Commentary: Church separation calmly considered
With the decisions on the part of The United Methodist Church to reject the Nicene Creed as a formal doctrinal statement for the denomination (twice at the 2016 General Conference), I find that my own tender affection for the church that formed me as a Christian has waned. But as we approach the general conferences of 2019 and 2020, I remain concerned about scenarios for division. Perhaps cooler heads will prevail and my most dire fears will not come to pass, but at this moment we’re closer to a large-scale division than since the 1800s.
It’s painfully obvious that all of us have to stop expending enormous energy and resources on the issues that divide us. That’s the case for separation. Some imagine that missional priorities are all that matter in considering separation, but the practical issues I raise here could also have deeply adverse effects on our capacity to carry out our missional priorities. Most of the practical issues, in fact, have to do with organizations or institutions designed to further our mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We should not enter into separations “unadvisedly, but reverently, discretely, and in the fear of God” and in the appropriate fear of all kinds of stuff that could go badly for our churches and our mission.
Whether or not you think we should separate, let’s consider as calmly as possible some of the lesser-explored realities of a large-scale division, supposing clergy and congregations as well as annual conferences would have some level of choice as to the dividing groups with which they choose to align themselves. These may not be earth-shattering revelations, but I do think we should be thinking about them. For one thing:
There would be significant imbalances between numbers of clergy and pastoral charges in dividing churches.
One of the realities I’m confident we’d face in a large-scale division is that the numbers of clergy electing particular dividing groups will not balance the numbers of congregations electing particular dividing groups: some of the dividing groups are likely to have a surplus of clergy; others are likely to have a deficit. We have that in many annual conferences now, but it might be a much more widespread phenomenon, and would especially affect those dividing groups who retain a form of appointed ministry as The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have and had. Modern-day Vicars of Bray looking for the best possible opportunities for pastoral advancement regardless of theological or liturgical or moral considerations might well try to calculate where they’d have the best advantage. And some with integrity might have other issues than homosexuality that would determine their choices. Which leads me to think that …
Some clergy and congregations in a conservative dividing group will quietly support openness to ordinations and marriages of gay and lesbian people. And vice versa.
Say it ain’t so? But I’m a historian, so I’ll wager it will be so. Let’s be clear: these debates are not about LGBTQI issues in general: they are about the specific things said about homosexual persons in the denomination’s Disciplines since 1972. And homosexuality is not the only issue that would determine people’s and congregations’ choices. Can you imagine that some people and congregations will fear the doctrinal or liturgical liberality of a liberal group, whatever their own views of homosexuality might be? Can you imagine that some people and congregations might be as concerned about issues of liturgical liberality than issues about homosexuality? And in this case it’s not just liberals they’d be concerned about: United Methodists who identify themselves as “evangelical” have a strong track record of liturgical liberality. And can you imagine that some persons and congregations will feel a distinct calling simply to a particular conference or a particular congregation, despite the contrary view of homosexuality that those conferences or congregations might take?
The reality must be that a variety of factors would go into decisions about the groups to which individuals and congregations will align themselves. Yes, I think it’s likely that some clergy and congregations in a conservative dividing group will quietly continue to support openness to gay and lesbian people, including openness to ordaining and blessing marriages of gay and lesbian people. And I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that some folks will follow their friends and ministerial colleagues and fellow congregations into liberal dividing groups despite their personal reservations on the issues about ordaining and blessing marriages of gay and lesbian people. But keep in mind also that …
Some United Methodists will elect to go with other denominations rather than any of the proposed separating groups.
What about United Methodists who want strong consensus on doctrine (in the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith), strong consensus on historic Wesleyan practices (in the General Rules), and strong consensus on historic liturgy (in Wesley's “Sunday Service” and in ecumenically-influenced liturgical revisions adopted by The United Methodist Church in the 20th century) and who are also willing to allow for local choices on issues about ordaining and blessing relationships of gay and lesbian persons? The Uniting Methodists group seems clear in its commitment to local options on the latter issue, but I’m not at all clear on its doctrinal, practical and liturgical commitments. That matters to me. It matters a lot. Some of us—myself included—wonder if we could be more faithfully Wesleyan Christians in another denomination than in any of the dividing groups that might come out of The United Methodist Church. Like, maybe, becoming part of a Wesleyan movement within a more consistently liturgical and historic denomination. That would not be entirely unprecedented.
If you think the group I’ve described in the previous paragraph is only a handful of Wesleyan nerds, you may be right. Some of us feel called by Christ to be Wesleyan nerds. But there would be lots of other scenarios where separation would force other folks and perhaps other congregations with different concerns to think about whether any of the resulting groups fit where they believe God is leading them in ministry and mission today.
We will face extraordinarily painful decisions about church property and ministries.
As separations loom larger, we need to think about this again, because it would be very likely to affect the missional outreach of separating groups. And it’s a missional issue, because the properties and organizations affected have been part of the overall mission outreach of The United Methodist Church and its predecessors.
To date, the discussions about church property in dividing groups have been not only amicable but in some ways exemplary. I have commented that The United Methodist Church could end up doing a better job of separation than Presbyterians or Episcopalians. But at this point, I think folks are primarily envisioning issues of local church property, and we have not faced some huge issues that will follow significant separations.
As of 2021, who will own the property of Southern Methodist University? Although the university is a self-governing, church-related private university, its property is owned by the South Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church. Will a decision as to who owns this property be made by default, without consulting university trustees, faculty, students, and alums? As a faculty member of the university, I’m tempted to say: not without a bitter, prolonged battle.
Almost every church-related institution like SMU has its own charter spelling out its particular relationship to the denomination. This includes colleges, schools, hospitals, ministry centers, camps, retreat centers and more.
It is possible that a comprehensive full-communion agreement between dividing groups might allow for shared property and other resources. The third option suggested by the Commission on a Way Forward to the Council of Bishops might allow for sharing resources in this way. Wespath, the United Methodist pension organization, seems already structured to allow it to work with different groups than the present United Methodist Church.
A lot is on the table. Time to pray.
Christ have mercy upon us, and grant us wisdom. Make us one with you, Lord, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until you come in final victory and we feast together at your heavenly banquet. Amen. *
* [The concluding prayer is adapted from the rituals for Word and Table I, II, and II in The United Methodist Hymnal of 1989.]
The Rev. Ted. A. Campbell is an elder in the Texas Conference and professor of church history at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. News media contact: Vicki Brown at 615-742-5470 or email@example.com. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.