Thursday, June 5, 2014

Schism Is a Bad Idea

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
II Corinthians 5:16-20

If you Google “Schism in the UMC,” you will find plenty of news articles, essays, blog posts, and editorials. Last week the Huffington Post published a report from the Religious News Service (RNS), about a group of 80 United Methodist pastors who are laying the groundwork for what they are calling an “amicable” separation. The Rev. Maxie Dunnam, retired president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky summed up the sentiment of many when he said, “We can no longer talk about schism as something that might happen in the future. Schism has already taken place in our connection.”

After forty years, we can see the present status of the conflict summarized in two related episodes.

Earlier this winter, Frank Schaefer, a former Pennsylvania pastor, was found guilty of violating church law when he officiated at his son’s 2007 wedding. He was given a thirty day suspension and told to come back at the end of that time and report to the Conference Board of Ordained ministry on whether or not he could agree to uphold the whole Discipline. He said that he could not deny the calling he felt to minister to LGBTQ Christians and would not promise to uphold the exclusionary paragraphs in our United Methodist Book of Discipline. The Board of Ministry revoked his orders.

Like many others, I was shocked by that decision on the part of the Board of Ministry. They claimed to have no choice, but they really had many choices. They could have done nothing. They could have deferred a decision. Since service on the Board is voluntary and unpaid, they could have resigned.

The second episode also involved Thomas Ogletree, a United Methodist clergyperson and former dean of Yale Divinity School who officiated at his gay son’s 2012 wedding. In that case, Bishop Martin McLee announced in March that he would drop the case against Ogletree, and he called for an end to church trials for clergy who perform same sex weddings.

Those who identify as “traditionalists” were outraged.

Publicly, what they say about this latest episode is that they are shocked (shocked!) that a Bishop in the United Methodist Church would openly refuse to uphold church law. My guess is that what really troubles them is that they can see the writing on the wall. They know that other bishops will follow Bishop McLee’s lead. Bishop Sally Dyck has already stepped up with a bold statement against schism and in favor of inclusion.

They know that public opinion is shifting rapidly. Of course, we don’t base our Christian social ethics on public opinion, but there is something to be said for common wisdom. In our Wesleyan Quadrilateral, we look at Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience as the four categories of exploration that undergird our interpretation of scripture and our ethical decision making. Public opinion is part of our experience.

In a post on the "ChurchLeaders" website, blogger Matt Brown, writes, “There's so much talk lately in the news media and from liberal political groups about ‘being on the right side of history.’ They are saying: one day we will all regret standing for Scriptural values, because everyone else in the nation will agree we were wrong for not agreeing with them.” The real point, he argues, is that Christians need to be “on the right side of eternity.”

At first glance, that doesn’t sound as bad as it is. After all, don’t we want to be on the right side of eternity? And don’t we want to stand for Scriptural values, even if everyone else is on the other side?

Burgess is right to call for theological reflection on the issues, but that is precisely the point that reformers are making. The question is not about whether or not we will embrace “Scriptural values,” the debate is about what those values are.

When Dr. King, channeling the great Abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker, proclaimed that in the struggle for civil rights, we know that we will prevail because “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he was summing up a fundamental belief of our heritage. The people of Israel believed that God acts in history, in Exodus and Exile and Restoration. When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he was talking about establishing God’s vision for humanity on earth, in history. When we speak of being on the right side of history, we are making an affirmation of faith. There are times when the arc is so long it may seem flat, but eventually it will bend toward justice. To be on the right side of history as the moral arc bends toward justice is to be on the right side of eternity.

Those who have been working for the full inclusion of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers have been at it for a long time. In the beginning, and for many years, we were in the minority. We did not shy away from “standing for Scriptural values,” even though it was not popular.

Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, pastors of two of the largest United Methodist congregations in the United States, are charting “A Way Forward” that is far from perfect, but it avoids schism. Their plan is very simple:
  • · Let each local congregation decide for itself where it stands.
  • · Those who favor full inclusion can do so.
  • · Those who want to support equal marriage can do so, and the clergy of those churches can perform same sex weddings (subject, of course, to local laws).
  • · Annual Conferences that want to ordain LGBTQ candidates for ministry can do so.
  • · Those that don’t want to don’t have to.
  • · Churches that do not wish to have a gay pastor can say so.
Apart from the obvious criticism that it looks a lot like congregationalism (oh no!), it would mean that a final resolution to the debate would be postponed for a very long time, and we would remain divided. On the other hand, it would avoid a schism that would permanently split us into separate denominations.

The list of church leaders who have signed on is impressive. In addition to Hamilton and Slaughter, they have a long list of pastors from the usually conservative areas of Texas and Florida, including Rudy Rasmus, who was pastor to President George Bush. They also have Dean Snyder and Ginger Gaines-Cirelli from Foundry UMC in Washington D.C., one of the most progressive and inclusive congregations in the country.

The local and regional option proposed by Hamilton and Slaughter is not perfect, but it might provide a graceful way to back out of our current impasse.

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