Reply to Ted Campbell RE: #UMC Schism

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Dr. Ted Campbell, professor at Perkins School of Theology, has penned a letter against schism in the United Methodist Church. While this blog has always opposed schism in the UMC–and you would think that I would like his letter–I actually find some faults in his analysis and I believe there are stronger claims to be made regarding schism.

First, some of the criticism leveled at Campbell’s letter misses the mark, I’m afraid. Here’s each criticism I’ve seen followed by my comments:

  1. Campbell is all about the money and the property.”
    • While it can seem that way, his article has eight bullet points. Two of them are about money. Two of them are about property. But four of them are about ecclesiology and “what does it mean to be the church?” While it can be telling what a person “leads with,” I don’t think it is fair to characterize it as “all about the money and property.”
  2. General Conference 2012’s reforms being tossed by the Judicial Council shows our size and structure are irredeemable.”
    • Actually, our present size and structure were not factors in the Judicial Council overturning decisions. Those large reforms were overturned because they didn’t take seriously constitutionality of their reforms. In the case of the Plan UMC reform, they rejected the very proposal that would have passed constitutional muster (the MFSA plan did not conflate governance and fiscal powers). Reform is possible if people are willing to accept that not their every whim is constitutional, and if they want their every whim, then they’ll need to change the Constitution first, THEN their whimsical desire. Change is a process not a knee-jerk reaction…and for that, I’m glad.
  3. Campbell’s suggestion is to just stop talking about teh gays, which is support of the status quo.”
    •  Ted isn’t making a claim like “let’s not talk about gay people for four more years” that others are making. He was wanting to delete all the homosexuality passages so that there’s nothing in our doctrine about it. I don’t agree with that recommendation, but I don’t think he is making the same claim that others do when they are exasperated about “always talking about it.”

However, there are several ways where I think this effort falls short of the hope that is possible within a diverse United Methodist Church.

  1. We ought to hope for Guidance not Silence in our Polity. Campbell hopes to go back to the good ol’ days where the UMC could “erase every single thing in the Discipline on this issue…Silence [can be] be appropriate when there is no strong consensus as on issues like this.” I couldn’t disagree more. Silence leads to responses that are less-than-helpful. Guidance, even if its not in the direction one would hope, leads to conversation about why the guidance is there. Those of us that know our polity use it more often than those that do not; I reference the Book of Discipline regularly. Yes, I’m a church nerd, but I’d rather have guidance than silence.
  2. We ought to hope for Honesty not False Uniformity in our Polity. Campbell writes

    What happened beginning in April 1972 was that the denomination began to make declarations at the level of the General Conference about these issues. That means that local congregations, districts, and annual conferences had much less discretion over these issues because the denomination as a whole had adopted statements and later actions that claimed to enunciate a consensus on behalf of the whole denomination.

    This is true, but waiting until consensus emerges is not helpful for a church seeking to guide its faithful. Better is honesty and clarity about what our Book of Discipline is about. For decades, progressives have attempted to insert language of “we are not of one mind” into the Discipline regarding sexuality…because it is true. At General Conference 2012, two big-time evangelical megachurch clergy attempted the same type of language and it was voted down. It is hard to hope for honesty in our polity, but to wait for consensus is a long long road to travel (especially given there are still United Methodists who won’t accept female clergy…)

  3. Progressives especially ought to hope for “no place left for fear and hatred to lay its head.” Schism leaves one entire swath of Methodism without progressive and welcoming voices. Given that both sides of a church will continue to have LGBT children, schism leaves families on that side without the resources and welcoming presences to help; indeed, it exacerbates the problem because then the welcoming persons are “wholly other” and not welcome in the other side’s pulpits or classrooms. I’ve written on this before in a response to Dr. Martin’s call for amicable separation.
  4. We ought to model unity in diversity for an increasingly polarized world. I believe that the United Methodist Church is a stronger witness to a world of factions and polarization when it holds together theological tension. I believe that echo chambers of like belief are toxic to move theological conversation forward, and that forcing diverse beliefs to sit in the same room together leads to more holistic approaches. Unity can mean “unity in diversity, not unity in uniformity.” And my experience, as a progressive in the Bible Belt, and as a slightly more moderate presence in the West, is that diversity leads to some pretty awesome things. If we want the United Methodist Church to soar in a generation of the Nones, then holding unity in diversity is a powerful witness to a culture all too ready to ghettoize the world.

