The Real Schism, It’s Not What you Think.

The United Methodist church appears to be following other major protestant denominations into the throes of division. The issue is same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ persons living in same-sex relationships. Of course various accusations are being made with regard to who is more biblical, orthodox, faithful to tradition, etc. I want to suggest that the real schism and the future of schism, was determined in the Methodist church back in 1939 when lay persons were given an equal vote with clergy on all matters of church discipline and doctrine.

This decision was the logical outcome of a century of democratization in the church, or put another way, the steady influence of democratic ideals within a church that traditionally vested authority in a elite, self-selecting male hierarchy.

It is a pattern being worked out in other religions as well as they move into the era of the idealization of democratic values. Indeed i would suggest that the first great divide that affects all inter-religious dialogue is the difference between democratic religious organizations and those that are in some form or another oligarchic. But let’s look a Methodism as an example.

In 1939 of the Methodist Church gave laity a vote equal to that of clergy. In this decision the church stepped decisively out of the understanding of authority within the Body of Christ that had prevailed among most Christians from the time of the apostles. Because the laity were not only given the authority to manage the property of the church, but also interpret the meaning of scripture, the creeds, and the United Methodist tradition as it applied to not only their personal faith but also to the ordering of the Body of Christ. Their views, whether formed, malformed, or unformed would have equal weight with those who in some sense, however convoluted, were educated and ordained within the succession of the apostles and the authority given the apostles by the Christ.

The movement toward democratization was hastened and made inevitable when Methodism itself ceased being a relatively small renewal movement within England’s national religion to becoming a religion of popular revivalism and populist appeal in the newly formed United States. At the time that the southern and northern Methodist churches reunited in 1939 Methodism was the largest Protestant church in the United states. It could hardly fail to be influenced by and participate in every significant form of social evolution.

With the break from the tradition of vested authority and the creation of popular Methodism there came the inevitable and accelerating adjustment of Christian belief and practice to societal norms concerning who was both fully part of society and who thus had a full right to participate in the authority democratically given to all. The laity in any popular religious movement will have a worldview and self-understanding shaped far more by their social context than by their religious community.

Given the normalization of women’s roles in political and economic leadership in American society the ordination of women was inevitable. And theologians soon came up with post-facto scriptural and theological rational for this second decisive break with tradition.
When divorce and remarriage became a ubiquitous part of the American experience it was inevitable that the church would accept divorce, even among clergy, and again theologians and clergy would find the necessary rational for normalizing the status of divorcees and accept another break from the longstanding tradition of the church and what had appeared for two thousand years to be the clear teaching of Jesus.

And in the last 30 or so years the increasing acceptance of LGBTQ persons as fully normal humans and citizens has inevitably led to calls for the normalization of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church, through both church sanctioned marriages and ordination. And again, as with the ordination of women and the acceptance of divorce and remarriage, proponents of normalization have found scriptural and traditional rationals for their views. They have not been accepted by the majority, but they do exist.

Once understandings of ecclesial authority fell under the sway of democratization it was equally inevitable that the accepted role of wealth as a source of power and thus authority in American society would make its way into the church. Church leaders became acutely aware that a laity empowered to vote at annual conference would quickly learn to vote with their wallets in the local church.
But while pastors may face some discipline if they fail to encourage the church to pay its dues (apportionment in the Methodist church), the laity face no such consequences should they decide to withhold funds from either their congregation or the larger church. The imbalance is clear. Laity can decide at any time how much they will give in support of the larger church. But pastors cannot in any way determine how much lay persons must contribute to their local church or to the larger church.

The same imbalance is clear when it comes to public adherence to the beliefs of the church. Clergy can be held accountable for preaching heresy or performing acts that are not in compliance with church law. But laity (as anyone who has attended an adult Sunday School class has witnessed) can hold and hold forth on a variety of incoherent and heretical beliefs without any consequence. And it might be added are essentially accountable to no one in their actions.

Indeed, since the church is a purely voluntary populist society the only power that the church has over its laity, and the only means of disciplining a congregation, is based in ownership of the real property of the church. But even here the laity have the advantage. An empty church building, if unsold, is a constant drain on the resources of a church that has only the laity as a financial resource.
The inevitable result is that the authority of the clergy has come to fall effectively under the authority of the laity. Nothing related to the practical outworking of doctrine in the life of the church can be implemented without the laity. The UMC rules outline the realms in which only ordained clergy have authority in the congregation it is true, but realistically these same clergy serve at the sufferance of the laity, and are bound to the rules which the laity approve.

So, should this go on?

Granting laity the right to vote in the Methodist General Conference and subsequently in the UMC effectively asserted that it is the membership of the whole Body of Christ rather than the apostles and their successors in whom Christ has vested with the most basic authority to interpret the meaning of the incarnation. It is not an unknown position among Protestants. It is certainly a break from John Wesley’s Anglican roots and his own understandings of authority. At the very least we need to recognize that in this sense we’ve made a decisive break with orthodoxy, and have guaranteed that more such breaks will follow.

And I hasten to add, it really isn’t just United Methodists. Modernity brought democratization and the breakdown of classical authority structures in Judaism, Islam, and even Buddhism and Hinduism. All are in some sense living in an emerging world that has no precedent. And all face both schism and compromise with their surrounding cultures.

Does this mean that I oppose the vote of lay persons in UM General Conferences? No, I believe that the early Reformers were right that Christ vested authority in the baptized members of the apostolic church, who are as a body the true successors to the apostles. Ordained clergy are their representatives in particular times and places, chosen by means and qualified by standards that they accept. Democratization is the only way to keep any church or religious body from becoming the preserve, often exploitative, of a self-selected group of oligarchs.

But there is a price to pay; for in matters of doctrine Christianity has no uncontested reading of its authorizing sources. If it remains popular then Christianity will remain deeply influenced by popular culture. If its communities can gather around some agreed interpretation of its doctrinal standards they will inevitably remain relatively small and constantly subject to schism over some point of interpretation or application.

Unless – it occurs to me after my original posting – a worldwide Methodism might escape being in thrall to any particular set of cultural and social changes while remaining popular. I’m skeptical because I see cultural tensions also being potentially divisive. But it is another possibility.

Which of these options is desired by Christ is beyond the scope of this short essay.

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