United Methodist Schism & Local Churches

A debate in over 30,000 local United Methodist congregations about sex will be the mother of all ecclesial battles, exceeding in rancor and venom all previous controversies.

That a formal United Methodist schism, forcing thousands of local congregations effectively to choose sides, would be chaotic and destructive does not of course mean it won’t happen.  And maybe, from the perspective of purity, such division must happen, before there can be renewal and new life, some firmly believe. But whatever happens, United Methodist schism should not be romanticized as the gracious alternative to further church debate. 

 

Since the small Western Jurisdiction of United Methodism elected an openly lesbian bishop in defiance of church law, there’s been renewed conversation about schism. Some predict it with regret while some hope it would end decades of controversy between conservatives and liberals. Typically schism talk does not focus on the likely impact of a denominational division on the local church.

That impact almost certainly would not be pretty.

United Methodism’s over 40 year debate on Christian sexual teaching has afflicted every General Conference (meeting every four years), some local annual conference meetings, some church agency board meetings, seminaries, and in recent years is a favorite topic for Internet discourse.  Typically it is not openly addressed in local churches.

Most United Methodists likely are largely unaware there’s a denominational debate on sex.  Most pastors do not discuss it lest there be unwanted controversy.  If there ever is a formal schism, many church members will be very surprised and not pleased about the need for choosing sides in their local church.

Local church controversies almost never end happily. No major local church controversy, once begun, will neatly follow an expected course.  There are always surprises, usually unpleasant.  People you’ve known for years will not behave as you expect, and will not conform to the beliefs long ascribed to them.  In a debate over sex, some presumed conservatives will turn out to be something other, and the same for presumed liberals. Some will adopt a position at odds with their beliefs for a myriad of complex reasons, most of them not theological or spiritual.

A local church debate may begin over one presenting issue but quickly expand into a wider conflict involving countless other long simmering disputes unrelated to the main topic.  A vote over sex may ultimately for some congregations actually become a poll of the pastor’s popularity, or a plebescite on the pastor’s spouse, or a referendum on the last building program, fundraising campaign, new organ purchase, choir director hire, or new carpet color for the sanctuary.

To the extent the presenting issue is actually addressed, there in many cases, probably most cases, will not be careful theological conversation about church teaching on marriage and sex, for which very few United Methodists have been catechized. Instead, it will be a vote for a “pro-gay” or “anti-gay” church. The debate will mostly rely on American political categories, not Christian ways of thinking.

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