Column: Suppose they held a schism and nobody left

The Rev. Bill Farmer, center, speaks to members of the congregation during service at the Grace Methodist Church Sunday, May 14, 2023, in Homosassa Springs, Fla. Many departing churches are joining the conservative Global Methodist Church, created last year, while others are going independent or joining other denominations. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

The Rev. Bill Farmer, center, speaks to members of the congregation during service at the Grace Methodist Church Sunday, May 14, 2023, in Homosassa Springs, Fla. Many departing churches are joining the conservative Global Methodist Church, created last year, while others are going independent or joining other denominations. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) Chris O'Meara

Randall Balmer. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Randall Balmer. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By RANDALL BALMER

For the Valley News

Published: 06-17-2023 9:21 PM

Stop me if you’re heard this before. A major Protestant denomination is splitting over issues of sexual identity and practice.

In 2003, it was the election and consecration of V. Gene Robinson as the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire that prompted an exodus of parishes and parishioners from the Episcopal Church. Just as the ordination of women had stirred a similar controversy several decades earlier, many members could not countenance the consecration of an openly gay man as bishop.

Pope Benedict XVI established an ordinariate to welcome disaffected Episcopal priests into the Roman Catholic Church. The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) was formed in 2009 to receive schismatic priests and parishioners who split from the Episcopal Church. The new organization chose Robert Duncan, formerly the bishop of Pittsburgh, as its first archbishop, and in 2021, the ACNA reported 974 congregations.

Now it’s the Methodists’ turn. The United Methodist Church, the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination, has moved decidedly in the direction of allowing the ordination of LGBTQ clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions at its General Conference next year.

Although the denomination’s Book of Discipline currently forbids the ordination of someone who is openly homosexual and states that homosexuality is inconsistent with Christian teaching, regional conferences within the denomination have already signaled their support for full inclusion.

As Kimberly Scott, a United Methodist minister, told NPR, “churches have gone beyond what the Book of Discipline says to make the church open and accessible to gay and lesbian clergy like myself.”

Conservatives — on these and other matters — are not happy. The denomination has made provisions for disaffected congregations to leave with their property with a two-thirds vote, provided they are current on their assessments and pension liabilities. A new entity called the Global Methodist Church has been formed as a refuge for these dissenting congregations.

Schism is a venerable Christian tradition ever since the Protestant Reformation, especially in the United States. Martin Luther’s elevation of the Bible as the sole authority — sola scriptura — together with his notion of the priesthood of believers — everyone has the right to interpret the Bible for herself — has led to the splintering of Protestantism.

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The Bible admits of many interpretations, and American history in particular is littered with schismatic groups, many of them differing in minute ways from other, related groups. The last time I checked, for example, I counted 54 different denominations of Baptists in the United States.

The last major wave of schisms occurred in the run-up to the Civil War, when the major Protestant denominations split over the issue of slavery. Baptists split in 1845, the Presbyterians in 1857 and the Methodists in 1844. Southern theologians argued that the Bible did not condemn, and even appeared at times to sanction, slavery.

Methodists had fumbled the issue of slavery earlier in their history. When the Methodist Episcopal Church (as it was known at the time) was formed in Baltimore in 1784, one of the stipulations was that slaveholders must emancipate their slaves. By 1808, however, the denomination left the matter in the hands of regional conferences, and by 1832, the General Conference tabled all discussions about slavery, deeming it “inexpedient to discuss the issue.”

Methodists are certainly discussing the matter of sexual identity and same-sex marriage now. Many congregations, especially in Texas and the South, have elected to leave the United Methodist Church, but the overall defections are far fewer than predicted.

The denomination has lost some large churches, to be sure, but according to a recent survey, only 6.1 percent of Methodist congregations have decided to leave the United Methodist Church. And among those choosing to defect, only 58% have affiliated with the Global Methodist Church.

To paraphrase a slogan from the Vietnam War era, suppose they gave a schism and nobody came.

The lesson here is that perhaps — perhaps — conservatives in the United Methodist Church have overplayed their hand. Just as narrow readings of the Bible regarding slavery eventually gave way to a more compassionate understanding of human diversity, a clear majority of Methodists understand that a few gotcha passages regarding sexual identity do not trump a larger, more capacious reading of the scriptures.

Methodists along with most Southerners and nearly all Americans came to recognize the sin of slavery. So too most contemporary Methodists understand that the biblical mandate to love God and neighbor applies to everyone.

Everyone.

Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, teaches in the religion department at Dartmouth College.