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Amicable Separation is Never Amicable

Around the blogosphere there has been a lot of chatter over the future of The United Methodist Church. Bishop Coyner suggested a split within the denomination, that would, in my estimation, effectively create many mini denominations. Other folks on the left and the right have suggested its time to have an amicable split in the UMC. It has been talked about on social media for awhile and seems to be the current buzzword from the UMC. The truth is there is no such thing as an amicable split. If you have ever witnessed a divorce, they are typically ugly, nasty, brutal things. People get mean. Both sides attack each other. I have seen husbands and wives destroy marriages in a matter of hours. Divorce is drastic. C.S. Lewis once wrote,

They [Christians] all regard divorce as something like cutting up a body, as a kind of surgical operation. Some of them think the operation so violent that it cannot be done at all; others admit it as a desperate remedy in extreme cases. They are all agreed that it is more like having both your legs cut off than it is like dissolving a business partnership or even deserting a regiment.”

Divorce is “like having both of your legs cut off.” Think about that in the church. What would that mean for the UMC?

  • Lawsuits, lawsuits, and more lawsuits. You cannot just let churches have their properties. We aren’t a congregational polity church. See whats happening in the Episcopal Church or in the Presbyterian Church. Churches who want to leave and take their properties are being sued and will continue to be sued. Estimates on settlement costs are in the millions! One historian of the church told us there were 50 years of court cases after 1844. Can you put a number on how many court cases would happen now?
  • Two way street. If one side gets to leave and take their property then all sides get to leave and take their property. The United Methodist denomination as we know it will crumble faster than detonating charges on a bridge. If that side can do what they want with no consequences then the other side can do what they want with no consequences. Rebaptize? Sure! Online Communion? Absolutely! Teach Calvinism? You got it!
  • Haves and Have Nots. What usually happens in a divorce is one side is left with the money and the other side is left with none. The money in The United Methodist Church comes from the southern part of the church. So what happens in a split when one side has the money?
  • Ugliness rears its head. I was part of a church that split in the early 90’s. People got ugly with one another. Pastors bashed other pastors who they had lunch with last year! Fingers were pointed at one another. Labels were handed out and there was plenty of blame to go around. That church has still not recovered from the dust settling.
  • Our witness suffers. People do not want to be a part of a church that is fighting. Regardless of where you stand on the issues, if you are arguing with someone over property, money, or faithfulness then folks will think less of you and head to the church down the road.

I just don’t see how a split can ever be amicable. It’s like divorce, and divorce is ugly. Maybe instead of a divorce, what we really need is clarification? Maybe what we need to articulate is why we are all Methodists in the first place and why we believe what we believe. When I was in seminary, one of the main requirements for graduation was to take a year long course called Systematic Theology. At the end of the course we had to sit down and write out our beliefs. It was called our Credo. The instructors didn’t want a theological system (Outler, I am looking at you former Perkins professor). They wanted us to put it all together and offer our theological understanding of Christianity. This was one of the most powerful things I have undertaken in life. It definitely clarified what I believed. My proposal, then, is this: instead of debates or dialogues about issues, why don’t we take the next couple of years and clarify our core doctrinal principals? Why don’t we gather the leading scholars in United Methodist Theology from across the world and work out what it really means to be a United Methodist? Not a theological system, but an actual clarification of our beliefs. Who we are as a people called United Methodists today. A United Methodist Credo if you will. My hunch is through this process we will also clarify what it means to be a Christian in The United Methodist Church and several folks on both sides of the aisle will realize they are probably not United Methodist to begin with. At least through a process like this, one can come to understand what is really at stake in the church. This process might help us find our true center and our true mission which would be more beneficial than endless debates over sexuality.

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14 comments

    1. Unfortunately no one seems to articulate it or follow it very well. The original intent of Outler’s Quadrilateral was to clarify Methodist theology for today. I think some would say that it has only served to confuse Methodist theology for today.

  1. So you want to take the next couple of years and clarify our core doctrinal principals. Isn’t that what General Conference does? How would we select the people who would be doing these clarifications? Just agreeing on who would be on this team might take two years. Are you talking about a mini-GC? And if you could get these doctrinal principals clarified wouldn’t the Judicial Council simply say that this was unconstitutional since this body has no authority to modify the BOD? I am not seeing this. What you are talking about is not an academic exercise you can work out in a seminar discussion forum but a huge UMC political undertaking and if the stakeholders do not feel fairly represented then the end product will have no legitimacy.
    This upcoming split if it happens does not have to be as painful as what the Episcopal Church is going through with lawsuits all over the country. The Episcopal Church has no established protocol for departing congregations other than leave the keys and go. When you say “You cannot just let churches have their properties.” You are taking the Episcopal strategy and it is a disaster.
    When the ELCA went for full inclusion those churches that disagreed jumped to another synod. They had the advantage of having another synod ready to accept them.
    Corporations spin off companies and do so without too much angst. The UMC can as well. We simply have to decide how to do so. It is not at all clear to me as to who will be leaving and who will be staying. If the BOD is not changed then the progressives might be leading the charge out the door. If it is changed the traditionalists might be heading for the exits. Keeping both sides at the table forever does not seem likely. Keeping both sides at the table long enough to agree on a methodology for separation might be the best we can hope for. Money talks. The side with the largest financial stake will have the larger say. This will irritate some folks but there is no way around that. I doubt if you will be able to describe the process as amicable but avoiding litigation can be viewed as a success. Avoiding ugly legal fights is important. No one wants to join a church at war with itself.
    I know it seems defeatist to plan for a split but it is usually a good idea to plan for the worst and hope for the best. If no one does anything and the whole situation implodes at the next GC there will be lots of problems with lots of unforeseen consequences. Nothing will be amicable after that. It will be neighbor vs neighbor and you will be seeing some very un-Christian behavior from your fellow Christians.

