Open musing about schism

General Conference 2012 approaches, and so we hear more talk of schism or “amicable separation” within the denomination. (It is curious that we use a euphemism for divorce when the cause of the imagined split is partially over arguments over the meaning of marriage.)

Over at The Confessing Movement, Thomas Oden has an essay about schism, John Wesley, and the early Methodist movement. His basic thesis is that until the church requires he do something that violates his conscience, he views schism or separation as inflicting grave harm on the body of Christ and against biblical teaching.

Near the end of the essay, he lays out his personal decision.

My own decision about whether to leave the United Methodist Church hinges on this steady and clear conviction: As long as the classic Wesleyan doctrinal standards (Wesley’s Standard Sermons, Notes, and Doctrinal Minutes) are in place and constitutionally guaranteed, my intention is not to leave the church that baptized me and ordained me. Nothing that the political activists do will cause me to think that either my baptism or my ordination is deficient. But if the church requires of me some act to which I cannot in good conscience consent, I will, like Mr. Wesley, consider it “my bounden duty to separate from it without delay.” I hope and pray that such will not be required. For now I appeal to classic Wesleyan doctrinal standards on those matters of sexuality that are rending the body of Christ.

That such essays need to be written suggests to me that we are moving closer to a separation. I may be reading that wrong, though. I am fairly new to the fold.

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16 thoughts on “Open musing about schism

  1. That’s how i see it, John. There have been several such articles in the past year or so. It’s as if signals are being sent to the bishops that schism will occur when the removal of rules against gays takes place by General Conference.
    based on what I’ve heard , at this General Conference, there is a chance that the wording about incompatibility with Christian teaching could be removed. There probably aren’t enough votes to remove the actual rules in the other sections of the Disipline.
    This is like church folks who say that they will leave the congregation if the pastor or council does x, y or z.
    I think that those who say they will leave, probably will. The vast majority of folks in the churches will probably stay, just as they have when women were made full members of clergy in 1956. And in 1968 when African Americans were made members of the same annual conferences as whites.

  2. Jeff’s analogy to decisions from 1956 and 1968 is specious. Neither of those represented a departure from 2000+ years of historic, orthodox teaching by the Christian church. This one in 2012 would.

    • We might not agree with the reasoning of those who opposed women pastors or equality for all races but they said the same things that people do today: the Scriptures are against these changes and church tradition is on our side.
      In that sense, lgbt issues are the same situation. Also, regardless of how passionately some people opposed change for women and race, when the change occurred, the majority accepted it although it probably took a couple of decades before nearly everyone truly accepted the change.
      Church tradition has already changed on same sex relationships even though that change hasn’t become the majority position. Several denominations accept either gay pastors, same sex weddings or both.
      Likewise, several states have either same sex marriage or civil unions.
      The denominations who have changed have not fallen apart. A sizeable minority have left but the majority remain.
      I believe that The UMC will also survive when we too remove the rules against same sex relationships.

      • So it sounds like a new goal for the post 2012 General Conference UMC for us to survive in spite of losing a sizeable minority of people. Hardly inspiring.

        I believe we can find much better role models than the ELCA, the PCUSA, the UCC, and the Episcopalians,

      • “We might not agree with the reasoning of those who opposed women pastors or equality for all races but they said the same things that people do today: the Scriptures are against these changes and church tradition is on our side.”

        I hear these analogies quite often, but I don’t believe this is true.

        Can you cite some examples of Scripture and Orthodox Christianity being appealed to on these two issues, Jeff?

        • In his massive work on religion in America entitled “America’s God: From Jonathon Edwards to Abraham Lincoln,” Mark Noll certainly takes a strong look at the theological claims being made on race in the antebellum and Civil War period, which of course is different than the discussion on race that was taking place in the 1960. Anyways, his chapter dealing with the slavery issue and race in general is worth taking a look at if you can lay your hands on it (my local public library happened to have it). His material on Methodism in that book is also outstanding (really the whole book is great if you are interested in the topic, but its like 600 pages long).

        • I’d be glad to, JM. Quoting from “Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality,” by Jack Rogers, Westminster John Knox Press, 2006: “Robert Lewis Dabney was the premier theologian of the Southern Presbyterian Church from 1865 until 1892…. Dabney was a professorat Union Theological Seminary in Virginia….He argued passionately against ordination to the ministry for African Americans: ‘Every hope of the existence of Church, and of State, and of civilizatioin itself, hangs upon our arduous effort to defeat the doctrine of negro suffrage.’
          “Do you tell me that after you have admitted this Negro thus to your debates, your votes, your pulpits, your sick and dying beds, your weddings and funerals, you will still exclude him from your parlours and tables? I tell you Sir, this doctrine, if it does not mean nothing, or if it does not mean Ynkee hypcrisy, means ultimately, amalgmation.’ “In Genesis ix. 25-27, ham the son of Hoah, is guilty of an unfilial crime. His posterity are condemned with him and share the penalty to this day. In Ex. Xx. 5, God declares that he will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations.’ (pgs. 22-25)

          In the same book here are some quotations regarding women: “We need especially to note the impact of Charles Hodge (1797-1878), the leading figure among these ‘gentlemen’ and a seminal influence in shaping Presbyterian attitudes toward women. Hodge was on the faculty of Princeton Seminary for fifty-eight years…Hodge, in a book review, used the analogy of the necessary subordination of women to defend slavery: ‘If women are to be emancipated from subjection to the law which God has imposed upon them;…if, in studied insult to the authority of God we are to renounce, in the marriage contract, all claim to obedience, we shall soon have a country over which the genius of mary Wollstonecraft would delight to preside, but from which all order and al virtue would speediuly be banished…there is no deformity of human character from which we turn with deeper loathing than from a woman forgetful of her nature and clamorous for the vocations and rights of men.’
          “Theologian Robert L. Dabney ofthe PCUS in 1888 developed a rationale for denying women leadership in the church. He argued that God’s curse on Eve was applicable to all women for all time, claiming, ‘The woman was first in the transgression,’ for which God laid upon Eve two penalties (Gen. iii. 16), subordination to her husband and the sorrows peculiar to mothewrhood. The new testament declares (1 Tim. ii. 11 to end) that it is right her daughters shall continue to endurethese enalties to the end of the world.( See also 1 Ptere, iii. 1-6).’
          “Dabney denounced women’s rights, declaring, ‘Another hostile banner is already unfurled, and has gathered its millions of unbelievers for a new attack on God’s Word.’” (pgs. 27-28)

          I think these quotes are sufficient to give an idea of the arguments used to oppose women’s rights and racial equality.

