Commentary: Who’s For Schism

*by Walter Fenton

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Rev. Walter Fenton

United Methodists could be forgiven for thinking the denomination’s debate over same-sex marriage and the practice of homosexuality is filled with vitriol. More than a few commentators use hyperbole to characterize the debate.

For instance, Mr. Ricky Harrison recently wrote that, “talk of schism has run rampant across the connection,” and that “some have strongly advocated for ‘amicable separation.'”

One suspects that even Mr. Harrison knows his claims are exaggerated since he fails to provide one source for his purported “rampant talk of schism.” And he doesn’t identify anyone who has “strongly advocated for ‘amicable separation'” (emphasis added).

In reality, no one is actually calling for “schism.” The only people bandying around that scare word are those who evidently want to tar others as proponents of schism. And while it is true that some have raised the possibility of “amicable separation,” to lump them with those purportedly calling for schism is neither fair nor helpful.

Harrison, a member of The United Methodist Church’s Connectional Table, begins his article on the evils of schism by recalling that in May 2014 “approximately 80 United Methodists released a public statement through Good News Magazine encouraging ‘a plan of separation.'” It was after that, he says, that “talk of schism” began to “run rampant across the connection.”

To put it charitably, this is a very incomplete recounting of events.

Ironically, given that his commentary is on the evils of schism, Harrison never informs his readers that the “80 United Methodists” were actually responding to pastors who openly broke covenant with the church and to bishops who refused to hold them accountable in any meaningful way. Indeed, one bishop even joined in the covenant breaking, and still others offered their tacit approval.

In light of these open acts of defiance and the 40 year old debate over human sexuality, one of the 80 United Methodists Harrison alludes to, the Rev. Dr. Maxie Dunnam, civil rights advocate, former president of Asbury Theological Seminary, well known author, and a delegate to numerous General Conferences, humbly asked this question: “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?”

These are hardly the words of a hell-bent schismatic, and it only heightens the tensions in the church to pretend he is one. Dunnam’s question was echoed by the other 80 involved – all of whom called for “Unity and Integrity” instead of the path of separation. If Harrison did not have Dunnam in mind, then precisely who?

Who in the UM Church is promoting schism or strongly advocating for separation, amicable or otherwise?

Harrison quotes liberally from John Wesley on the evils of schism (and of course here at Good News we’re all for Mr. Wesley — who isn’t?). It’s all well and good to quote Wesley, but he never makes the case that his words actually apply to our present situation.

In an inadequate attempt to paraphrase Wesley, Harrison writes, “When our hearts grow cold as love withers within, the sickness of schism that has infected our souls festers and grows into hateful actions and evil works that destroy our life together.” And he has plenty more to say about the sickness of schism and the nasty behaviors that come with it. And in general, I’m sure no one would disagree with him, but does his description actually fit any organization, group or recognized leader in the church today?

The conflict within our church today is not caused by “cold hearts” or “withered love.” Instead, it is a deep disagreement over the meaning and authority of Scripture and our United Methodist doctrine.

One assumes that Harrison, a member of the Connectional Table sub-committee that crafted the proposal called “A Third Way,” believes that body’s bid to redefine marriage as “between two people who are married to each other” will preserve unity and save the church from separation. I doubt it.

Many United Methodists – in Africa, Europe, The Philippines and the U.S. -will separate themselves from a church that undermines the authority of Scripture and the power of Christ’s cross to transform hearts, minds and behaviors. And as they depart, none will regard themselves as promoting schism.

Still others will regard the CT’s plan as nothing more than a cynical form of bureaucratic pragmatism, purchasing an illusionary peace for the sake of the institution, and doing so at the price of justice and acceptance for people in the LGBTQI community. Some will leave, and will not feel schismatic in the least. Others will stay, but the CT’s “A Third Way” will only be a way station to their ultimate goal.

One can quote Wesley on schism as much as one wants, but the Connectional Table’s plan will surely bring about actual separation.

*Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and analyst for Good News Magazine

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to
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