Lessons to be learned from 19th century Methodist schism?
Last Monday, Dr. Donald Haynes wrote his column for The United Methodist Reporter on “Lessons to Be Learned from the 1844 ‘Plan of Separation’.” His main point appears toward the end of his article in a section titled “Fallout.” It turns out his article about the relevant history of Methodist schism in the 19th century was context for his reaction to the proposal, “A Way Forward,” from UMC pastors Adam Hamilton and Michael Slaughter.
The sometimes “heralded” Plan of Separation turned sour. The sad consequence was attorney fees and a protracted acrimonious debate, mostly about pensions, property rights, and the publishing house.
The implication is that a schism in the UMC would cause much squabbling over property and many lawsuits, not to mention causing great turmoil across thousands of local churches and disrupting, if not devastating, the faith journeys of millions of Methodists. So, I have to ask, is Dr. Haynes implying that we United Methodists keep our heads down and plow through General Conference to maintain status quo? The more I think about it, the more I’m not sure what he means to imply. He does write: “What will we do? It depends on whom we elect as delegates to go to Portland in 2016!”
Yes, schism would be incredibly messy. And, yes, voting will happen in 2016, but the problem with democratic governance through voting is that there are winners and there are losers. For decades, people who are LGBT have endured painful votes every four years, hoping and praying the church they know and love will stop discriminating against them and will ensure their civil rights, as the Book of Discipline itself calls for (¶161F, see conflicting texts in the Discipline here):
All persons, regardless of age, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation, are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured and to be protected against violence.
When the essence of human dignity is at stake, I’d like to think we are gifted enough by the freedom and grace of God to find more fruitful ways to live in unity amid our diversity than by voting proposals up or down, especially proposals leading to a devastating schism, which will not “solve the problem,” in the words of Brian McClaren when he was recently asked about the increasing talk of schism by some in the UMC.
Of course the country fought an incredibly devastating civil war over the “issue” of slavery. The Methodist Episcopal Church split over slavery and remained divided until most of its descendant churches reunited, culminating in 1939, nearly a century later. The UMC has struggled for more than four decades over the “issue” of discrimination against persons who are LGBT. While the “issue” of discrimination continues to drive much of politics both inside and outside the UMC, the country as a whole continues to grow more tolerant, if not outright accepting of people who are LGBT, as noted by a nationally representative survey of 1,197 LGBT adults in June 2013 by the Pew Research Center (view PBS NewsHour video), 93% of whom said “society has become more accepting of them in the past decade.”
I am one such person who “has become more accepting.” I went through a deep change of heart and mind to welcome and accept full inclusion of people who are LGBT. Change tends to happen when you actually get to know people who are different from you, hear their stories, and become more educated about discrimination, about the law, about history, and about what the Bible actually says.
Methodists everywhere should not stand idly by while the schismatic voices drive the conversation, especially since the mass media is priming the pump for schism. A “church in turmoil,” that is on the “precipice of schism” is blood in the water for the sharks of the mass media.
We should feel comfortable enough to talk to each other and share what’s in our hearts and not fear being judged and not judging too harshly the opinions and expressions of others. By talking openly to each other, that’s how we’re going to make progress.
For example, one UMC pastor in Virginia frames this “issue” within the context of our views and practices of infant baptism versus adult, “believer” baptism, suggesting satirically that “the Church should not baptize homosexuals if it’s not prepared to marry or ordain them.”
Timothy Tennent, the president of Asbury Theological Seminary, home to at least one well-known conservative academic calling for schism (Dr. Ben Witherington), recently wrote about how divisions over this “issue” are deeply rooted in differences over epistemology (how we “know”) and hermeneutics (how we “interpret”). He bemoans “post-modernity” and “morality [as] market driven, commoditized, and, distributed by ‘supply and demand’.”
Dr. Tennent’s approach does not move us forward. Such analysis implies a reestablishment of past “truths” that were authoritative for all, mostly because they were expected to be assumed and unquestioned. Often the result of living under such authority was pain and oppression, most notably under the “true” assumptions of American slavery. The Bible says a lot of stuff that, on a plain reading, we reject, such as, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5). Whether or not we “agree on the objective truth of the Bible,” as Dr. Tennent says, I do not understand any longer how acknowledging the “objective truth of the Bible” functions as an interpretive tool to make the text relevant to us today. Biblical interpretation and application should, therefore, be more about “justice” and “meaning” and less about “authority” and “truth.” The key to understanding the Bible in our day and age is trying to get all four of those–justice, authority, meaning, truth–to intersect in relevant and purposeful ways; that’s when the text communicates its divine inspiration.
Dr. Haynes has written several columns about the history of Methodism in America and schism. His article of June 23, 2014, deserves one correction and one historical note of clarification.
First, the correction: Dr. Haynes grossly mischaracterizes the “so called ‘Hamilton-Slaughter’ plan [A Way Forward],” writing that the plan “would let every local church decide whether to separate.” There is no such talk of “separation” in AWF, which has as its primary focus local church discernment of how to be in ministry to people. Especially in the context of “schism” and “separation,” we will progress by expecting precise language and transparent intentions.
Second, one historical nit to pick: Dr. Haynes refers to a “Chief Justice” of the SCOTUS as “Robert T. Hayne.” There has never been a justice on the SCOTUS by that name. At the time the Chief Justice was Roger B. Taney of Dred Scott infamy. The case Dr. Haynes alludes to may be Smith v. Swormstedt – 57 U.S. 288 (1853). That opinion was written by Justice Samuel Nelson, which was a property case over the “Book Concern,” in the words of Justice Nelson, “part of a fund which had its origin at a very early day, from the voluntary contributions of the travelling preachers in the connection of the Methodist Episcopal Church.”
For the record, I am opposed to schism.