UMC: Schism

The atmosphere of schism (even when the word is not used) never completely goes away in these days leading up to General Conference.  It most often appears with respect to human sexuality, but it can sometimes be observed in discussions about being a global denomination and/or any other matter that has to do with being a “united” Methodist Church.

If you have followed my writing, you know I am categorically opposed to schism.  Holding this view has resulted in some on both the Conservative and Progressive sides not to know what to do with me.  But as the days draw near to General Conference, I want to say again why I continue to oppose schism.

First it simply is not true that schism is appropriate when “biblical” issues are at stake.  We have already faced this in our Methodist history.  In 1758 John Wesley had to resist schismatic sentiments.  In 1792 so did Francis Asbury.  Another formidable move for schism occurred in 1849.

In a blog-length post it is not possible to analyze each of these uprisings, but it is accurate to say that in each case “biblical” reasons were cited to justify schismatic sentiments.  It is also important to observe that in each case, primary leaders (e.g. Wesley and Asbury, and in 1849 the denomination’s ‘Book of Discipline’) rejected the efforts.  Our present talk of schism once again uses “biblical” reasons to justify it.  But our heritage teaches us to say, “No.”  We must do so again.  [See reference note at the end of this post]

Second, it is simply not true that there can be “amicable separation.”  I do not say this to question the motives or efforts of some to make it so.  Rather, I once again use the lessons of history to show that any schism creates deep fractures that cannot be thought of as amicable–before, during, and after it occurs.  I know most about the Reformation, and beneath the surface of conventional history there are multiple stories of sadness and brokenness.

Moreover, post-Reformation history confirms that schism does not stop contention (which is rooted in our heart not the institution), and “pure church” advocates always face subsequent divisive issues and/or continue to perpetrate retributive acts against alleged opponents (e.g. the Anabaptist persecutions) after the initial schism has occurred.

Sometimes people take my view here and say, “Surely you do not believe the Protestant Reformation was a mistake.  Look how God has used it.”  To that I simply reply that a theology of grace means God always works through the messes we make, leaving us to wonder “what might have been” if schism had been averted.  But whatever we may think about that, we cannot use history to justify calling schism “amicable.”  (I mention here current efforts by Pope Francis to heal the historic schisms between the Roman Church and Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Anglicanism–at least in spirit)

Finally, I reject schism because I believe the world desperately needs to see a church bear witness to doing the harder work of remaining united.  I do not know to what extent the public needed that witness in times past, but they need it today.  The current cultural default switch is partisanship which results in division after prolonged and contentious debates.  The arrogance, judgmentalism, and mean-spiritedness that attend these controversies is contaminating our witness and contributing to the none/done phenomenon.  We must do better.

Taken together, these three points lead me to outright reject schism and continue to call the UMC to the more-difficult task of remaining united and then implementing plans for being so.  In the words of the old phrase, “call me a cock-eyed optimist,” but I remain convinced that unity is always a higher value than schism.  I am not willing to trade in Jeremiah 32:27 for a lesser view.  I pray our General Conference delegates will go and do likewise.

[Note:  Go online to read John Wesley’s ‘Reasons Against a Separation from the Church of England’….and get a copy of Francis Asbury’s book, ‘The Causes, Evils, and Cures of Heart and Church Divisions,’ available from cokesbury.com or amazon.com]

About jstevenharper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 31 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church
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6 Responses to UMC: Schism

  1. Matt Seargeant says:

    But, does “staying at the table” and arm-wrestling continue to harm and hurt those on both sides of these issues? And, if so, is that the proper way for us to express our faith?

  2. Excellent post, Steve. I’d like to republish this on UM Insight. Please let me know if you’ll grant permission. Thanks!

  3. Lloyd Fleming says:

    We have experienced plenty of schismatic events in Methodism. The split before the Civil War over slavery is perhaps the most notable. But groups of Methodist have split from the main church almost continuously since we started. Consider the Holiness movement of the late 19th century or what about the Zouza Church in California. Where do we think all these pentecostals came from? While schism has always been with us, I believe that it has always done damage. What could today’s Methodist church have been if we had contained Phoebe Palmer’s movement or Pentecostalism? We must figure this matter out or we will further diminish the impact of Christ’s church in the world, and that will be a great sin.

  4. Dr. Harper, if unity is a higher value than schism, perhaps it is incumbent upon those who wish to see unity to not support or ignore covenant-breaking (i.e. schismatic) actions within the church.

    I believe you are mistaken about the nature of the unity to which we are called. I responded to your last piece here:
    http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/6745/following-other-gods-unity-as-a-penultimate-value

  5. Dear Steve, “God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” We have deep disagreements in our United Methodism. and so far we haven’t resolved them. We will have to keep working at it, but schism is condemning the “other” side. In Jesus name we must not do that.

  6. Jack Harnish says:

    Stay at the table…even if it means arm-wrestling.

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