Monday, January 27, 2014

Thoughts on Schism, or the Splitting the UMC

I usually use this blog site to post comments on upcoming lectionary texts. However, on Saturday I responded to a post in the United Methodist Clergy Group on Facebook about the possibility of the UMC splitting over the issue of Same Sex Marriage (SSM) or Same Sex Unions (SSU). The original post posited the inevitable split of the denomination over this long standing (since 1972) and volatile subject. Basically, supporters of SSM go to the left and supporters of one man one woman (OMOW) marriages go to the right (pun intended).

Currently, several pastors have be defrocked (basically kicked out) from the United Methodist Church for performing SSM even when the ceremony was 2 to 5 years ago. Usually what happens is someone in the pastor's church who believes in the traditional definition of marriage finds out about the ceremony and then complains to the pastor's District Superintendent. This starts a complaint process which leads to a church trial. If found guilty of violating the Book of Discipline (BoD) prohibition of SSM the pastor's punishment could be anything from a slap on the wrist to getting the boot.

Some supporters of OMOW have threatened to leave the denomination if the BoD is ever changed. Some supporters of SSM have threatened to leave if the BoD is not changed.

My response post was:

I think the UMC's Book of Discipline should be changed to reflect the fact that pastors and churches have come to different conclusions about the validity of same-sex marriage. Pastors and churches should each decide whether they can officiate or host the weddings of all couples. Those who decide against are free not to officiate or host. Those who decide for are then free to officiate or host without fear of repercussions. This should be a workable solution to our current situation.

I thought this was a good "middle road" idea which received some support but, as can be expected, I also got some mild push back. Nothing harsh, mind you. Those who responded directly to my post thought that it was unworkable. One thought that the "live and let live" was tantamount to endorsing SSM. Some thought on the responses, SSM, and schism.

1. The question, "What happens when a pastor and their charge (the church or churches to which we are appointed) disagree?" was asked a couple of times. This is not as unusual as you would assume. In the UMC, progressive (read liberal) pastors are appointed to rural conservative churches all the time and they get along well, usually. If a pastor who supports SSM is appointed to a church that supports only OMOW weddings then the pastor respects that decision and doesn't do SSM's at the church. (In rural conservative areas the possibility of SSM's at church is usually rare.) If a pastor supports only OMOW marriages is appointed to a church that will host SSM's then the pastor need not perform the ceremonies and another pastor can do them. This seems perfectly reasonable to me.

2. "Live and let live". While supporters of OMOW marriage will certainly see my proposal as endorsing SSM, I don't see it that way. Let me quote directly: "What those who propose this "live and let live" approach either cannot understand or simply dismiss is that we who oppose same-sex unions do so because we believe same-sex intimacy to be sin." The church has been down this road before over the last 200 years: slavery (which did lead to schism), women clergy, and divorced-remarried clergy (which was prohibited by the BoD at one period of our history) with arguments based on scripture on both sides about what the church should allow and/or endorse. We eventually got past those arguments and we need to get past this one.

3. When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) was discussing allowing SSM many threatened to leave if the change was made. When the change was actually approved in 2009 many did leave the denomination. Some joined the Free Lutheran Church and many, around 600 (6 to 7% of the total ELCA), joined Word Alone to become a new denomination, the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ. The ELCA resolution allows pastors and congregations to decide for themselves about supporting SSM. A congregation that supports OMOW marriages does not have to call a gay or lesbian pastor who is in a SSM or SSU nor allow the marriages. For those congregations that stayed in the ELCA it seems to be a workable situation.

4. My proposal is an acknowledgment that we, the United Methodist Church, will not agree on this issue in the near future. The proposal neither endorses SSM nor penalizes those who support it. I recognize that this does not satisfy either side of the issue, which leads to my last point.

5. Whatever the situation in the UMC, congregations and pastors will leave. If nothing changes then progressive pastors and churches will leave. If the UMC takes up full support for SSM then the conservative clergy and congregations will leave. A change to my proposal, "live or let live" or whatever you want to call it, will more than likely cause some clergy and congregations to leave. So be it. How many will leave? No one knows but if the ELCA is any indication then it will be 10% or less.

Does my solution solve the problems we are now facing? Probably not. Will this bring everyone into agreement? No. Will everyone be happy? Definitely not. A middle road, "via media", is never satisfactory to those who hold strong positions but it is, I think, the only way forward for the denomination I love, the United Methodist Church.

By the way, as I write this, Monday evening, January 27, 2014, the discussion in Facebook continues with 64 comments.

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