The pro-schism movement (which has Traditional and Progressive people in it) has a lot of hubris to believe that these issues before us are intractable, when our history shows that faithful Methodists have found novel ways to navigate difficult issues. Though unity is not a shallow altar that we should hold to no matter what, it is a bigger discipline than those who would want to throw in the towel seem to want to seek.

As I’ve written before, we need a left and a right wing to fly. But we also need understanding as to how the two wings work together and coordinate to help the bird soar. The Western Jurisdiction is claiming that perhaps the two wings do not have to have the exact same polity to be in the same mission and the same church together. They claim that uniform expression of mission is a hindrance to unity in mission, and the Western Jurisdiction is tired of being out-of-touch with the creeping secular culture–the same that will have a strangehold on the Bible Belt in a decade or so…and it can’t wait. Diversity in mission is already unofficially the reality as our United Methodist Church has strong regional differences (and I’ve served in three jurisdictions now…it’s true) and varying degrees of theological concern…maybe it is time to make plain what is already in practice.

To me, the hope is that we might be one Wesleyan denomination with a polity that allows for regional diversity. That’s the way forward that I believe holds in tension the witness necessary to a polarized world, while allowing for the different regions to be the Church in ways that are most appropriate to their context. May God lead us to a place where we do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God…and maybe, just maybe, one another.

Thoughts?

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Comments

  1. Lisa Beth White says

    When you say “unity in mission”, can you say more about what you mean? I’m sitting in a meeting of UM mission professors and there is great conversation about UM theology of mission. When we (UMs) use terms like “mission” in the context of discussions about GLBT issues and consideration of division or unity, I always wonder what the author actually means.

    • Paul Fleck says

      I could be wrong here, but I think that Jeremy is speaking of mission (as in purpose) as opposed to mission (as in professors who study missiology). There is a big difference.

    • says

      What Paul said. Instead of a common mission and common way of living out the mission, I’m claiming a common mission and distinct ways of living it out.

  2. John says

    What would be the basis for the regional diversity? Should each region take a vote on its interpretation of scripture? Do we have Southern scripture, Northern scripture, Eastern scripture, Western scripture, and African scripture? And, if we do and they teach different things, might one be excused for believing that none of them are true? Should we not be focused on trying to discern the true will of God rather than finding political solutions? If our loving God truly wills that people in homosexual relationships be allowed to fully exercise their gifts, then how can we say it is OK for other regions to oppress them, just because they want to? If our loving God truly wills that this children abstain from homosexual relationships, then how can we say that it is OK for other regions to affirm destructive behavior, just because they want to. This strikes me as one more version of relativism. The “truth” of the Western Jurisdiction is not the” truth” of the Southern Jurisdiction, and so we don’t really have any truth at all.

    • Steve says

      John, I think you miss the point… it’s not relativism to say that there are some issues we don’t have the truth about, but we are in the process of discernment. There are far more pieces of our faith that we agree upon and to argue that if we can’t agree on one means we won’t agree on any, is another version of the tired “slippery slope” argument. I wonder how often those who used scripture to relegate women, blacks, native peoples and others to second class citizenship used a slippery slope argument to try to maintain a position that was so antithetical to the preponderance of Jesus’ life and ministry; a life of offering God’s love and grace to all… not demanding a prescribed right belief… oh yeah, that was the Pharisees!

