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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.