November 13, 2013

If Trials Stop, Likelihood of Schism Grows (#UMC, @UMReporter)

The United Methodist Reporter has published an open letter from United Methodist polity expert Thomas E. Frank asking the Council of Bishops to halt further church trials for clergy who officiate same-sex unions. Several such trials are pending, and Frank believes the the Bishops have the authority to put a stop to these trials by opting not to refer complaints to the counsel for the Church. Frank's appeal rests on his conviction that the trials put the unity of the UMC in peril. The Bishops, he argues, have the pastoral responsibility and authority to preserve the unity of the Church, even if it means acting in opposition to the will of the General Conference. As an alternative to church trials, Frank calls for open conversation and serious engagement with each other's views. The letter comes at a crucial time as the Council of Bishops are meeting at Lake Junaluska this week. 

I appreciate Dr. Frank's concern for the unity of the Church. It is a concern that I share, which is why I find his argument somewhat shortsighted. Two observations are in order that will hopefully shed light on why his proposal will neither solve our problem nor preserve our unity.

First, if the Bishops heed Frank's call to halt the trials going forward, it is likely to lead to schism, which is what Frank wants to avoid. Those who hold a traditional view of human sexuality are likely to perceive such a move as the Council's intentional leading of our Church down the path taken by other mainline denominations who have adopted attitudes toward human sexuality contrary to that of historic Christian orthodoxy. Such a move could be perceived as a functional, if not an official, change in our denominational stance that would easily result in increased calls for schism. Ironically, following Frank's advice is likely to lead to the very thing he is desperately trying to avoid.  

Second, Frank calls for open conversation as an alternative to church trials, but it is difficult to imagine how this is possible. Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert recently refused to abide by the requests of Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett and entered her episcopal area to conduct a ceremony of blessing for a same-sex union. Bishop Wallace-Padgett insisted that such action would not only be an act of disobedience to The Book of Discipline but would also undermine the ministry that she superintends in the North Alabama Annual Conference. It seems unlikely that the Council of Bishops will be able to model and oversee the sort of conversation that Frank would like to see when one Bishop forego conversation and undermine the ministry of another Bishop. It's hard to see how Frank's suggested alternative would result in healthy resolution of our rather critical situation. 

In the end, the Council of Bishops is in an exceedingly difficult place as our pastors and as the leaders of our Church. Let's not underestimate the weight of the burden of their responsibility, and let's cover them with much prayer. Frank is probably right. Continuing to bring clergy up on charges is likely to dissolve any semblance of unity we may still have. But the alternative of stopping the trials makes schism seem almost inevitable. It is sobering to consider that we may have come to the place in which we discover just how deeply divided the United Methodist Church really is.

UPDATE: Since the publication of this post Good News has published a response to Dr. Frank that substantiates the first observation above by saying, "Dr. Frank’s letter is essentially a call to change the de facto position of The United Methodist Church on the issue of homosexuality and marriage." Read the rest of their statement here.

19 comments:

Matthew said...

I've been to committee meetings, and led a few to my own self-disappointment, that were nothing but talk, talk, talk and no action. We've been talking about conversation or "holy conferencing" for years now. The UMC needs to choose a path and take it instead of dragging it out like we have in the past.

Donald Sensing said...

Talbert and his allies are perfectly willing to shred the unity of the church in order to get their way. As long as traditionalists think that there is some price to stop the radicals that is too high to pay, then the radicals will win. For them, there is no price too high to prevail.

An illustration

BRIAN said...

Matthew, since 1972 the United Methodist Church has chosen a consistent path.

Holly said...

I think I must drop away from the church if no trials are held. I have tried to be obedient to scripture and the teachings of the church that introduced me to the risen Christ. However, I do not think I can keep my vow to be loyal to The United Methodist Church when it defies scripture and its own, well-considered teaching.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Holly, I have a hunch that you won't be the only one.

Jarrod Johnston said...

It's a tough spot we're in in the UMC. I, for one, disagree with our stance on human sexuality. I think people have put words in God's mouth on this matter.

But, at the same time, I disagree that the trials shouldn't take place. Something must be done to those Bishops and Pastors who have taken on their symbolic acts of civil disobedience. Even if it's just a slap on the wrist. Because that's the system that we have.

As a candidate for ordination, I really want to trust in the system. Bishops have to carry out the law, which I hope can be changed at GC2016. This is just want my moderate-leaning-to-the-left mind sees. At the next GC, the UMC must take a real stand on this issue, because it's not a schism that I fear, it's fading away.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi Jarrod, thanks for reading and commenting. I appreciate your affirmation of abiding by the system in place even though you personally disagree with the Church's stance. If others took your view, we'd be in a better spot to have the kind of conversation Thomas Frank calls for.

