On May 22, before the season of annual conferences began, a time when United Methodists gather to conduct business — and this year, a time when delegates to the 2016 General Conference will either be nominated or elected — a group of 80 “theologians and pastors” released a statement.
While there may be some nuance in allowing for other options, the thrust of the statement is a proposal for “amicable separation,” or rather, schism.
Immediately, the statement was panned by those on the right and left, or as we say, the middle. Not only were most of the 80 signatories kept secret, but also the language used to describe the view of Scripture was immediately shown to be unWesleyan. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the fact that 80 members of the UMC called for separation is statistically immeasurable. Simply, these unelected pastors and theologians were generally seen as having had no right to issue such a call.
There is some question as to whether or not such a call was issued and if it was, was it as unanimous as the statement and press release would like us to believe?
The Rev. State Wood, pastor of Mount Pisgah UMC in Johns Creek, Ga., told UMNS he didn’t sign “the call for separation”, although he was part of the 80 who had discussed it. He stated that amicable separation is possible, but only as a last resort.
Even if an official statement signed by 79 does not (yet) exist, the mere promise of it has generated significant pushback in the Church by many arguing against separation. Pastors and laity in the North Georgia Annual Conference have signed a unity covenant. The United Methodists of Mississippi are passing one around with more to follow. The North Texas Annual Conference rebelled against the IRD. Finally, the reverends Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter have issued their own proposal. There are some issues with it, but people can discuss it — and even discuss the discussion — and know that many are working with a spiritual eye to John 17 for the unity of the Church. This is not the only statement out, with more sure to follow.
The middle of the UMC — the great majority are those who believe the unity of the Body of Christ as represented in the UMC should not be destroyed — are starting to speak out against separation. They are pastors and laity, taking to various social media platforms, who seek to honor all that we are as United Methodist Christians while making disciples for the transformation of the world.
One such team of bloggers can be found at Via Media Methodists. Their goal is one Wesley would have favored: “Our vision is thus to represent, resource, and give voice to a Middle Way at a crucial time in the North American church.”
Some have suggested the middle are overreacting, that the group was not calling for separation, only raising the question.
In the press release accompanying the statement, however, it would seem that separation was the only option the group sought. “The idea of separation was not an issue that the pastors and theologians wrestled with casually.” Rev. Dunnam said, “There is no viable ‘third way,’ or ‘compromise,’ so why not be Christian and civil, valuing each other, and work out a separation that will allow both groups to serve the Kingdom with the kind of commitment and passion essential for any powerful witness we wish to make.”
Perhaps it is the loud voice of the middle that has caused Dunnam to issue almost a retraction of sorts, or at least step back from the precipice. In a 4 June Facebook post, Rev. Dunnam wrote, “While some of us may agree that a peaceful parting could be in the best interest of United Methodists, we are not calling for separation as the only possible answer” after reminding his readers that “the possibility of separation was raised.” He goes on, “Too many are responding as though separation is the only issue on the table.” He chides us not to lose perspective but to focus on the subject and to focus on our mission.
Indeed, the middle desires nothing more than to do what Rev. Dunnam, at least on his Facebook post suggested, “and explore every possible option to find our Wesleyan missional nerve again, and be the church God is calling us to be.”
While we gather in person at our annual conferences or via social media, such as the numerous forums devoted to this topic, the middle’s voice, something that many wish to dismiss or hope goes away, is searching for a viable third option, that option that allows us to leave the United Methodist Church to our children more united than when we found it.