By Thomas Lambrecht –
As the resolutions passed by annual conferences indicate, many United Methodist leaders have come to endorse the concept of separation as the best way to resolve the decades-long theological conflict within United Methodism.
While reluctant to support separation, these leaders have become convinced that separation offers the best opportunity to end the divisive conflict in our church and allow two or three new denominations (including the post-separation United Methodist Church) to start fresh in pursuing their God-given mission, as each understands it.
While it appears that a majority of United Methodist leaders at this point supports separation, there are a number of church leaders who still oppose it. So far, that opposition has not been an organized effort, but more the opinions and influence of individual leaders. Leaders opposed to separation generally fall into one of two camps: those who are hopeful opponents and those who are principled opponents.
Hopeful opponents might be described as those whose reluctance to support separation has not yet been overcome by reality. They hold out the hope that something has changed since the February 2019 General Conference that will enable The United Methodist Church to continue living and working together as one church.
These hopeful opponents often point to the Pandemic and claim that our church’s response to the Pandemic shows that we are better together and can continue to do ministry together, despite our differences. The more “charismatic” among these opponents might even say that the postponement of General Conference from 2020, when it seemed the Protocol was sure to be adopted, was a sign from God that we should reconsider and not endorse separation.
It is true that the Pandemic has pushed many other church priorities aside. Church leaders and local churches have rightly focused on how to adapt ministry to this new situation. For many churches, this has become a threat to their survival. From what I am hearing, churches that were thriving before the Pandemic were generally able to thrive during the Pandemic. For churches that were in decline before the Pandemic, the crisis has often worsened their situation in terms of membership and finances.
In all of this, however, nothing has really changed regarding our denominational conflict. The deep theological differences remain. The Pandemic may have camouflaged those differences a bit, but as the situation eases, the conflict is coming back into focus.
Since the introduction of the Protocol in January 2020, traditionalists have scrupulously avoided filing complaints over pastors who perform same-sex weddings or non-celibate gays and lesbians ordained as clergy. We have sought to maintain a truce in the conflict, as we await the opportunity to move forward in a healthier direction following the 2022 General Conference. But the existence of a truce does not mean that the conflict has ended or been resolved. If the truce were ended by a failure of the Protocol, the conflict would return full-bore, and we would be back in the same situation we experienced in 2019.
The hopeful opponents should recognize that hope is not a strategy. Yes, God could do a miracle. In this case, the miracle would be to convince one side or the other to surrender their position entirely. Liberals would need to feel comfortable in a denomination that stands for what they consider to be unjust treatment of LGBTQ persons. Or traditionalists would need to become convinced that Scriptural teaching on marriage and sexual ethics does not rise to the level of essential doctrine.
It is time for the hopeful opponents to recognize that the kind of shift that would be necessary by one side or the other is highly unlikely. Absent the direct intervention of God in the situation, the reality is that the conflict will continue unresolved, apart from separation. Rather than continuing to equivocate in the hope that “something will happen” to make separation unnecessary, true leadership is to face an unpleasant reality and prepare for it in advance. Hopeful opponents can prepare for the worst, even as they continue to hope for a miracle. Preparing for the worst, while hoping for the best, is an effective leadership strategy. The hopeful opponents should adopt it.
Another group of opponents might be classified more as principled opponents of separation. This is not to imply that hopeful opponents do not have a principled objection to separation. Rather, it is to focus on the attitude of principled opponents that they will refuse under any conditions to endorse separation. It might be expressed as: separation will happen “over my dead body.”
Some of these principled opponents believe that any kind of institutional separation of the church is wrong and sinful under any circumstances. As I expressed in an earlier blog , those opponents have to wrestle with the fact that institutional separation has been part of the Protestant DNA in general for 500 years, and specifically part of our Wesleyan DNA ever since our movement was founded. To maintain this principled position is to equate “church” with the institution/denomination. By contrast, Wesley’s understanding of “church” was the gathering of faithful people, under whatever denominational banner, growing into the likeness of Jesus Christ. There can be the unity of love and cooperation among “faithful people” across denominational lines, while still respecting institutional differences.
The unity of the church cannot be equated with having one and only one institutional expression. That would be to make the institution of the church into an idol. Institutional preservation can then take priority over gospel faithfulness, leading to an ineffective or disintegrating institutional expression of the church. Interestingly, many liberals have consistently stated their preference for a smaller church that could be more effective in promoting their vision of social justice. However, when presented with that opportunity, some liberals who are principled opponents of separation revert to institutional preservation at all costs.
For some principled opponents, it really does boil down to institutional preservation. They cannot imagine a denomination different from the one we have (with a few minor tweaks). Unfortunately, the current institutional expression of United Methodism is dying. Membership and attendance are declining rapidly. Financial support for the denomination is crumbling.
United Methodism, with or without traditionalists, needs to be reborn into something new. Only a reborn United Methodism will be able to effectively reach new generations with the love of Christ. Clinging to the old institutional expression of United Methodism, and clinging to one’s own position and power within that institution, is a recipe for hastening the demise of the denomination. It would truly be a Pyrrhic victory to maintain some semblance of institutional unity in United Methodism, only to see the denomination collapse in ineffectiveness over the next 20 years.
What strikes the observer is the apparent elitist attitude of some principled opponents. They come across as if they alone know what is best for the church, and they are determined to engineer that outcome. Despite what the rest of the church – even a majority of the church – thinks and decides, these principled opponents seem determined to resist separation every step of the way.
Such an approach would result in the widespread attempted coercion of churches, as if United Methodist members have no choice but to remain in their congregations, regardless of what General Conference decides. These principled opponents seem to think they can force congregations and individual members to stay in the UM Church and continue their financial and participatory support, regardless of the situation. They will be cruelly disillusioned, left with a denomination that is a shadow of its former self, even if they would get to keep all the empty buildings to sell in order to keep the denominational machinery running.
What Is the Alternative?
Whether hopeful or principled, opponents of separation need to keep in mind the alternative. If the Protocol were to fail and separation not take place, the denomination would return to the level of conflict seen during and after the 2019 General Conference. Complaints would be filed against clergy who perform same-sex weddings and against non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy. Lawsuits over church property would tie up dozens of U.S. annual conferences.
Recent conflicts over pastoral appointments in North Georgia, Greater New Jersey, and California-Pacific point to the depth of frustration and anger laity are experiencing. Those conflicts generated unprecedented public demonstrations against a bishop and public confrontation of a bishop via newspaper ad. In a denomination where separation is defeated, this level of conflict would spread and grow throughout the U.S. and touch annual conferences overseas, as well, even as current overseas conflicts indicate.
If principled opponents truly wanted to avoid separation at all costs, they would promote and defend the teachings of the UM Church, which have been affirmed and strengthened at every General Conference since 1972. Our leaders, and particularly many of our bishops, have failed to promote and defend the church’s teachings, which has led to the divided state we are in today. But even this attempt to preserve institutional unity would fail because so many of our U.S. clergy and members are unwilling to subscribe to the decisions of the General Conference.
The inescapable conclusion is that our church is irretrievably broken. All attempts to put Humpty Dumpty back together again are doomed to failure. It is likely that separation will happen, one way or another. It can happen in an orderly and relatively amicable way via the Protocol, or it can happen in a chaotic, costly, and vitriolic way. Opponents of separation are urged to rethink their position in light of this reality. Attempting to preserve our church’s institutional unity at the expense of a winsome gospel witness by our church would be a losing bargain.