Thursday, January 25, 2007

Wesley and Schism

“The thing which I was greatly afraid of all this time, and which I resolved to use every possible method of preventing, was, a narrowness of spirit, a party zeal, a being straitened in our own bowels; that miserable bigotry which makes many so unready to believe that there is any work of God but among themselves.” – John Wesley, In a Plain Account of the People Called Methodist

The drum beat of another approaching General Conference can now be heard gradually growing louder and faster within our denomination. Every four years the United Methodist Church gathers as the General Conference to discern, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, the future direction of our denomination. It is here that we craft and re-evaluate our theology, practices and polity.

As part of the march toward this Conference the different caucuses related to our denomination have begun to float possible policy statements. Our own New England Annual Conference already passed last June a series of proposals that would repeal all of the negative language and prohibitions toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons currently in our Book of Discipline. In the midst of resolutions and legislative proposals, UMAction, a group funded by the political think tank, the Institute for Religion and Democracy, has put forth once again their proposal for “amicable separation.”

In their document, Move Forward in Mission: A Statement on the Future of the United Methodist Church, UMAction asserts that our denomination is “returning to Scriptural faithfulness” as evidenced in its consistent official stance toward homosexuality as “not compatible with Christian teaching.” Despite the continued, wide-spread debate around issues of sexuality and theology in our denomination, this document asserts that the Church has spoken once and for all on this matter.

Draped in the guise of a call to unity in which they implore, “all faithful United Methodists to stay in the UMC and work…for continuing renewal and reform,” UMAction’s underlying goal of schism is made plain in the following paragraph:

“We recommend allowing a gracious exit for those who cannot or will not accept the essential beliefs on which the UMC is founded. The UMC should adopt a fair plan to permit their voluntary, peaceful departure, taking with them their local church property (if the congregation votes to leave) and pension rights. Their beliefs are strong and sincere. They have a Constitutional right to believe and worship as they choose, but they do not have the right to divide a Christian Church by undermining its basic beliefs. Some of the unfaithful are now talking about leaving; the UMC should aid their departure.”

In a classic move of Orwellian double-speak, UMAction seeks to frame their own call to divide the Church, removing members of the Body of Christ with whom they do not agree, as a “faithful” response to avoid schism. Characterizing those who disagree with them as “unfaithful” they seek to place the blame of schism on the shoulders of those most committed to the institution of the United Methodist Church.

Rather than being “unfaithful,” I believe that it those of us who remain in a denomination that continues to violate the sacred worth and integrity of our friends, families and selves, that have so far demonstrated the most faithfulness to the Gospel and to this particular instantiation of the Body of Christ we know as the United Methodist Church. Even in the face of discrimination, prejudice and pain, it is this remnant that has remained faithful to the denomination, seeking to find a way to live together as the Church despite our differing theological opinions.

As we look forward to a General Conference that will no doubt be haunted by the specter of schism, I think it is helpful for us to listen to the words of Wesley regarding the schism of the Church. In his own lifetime Wesley struggled with the threat of division of those in the Methodist movement who sought to separate themselves from the Church of England. Wesley understood the threat and danger of schism for the Body of Christ then and his words remain instructive to us today as we contemplate the future of United Methodism.

Wesley believed schism was sinful because it both detracted the Church from the essential work of the Gospel, reaching out to all people with the Good News of Christ, and also bred hostility and ill-will between sisters and brothers in the faith. Throughout his life he vehemently argued for the unity of the Church.

In Reasons Against Separation from the Church of England, Wesley makes an impassioned plea to remain with the Anglican Church writing:

“If we continue in the Church, not by chance, or for want of thought, but upon solid and well-weighed reasons, then we should never speak contemptuously of the Church, or anything pertaining to it…Rather…we should all use every rational and scriptural means, to bring others to the same temper and behaviour. I say, "all;" for if some of us are thus minded, and others of an opposite spirit and behaviour, this will breed a real schism among ourselves. It will of course divide us into two parties; each of which will be liable to perpetual jealousies, suspicions, and animosities against the other. Therefore, on this account likewise, it is expedient, in the highest degree, that we should be tender of the Church to which we belong.”

For Wesley the mission of the Church was of primary importance. The divisions and differences of opinion among members was a distraction and in the end mattered not if all were of the same heart and mind in seeking Jesus Christ.

In A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, Wesley writes:

If you say, ‘Because you hold opinions which I cannot believe are true:’ I answer, Believe them true or false; I will not quarrel with you about any opinion. Only see that your heart be right toward God, that you know and love the Lord Jesus Christ; that you love your neighbour, and walk as your Master walked; and I desire no more. I am sick of opinions: I am weary to hear them. My soul loathes this frothy food. Give me solid and substantial religion; give me an humble, gentle lover of God and man; a man full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy; a man laying himself out in the work of faith, the patience of hope, the labour of love. Let my soul be with these Christians, wheresoever they are, and whatsoever opinion they are of. 'Whosoever’ thus ‘doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.’”

I have to wonder if Wesley were alive today what he would make of the lifting up of sexuality as an “essential” tenet of the Good News of Jesus Christ, particularly in light of Jesus’ silence on the matter of homosexuality. Surely, Wesley, like many of us, would realize that the differences we hold over the matter of homosexuality are not reason enough to split the Church.

Far from being “unfaithful” schismatics, I believe that those of us who seek to reform the United Methodist understanding of sexuality stand in line with the larger, grand vision of the Gospel of seeking love and justice, a message Wesley preached and we are called to live.

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