One of the gifts of getting older is living long enough to see trends, not just events. One of the ways I have been doing that recently is with respect to the unity/schism debate in the United Methodist Church and other segments of the larger Body of Christ.
The current controversy is by no means the first time the issue has surfaced. In my generation of ministry alone I have witnessed calls for division over such things as glossolalia, missiology, educational curriculum, publishing houses, and theological education. Embedded in each issue was a group of folks who felt the time had come to separate from the mainline. And actions were sometimes taken that did so, albeit unofficially.
Charismatic/evangelical congregations were identified and used as teaching churches to show others how to do it. Mission agencies were created to more-faithfully share the Gospel. New curriculum resources were produced to be sure Sunday Schools and small groups stayed the course. Publishing houses arose to produce books and related products that could be read and used without fear of liberal contamination. And a few new seminaries were birthed, while other existing ones championed their interpretation of orthodoxy more resolutely than ever.
Viewed sociologically, these divisive efforts created a virtual denomination, lacking only the judicatorial connectivity required to be an actual one. And truth be told, people shifted their interests, energies, and money away from the mainline and into the caucuses and parachurch expressions of ideological separatism. And as you know, some took the final step, becoming new denominations in their own right.
As before, so it is now. The calls for separation have revived, and once again, the only thing lacking is a judicatorial system to weave the above-noted threads together into a new ecclesial tapestry. Some of the same voices are leading the movement toward schism today as they have done for a long time, using roughly the same tactics and message to reignite the fire.
But in every previous case, calmer and wiser heads have prevailed, maintaining The United Methodist Church, even if at times in a fragile unity. Somehow we have thusfar been led by a belief that unity is a higher virtue than division–and that (as John Wesley put it), even when we cannot think alike, we can still love alike.
I have now taken my stand among those who advocate continued unity, and I do so as one who, once upon a time, was among those who championed separatism, even if the manifestations of it fell short of creating a new denomination. I remember my past as one of genuine conviction at the time, but now conclude that my vision, while passionate, was short-sighted and insufficiently loving.
The gift of years puts me in a different place–the place of believing and advocating that, as before, so again now we will fare better if we stay together than if we divide–and that if we can do it yet one more time, we will write Christian history with a sense that the Holy Spirit has guided us, and with an attitude of gratitude that despite our differences “we are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.” And as before, so again now, the world will “know we are Christians by our love.”