  3. Karen L. Munson says

    I’d be more interested in looking at structural change that allows flexibility in regional polity. Developing new ways to resource churches in shifting landscapes of clergy availablility, education and credentialing is hampered by competing norms. Instead of an ailing ocean liner needing to be (ardously) turned around. Let’s think of the UMC as a flotilla of contextually suited boats (ministries) resourced by regional “harbours,” connected by engagement with scripture and Wesleyan means of grace, and by a robust communication system that is simple to access and use, and that lives out its shared mission (making disciples for the transformation of the world) in a myriad of ways that engage and inspire each other (but don’t require uniformity of local polity, doctrine or political stance).

  4. Lisa Beth White says

    Yes, Paul, there is a big difference. One is a corporate slogan (business corporate, not “body of Christ” corporate) and the other is a focused study of mission. The UMC has a wonderful statement on theology of mission, but it is rarely referenced in these conversations. We as a denomination toss around the word “mission” without thinking carefully about what we mean, what the missio Dei is and how we participate in it, and what “mission” means to the thousands of United Methodist laypeople who practice mission in their local churches.

  5. Stephen says

    Just a point of clarification – those from the conservative camp I have talked to did not vote for the amendment state about not being in one mind because it already states this very clearly in the preamble of the social principals.

    Two – you paint with a very broad brush. Not all conservatives or traditionalist or whatever are unwelcoming and heartless when it comes to ministry with lgbtq peoples. That would be like the traditionalists saying progressives don’t believe in the Bible. So equating only progressive people with welcoming is not entirely correct.

    I honestly believe we are headed for some sort of break, my hope and prayer is that it will be a break that shifts our focus away from property, money, and issues into how can we be a global communion united in Christ.

  6. Kirt Moelling says

    Obviously, there is no easy answer. Unity in diversity is often a false unity (as presently indicated in our church); but schism, even “regional flexibility,” leads to some strange maps and boundaries – and issues. Where do you draw the line on this “flexibiiity” within a (very broad) “Wesleyan” church? Regional flexibility sounds good if you’re in a jurisdiction where you are in the majority view – not so much otherwise.

  7. Scott Fritzsche says

    I think the the crux of the issue is not really that there is not unity in the doctrine, but rather that the disunity is played out in places that are not appropriate. I do not believe that it is beneficial to the church as a whole for churches to decide not to conduct marriages because there is not “marriage equality”. Whatever their intention may be, I fear that they damage relationships with the United Methodist body. The Discipline exists and our clergy has taken a vow to uphold it. I think that the solution is quite simply to do that…uphold the discipline and, if need be, work to change it within the format of the church government. Blogs, press releases, etc do not help the cause of Christ when they only fuel the continual polarizing behavior on both sides of the issue. I promise, while we are busy fighting ourselves, the true Adversary is busy fanning the flames of that fight. We do not all need to, nor should we all agree about every point in the discipline. We do need to however not allow those disagreements and discussions to take away from the purpose of the church which is, and always has been, to spread the gospel message of salvation. Arguing about LGBT rights, etc is not spreading the gospel message, it is however making it more and more difficult to get that message out. I am not saying don’t discuss, debate and if the majority says so change the Discipline. I am saying that if we remain focused on Christ and doing His work fulfilling His comission to us, that the rest is small stuff and generally will work itself out. The comission is to tell the story of Christ from Genesis to Revalation. The more we argue of things, the less we fulfill that comission.

    • Bud Tillinghast says

      So if LGBT issues are ‘small stuff’ why didn’t the “we are not of one mind” resolution receive the votes of the conservatives? You’ve got some persuading to do there.

      • Scott Fritzsche says

        Just to make sure that I was understood, I believe that if it is not about spreading the gospel, it’s all small stuff. As to why the conservatives voted the way they did, I hope and pray that they voted their conscience under the guidance of the spirit. That is the best answer I have as to why they voted as they did. At the conferences is indeed the proper place for these things to be played out and debated. My point was that when we as the local body of Christ are putting out press releases and calling press conferences, having pastors post their politics on facebook pages and the like alienating anyone who does not fall in line with them, etc. that we are not spreading the gospel. Yeah I believe that any issue that is not directly related to how we are spreading the gospel message to non-believers is small stuff. That was our comission from Christ afterall.

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