What is that? All I can think of it is related to what was actually stated in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate that it is inappropriate to consider that some LGBTQI’s are the same gender on any given day. That is insane! If the UMC buys into the liberal/progressive agenda, we will be too busy navigating the sexual identity/persuasion of individuals! And as to whether or not embracing the liberal/progressive sexuality agenda will make us more viable in the 21st century: look at the decline of the Episcopal Church and the United Church Christ–both of whom got on the sexuality train–and compare their decline to the consistent growth of The Wesleyan Church who has maintained their orthodoxy!

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