    • I think the ordination of women is in fact a good analogy. No historic Christian body had ever recognized the ordination of women until some Protestants began doing it in the last century. In fact, most Christians still do not ordain women (unless, of course, you are not going to count the Catholics and the Orthodox as Christians, although even then those that ordain women might still be in the minority). Also, although Jeff’s citation of Calvinist perspectives on the issue does represent one side of the argument, it is important to bear in mind that the emphasis on natural subordination of that sort (both racially and along lines of men and women) has always been more generally relished and expanded upon by the Reformed tradition than others. They happen to have had more than their fair of intellectuals on the Protestant side of things, is all.

      • Here is where I’m trying to discern lines and distinctions.

        On the issue of ordination of women vs. ordination of non-celibate homosexuals, how are these alike and different?

        Wouldn’t the traditionalists argue that the better comparison is non-celibate unmarried heterosexuals?

        So how are those two comparisons useful or not useful?

        • They are alike in that they both have been opposed (rightly or wrongly) through the use of scripture. The moves to allow both in ordained ministry have also been driven by strong social and cultural forces. The theological aptness of the comparison isn’t especially useful for the sake of this discussion. If you are in favor of the ordination of gays and lesbians you likely think it is apt to some extent, if you are opposed, you almost certainly don’t.

          The move to compare non-celibate homosexuals with non-celibate unmarried heterosexuals (rather than women) is not a move that gets us very far. Proponents of the ordination of gays and lesbians would be quick to point out that there is no marriage option for homosexuals (and they would be right). I think that sincere gay and lesbian Christians are interested in submitting to the same kind of disciplined monogamy that heterosexual marriage involves. And that is hard to argue against, given our weak understanding of marriage. What really drives opponents and proponents of gay marriage in the church is not a well-developed theology of marriage, but sentimentality, an idealized and individual vision of the nuclear family or of the loving couple. As long as we see marriage for the sake of the individual or society, we will be tossed about by individual and social whims.

          On another note, Dr. Oden’s consience standard is pretty high. Should the UMC authorize same-sex marriages and the ordination of gay clergy, but not require clergy to perform such services, by his own standards he wouldn’t be compelled to leave. I don’t think we are any where close to *mandating* clergy to perform same-sex marriages. I imagine others’ standards are not quite so high, though.

  3. I honestly do not no what to do about the homosexuality issue–right now it feels like a no win situation for me and chances are I will end up in the “significant minority”–not that I will necessarily join them. In addition, after a lifetime of Methodism, I am questioning how effective it has been in getting the “true message” out. I got the following assesment of the UMC off Sky McCracken’s blog from Nov. 2011. I have seen it echoed elsewhere:

    “No one can argue that the UMC is hurting in every way measurable and in some ways immeasurable. Our membership continues to fall even though our population continues to rise. Resources are starting to dwindle. Reassessment and realignment of denominational boards and agencies is causing distress and frustration. ”

    I am having trouble understanding why, under the circumstances described above, the UMC would want to risk losing a “significant minority”? Why would the leadership want to drive people away by forcing this “all or none” solution? I apologize if that wording is hard but it is known people will leave the church over this issue and yet it keeps being pushed.

  4. Oden’s book “Turning Around the Mainline” details exactly how Traditionalists will fight to maintain their property if they schism from the UMC and articulates an (ultimately erroneous but still costly to defend against) way to get around the Establishment clause.. Oden’s writings above seem to be middle-ground, but he is clear in his 2006 book that if the UMC affirms lgbt equality, then the affirmers are the “true schismatics” and the Traditionalists are merely holding onto what is rightfully theirs.

    So I don’t trust his middle-ground approaches because in his insider-talk, he’s all about how to win the schism if it comes.

    • Jeremy, I’m not sure what there is “not to trust,” but the essay written to and for the Confessing Movement seems pretty insider-ish to me. Besides, he makes no claims about property in the essay. I may be that the unspoken ending of that essay is “… and I’ll take my stuff with me.”

        • My pleasure. I’m not sure how much clickage those items get, but I use them as a quick reference point every now and then.

  5. The argument in favor of full inclusion often uses examples of what was once established policy supported by the denomination but has since changed such as slavery, segregation, divorce, women’s ordination to name a few. Since our collective thinking has changed on these once hot button issues it can change again on our view of homosexuality. Whether or not you agree with this line of thinking or if you buy into the equivalency of these issues wrt homosexuality is a different discussion. Other rationales for “full inclusion “ hinge upon our new understanding of the unchangeable nature of homosexuality, the fact that there are few explicit references to homosexual behavior in the Bible and those are not referring to life long loving partnerships and the absence of any direct mention of homosexual relations by Jesus. I have seen all these arguments go back and forth one way or another when I was a member of an Episcopal church. IMO the scriptural basis in favor of same sex pairing is weak. I know this for certain. As much as I love the UMC church I attend now if the UMC does not hold the line on this issue I am out of here.

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