I'm curious about your statement that the next GC needs to take a real stand. From my perspective, the GC has taken a real stand on the issue. That stand is at the heart of Frank's call for the Bishops to act in opposition to the will of the GC. Perhaps you could clarify or fill in what you mean a little.

Again, thanks for interacting here.

John Thomas said...

Hi Matt, thank you for your article. I must disagree and say that a schism has already, and is in the process of occurring. As the UMC remains homophobic, LGBTQ people called to ordination in the UMC, and life-long LGBTQ and allied members are being forced out (whether by trial, in the case of ordination, or leaving the church. The UMC takes their tithe, talent, and time, but sees them as second-class members, with less rights. Between these two issues, the left-wing of the church is getting crushed-- where's the numbers on this? Where's the uproar? As I've heard said, a church needs two wings to fly, the Episcopal lost its right, the UMC is losing its left. Don't neglect those people, lay and ordained, who believe they are forced to act, or leave, because the witch hunt policies remain in place.

Edith Brown said...

I agree with the comment that the schism has already occurred. I can think of a no area where we have so completed mixed church and state, except in the area concerning marriage. Clearly to deny same sex couples the right to marry is a violation of our constitution. However, to have that union consecrated in a church is a matter of church doctrine. Some clergy has chosen to follow the lead of Jesus Christ and perform those ceremonies. Why can't those who object, just refuse to perform the ceremonies and move on. I am confused about why this is such a strident difference of opinion.

Teddy said...

Matt,

Thanks for stating here what should have been obvious enough to begin with. It's difficult to believe that someone as knowledgeable as Dr. Frank really believes what he has just written. His suggestions would lead to quicker schism, certainly not unity.

John Patterson said...

Hmmm... I wonder if this is the root cause of so much division: Do some people simply not know how to love? Others? Themselves? Do some people not know the difference between Love and Sex? If so, maybe "As I have loved you" is a good start.

“Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
- Matthew 22:36-40 CEB

“I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”
- John 13:34-35 CEB

Matthew said...

I agree Brian. I should have been clearer. I was thinking more in terms "We've talked this to death. Let's finally do the amicable separation."

John P. Feagins said...

Bishops that conspire together to not do their job can be charged with failure to do the work of the ministry.

Charles Layton said...

In a strict "Roberts Rules of Order" democratic system, 50 percent plus one vote constitutes the winning side of an issue. But that still leaves 49.9 percent feeling like they lost. Since 1972, the General Conference voting on the issues related to homosexuality in our church have been decided by votes in the neighborhood of 47 - 53 percent. This will truly be settled in The United Methodist Church when the vote is at least 75 - 25 percent, as it is an issue that is so fundamental to who people are in their innermost being. And when the vote DOES go that way, the schism will take place naturally, as the minority will certainly not want to live with the majority. To say that Gen. Conf. has "settled" the question is only true in the legalistic sense of having one votes by the thinnest of margins. That does nothing to "settle" the question for individuals.

Charles Layton said...

Read "won" for "one" in second to last sentence above.

Rich said...

Some people say if no trial or whatever they won't be able to stay with the UMC. OK, I get that; but, where do you go???

Holly said...

Rich, I have been praying about that myself. I am a retired clergywoman who does not support the ordination of homosexuals or gay marriage. I don't see any other church where I fit. So, I am thinking about inviting my Christian neighbors to join me in a Wesley Class Meeting in my home. My neighbors attend many different churches, but there is really no thriving congregation in our immediate neighborhood. I do not want to take them away from their own church, but I would like us to get to know each other, pray together, and perhaps learn to love each other and our literal neighbors (those in walking distance). I'd love to see others do this too. We need to rethink church indeed.

preacherdb said...

So is Dr. Frank going to tell us which rules in the Discipline are to be enforced and which ones should not? Or is he calling for a move toward local church / clergy autonomy in order to preserve the appearance of unity. It feels like we already have a schism in all but literal separation, and its ungracious affects are causing an already struggling (in the US) denomination to be further battered, and drained of time, resources and spiritual unity. Attempting to Ignore the disease as Dr. Frank suggests is at best a very poor and not well thought out choice, and at worse is a disingenuous attempt to bypass the will of the General Conference.

James W Lung said...


Holly: I like your idea of starting a class meeting. If you were within 50 miles of Greensboro, NC, I'd probably join, if you would have me.

Meanwhile, I'm praying Rome and the East will bury the hatchet. Then we all will be without excuse.