When does schism become schism?

methodistsuniteA consistent theme in coverage of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference was how “stunned” delegates were by a suggestion of freeing theologically divided Methodists to go their separate ways. Reporters also seemed stunned by the idea: after conservatives won the crucial votes on sexuality issues, sometimes by substantial majorities, why would William Hinson of the Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church float such a risky trial balloon?

The most menacing explanation comes at the end of this report by Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times, who quotes James R. Wood, a professor emeritus of sociology at Indiana University.

Wood sees Hinson’s suggestion as a possible sign of conservatives’ burgeoning self-confidence: “A decade ago, the conservatives just wanted to get control of their property so they could leave,” Dr. Wood said. “Now they feel secure enough to say, we’ll give you your property and pensions so that you can leave.”

But Hinson’s text indicates no spirit of triumphalism or suggested expulsion. Instead, Hinson repeatedly refers to his sadness about Methodists’ 30-year debate, and he says Methodists should be liberated from their internecine warfare:

Last Monday night when six of us met with fifteen persons who are of a different perspective, my sadness took on a new dimension. We took turns talking in that circle about the church and where we were coming from. At the end of more than two hours my feelings had coalesced to the point that I was fully persuaded we cannot bridge the gap separating us. I was and am profoundly saddened by that conviction.

. . . No one enjoys stepping on another person’s dream. Some playwright whose name I cannot recall told of the crossing of the Red Sea by the children of Israel. When the waters began to roll over the Egyptian chariots, and as they began to drown in the sea, Miriam and the children of Israel began to sing and dance because of their great victory. God however inquired, “How can you sing and dance when my children are drowning?” No earnest Christian enjoys seeing another human suffering. I believe it is time for us to end this cycle of pain we are inflicting on each other.

Hinson’s idea was not presented to the conference in resolution form. Instead, the conference reaffirmed its commitment to unity amid disagreement on a resounding vote of 869 to 41.

In the inevitable shorthand of complicated stories, schism is the buzz word from the General Conference — so the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s headline mentioned conservatives’ “Plea for schism,” the Associated Press referred to Hinson’s plans for “building support among local congregations for a schism,” and a New York Times headline described conservative Methodists as proposing a schism. A Houston Chronicle deck, though awkward, engaged conservatives’ point that schism already exists: “Ex-pastor urges ‘amicable’ division because of schism on homosexuality.”

Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal turned in one of the best researched stories, and he captured caution among the conservative Methodists who normally would be Hinson’s ready allies:

“It’s not something that any thinking person wants to see happen,” said Melvin Bowdan of Nicholasville, Ky., a retired military officer and retired political science professor at Asbury College in Wilmore. “It could be so devastating.”

The Rev. Darren Cushman-Wood of Indianapolis said he was “deeply disturbed” by talk of a split, saying he wouldn’t feel at home in either a left- or right-leaning denomination.

“Doctrinally, I am as conservative as they come, but in my ethics I am as liberal as you are,” he told a liberal Methodist bishop Friday during the conference. “Maybe I need to have an adjustment in my heart between my doctrines and my ethics, but that kind of surgery needs to done by the Great Physician (Jesus). I do not trust the surgeons who are in this room to perform that surgery.”

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  • http://clientandserver.com dw

    There’s been talk for a number of years about PC(USA) letting the More Light churches leave with their property and pensions. It’s never really bubbled beyond a few Presbyterians talking over coffee, but it makes sense to a lot of people. The More Light movement only encompasses a few percentage points of the overall PC(USA) body, and these churches aren’t showing that much growth (though, honestly, they’re growing in a church that’s shedding 50K members a year.)

    The problem is that it’s a panacea; it won’t fix the underlying problems of Amendment B and the forthcoming 30th Annual Let’s Spend A Day At General Assembly Ripping Our Hair Out Arguing Over The Role Of Gays And Lesbians In The PC(USA) Variety Show Spectacular. Taking out the vocal 2% will only mean you’re shifting forward the not-as-vocal 20% to continue the arguing.

    PC(USA) is the last mainline denomination with a majority non-liberal population. The church is dominated by some behemoth evangelical congregations, esp. in the West, and so long as that trend remains the fighting will continue.

  • http://www.tmatt.net Tmatt

    Because why? Because the progressives hold the denominational switches and the seminaries?

  • http://clientandserver.com dw

    Because of the nature of how things are approved within PC(USA). General Assembly does not have final say; the synods have to approve actions taken by GA. Most all synods handle the voting with a representative format — the more members you have, the more votes you get.

    Keep in mind, though, that there’s a disconnect between the leadership and the rank-and-file. The church itself is controlled by liberals, and most of the seminaries are firmly in the mainline to liberal bent. GA usually ends up approving proposals that are on the liberal side of things. The synods and presbyteries, packed with evangelicals and progessives, shoot the proposals down like so much skeet. Then, like Sisyphus, you start all over again next GA.

    PC(USA) has been shedding members, but it’s mostly attrition. The evangelical churches in the West and Southwest have been adding members, and in a few presbyteries there’s been a net gain as a result. At the same time, you have an unusually large for a mainline sub-40 population that is progessive to liberal. I think there’s an expectation on both sides of the gay and lesbian debate that attrition will give them a majority, but I don’t see there being a resolution to the debate for at least another decade.

  • MrAcheson

    Wonder if a split in the PCUSA would result in a bigger PCA or another new Presbyterian denomination. Or both or neither.

    I stopped being a Presbyterian a long time ago and went Baptist. Too much church politics. Politics gets in the way of the working of the Lord, perhaps thats part of Hinson’s motivation for calling for a split.

  • http:titusonenine.classicalanglican.net Kendall Harmon

    As I wrote on my blog: “It is bad reporting to describe what the reasserters are doing as `building support among local congregations for a schism.` What a small number of reasserters intend, as was made clear in Pittsbrugh, was to argue for the value of amicable separation. This view represents only a minority voice, and was overwhelmingly defeated.”

    Hinson didn’t suggest a schism, he suggested an amicable separation because he sees the fight continuing and sapping vital strength needed for mission and other priorities. Without this proposal he sees methodism headed for a painful and costly divorce. Many media reports had the conservatives seeking schism–quite incorrect.

  • JW

    Hinson is not a Presbyterian. He is an United Methodist. Was that not clear?

  • MrAcheson

    I realize Hinson is UMC, but politics is politics at some point. Similar things may be going on in the two denominations.