      1. Exactly. And we change it via a process that involves a large number of over stressed, sleep deprived delegates from around the world who are smashed together for a few days every four years, given volumes of confusing material to read and a few minutes to reflect before voting and moving on to the next agenda item.

      2. Maybe that is why we have to be intentional about the process. When looking over the Orders several years back they commissioned a study for several years which poured time and energy into crafting a document on our Orders.

        Unfortunately all their work was picked apart by GC. The Methodist way I suppose.

  2. I agree with Kevin and Matt. We already have our core doctrinal beliefs, or “creedo.” The issue is not having core doctrines, the issue is leadership not enforcing what we have. I don’t think more talking is going to fix that. If it would, we’d be there by now.
    What happens on the first day of these talks one group says, “I motion that one of our core doctrines be about marriage, that it’s rooted in creation, one man and one woman.” Talks will be over. No one is going to invest in a few years of doctrinal talks if they can’t first agree on what is and is not sexual immorality.

    1. Chad,

      So what is our core doctrine about marriage and men as head of the household? Do you agree with what our BoD says? What about the nature of the Trinity? What about what Methodist believe about scripture: inerrant, inspired, infallible? What about our core doctrine in eschatology? Are we inclusivists, exclusivists, or universalists? What about soteriology? What about the nature of authority? Some would say sola scriptura others would add creeds. You should be the first one to admit your own beliefs have changed over the years. So forgive me if I believe that the UMC has not always spoken with the same voice and for wanting a true Wesleyan voice in the world.

      1. So you think we as Methodists should speak with the “same voice” or be of one mind over what is and is not sexual immorality? I would agree with that.

  3. Stephen, thanks for your cautionary comments. We would do well to remember that separation is a traumatic event and holds the potential for great harm. On the other hand, as Christians, can we not decide to do separation from a Christian mindset, as Paul and Barnabas did in Acts 15? There is no reason we have to have animosity and lawsuits. We can decide to do it differently.

    The reason for the lawsuits after the 1844 schism was because the northern annual conferences reneged on the agreed process of separation. That doesn’t have to happen.

    You point out that nobody wants to join a church that is fighting. Well, it seems we are doing plenty of fighting right now, which I believe is hurting the overall mission and witness of the church. If separation would allow us to stop fighting one another, it might be worth the agony.

    I agree with the need to clarify our doctrinal understandings. The problem is that is supposed to happen for clergy during their preparation for ordination. Boards of ordained ministry are supposed to ensure that the doctrinal understandings of the candidate fall within the boundaries of United Methodist doctrine as reflected in our doctrinal standards. However, many boards have not been effective gatekeepers in terms of allowing persons to be ordained whose doctrinal understandings fall outside UM boundaries (not just or even primarily on sexual morality). That is why we are unclear about our doctrinal understandings as a church. We have too many clergy who do not subscribe to UM doctrine.

    However, the conversation you propose to clarify our doctrinal understandings would simply lead to a new realization that we are two churches trying to live as one. We would be confronted even more clearly with the need for separation at that point. I don’t think it would simply be people on the fringe left or fringe right who would find themselves out of synch with UM doctrine. But I could be wrong.

  4. Stephen, I appreciate your approach but I seriously doubt that such a process would or could reverse the philosophical and theological polarity so inherent in the UMC. When the Presbyterian US Church merged with the Presbyterian USA Church they allowed a two year window for Churches to leave. It was only about 10 % of the Churches that left. It was no major upheaval at that time. Also we should remember that even if there is no physical separation of Churches – people can still choose to leave on their own and if they do and take their money with them it will still be a messy problem. The “Trust Clause” and Clergy Pensions are the real institutional issues that will have to be solved.

  5. In “Methodism and the Shaping of American Culture,” historian Richard Carwardine has a chapter I wish everyone enamored with the idea of “schism” would read.

    Writing about the Methodist schism of 1844 Carwardine says, “Hindsight allows us to see that voluntary separation opened the way to new sources of bitterness and sectional stereotyping, which seriously corroded Methodists’ sense of belonging to a political and ecclesiastical union based on common values. The plan of separation, far from providing a basis for the harmonious coexistence of the two branches of a divided church, gave rise instead to a chronic and often ugly conflict that persisted in various guises on through to the Civil War.”

    He goes on to write of how the plan of separation generated enormous frustration and anger, split congregations and families, and led to political manipulation. Litigation kept many churches closed to people on both sides of the issue, denying members the opportunity to worship at all.

    Each section developed increasingly hostile perceptions of the other. Anger and fear often exploded into physical violence. Pastors on both sides were threatened, beaten, and lynched. All the while each side linked their actions with the will and purpose of God. He concludes, “Methodists, who had been a unifying source in the early years, helped propel the nation toward division and Civil War.”

    To put it more simply, we’ve been there, done that, got the “schism” T-shirt. It’s torn, ugly, and actually has some blood on it. We don’t need another.

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