Why is schism such a dirty word?

April 26th, 2017

It was announced earlier this week by the United Methodist Council of Bishops that there will be a special General Conference in 2019. This one will be limited to dealing with a forthcoming report from the Council based on the proposals from the Commission on a Way Forward.

This special GC is scheduled for four days near the end of February, well before Annual Conference season.

I’m not privy to any discussions currently happening in the Commission meetings or in the Council of Bishops, but one doesn’t have to connect a lot of dots here to know that some kind of formal separation is a real possibility. If that happens, exactly how it goes down is anyone’s guess. (For now I’ll leave those details to the UM polity wonks who no doubt are already considering various scenarios.)

While I’d be sad to see the United Methodist Church split, I confess that my sadness would probably be more about nostalgia and missed opportunity than some noble ecclesiological reason. My understanding of the universal church and Christian unity has little to do with the structures we call denominations, so I’ve never really bought into the all the melodrama that proliferates on social media whenever someone mentions the possibility of schism.

When a fellow Methodist appeals to church unity, in my mind they’re actually making a better case for becoming Anglican than for keeping a not-quite-fifty-year-old denomination together. John Wesley died a priest in the Church of England, after all.

And if you really want to take that unity train to the final stop, plan on becoming Roman Catholic.

But most of us know that unity has more to do with common beliefs and mission than whether everyone belongs to the same denomination. And maybe it’s my supercharged Protestant DNA, but I don’t see a church split as the end of the world. In fact, I’d argue that it could be an opportunity for greater unity.

Let me explain.

In business news, we hear about mergers all the time. But sometimes companies do just the opposite.

For example, consider the fictional American Widget Company, which has been making both widgets and doodads for years. Company executives reach the conclusion that it would be beneficial to spin off the doodads business into a separate company so it will be able to focus exclusively on widgets. Perhaps it wants to make better widgets, but feels that the time and energy it spends on doodads is interfering with that goal. Perhaps the executives in the doodads division don’t get along with the executives in the widget division.

Maybe the only way to simplify everything and get everyone back on the same page is to create the American Doodad Company and let them handle the doodads. Then the American Widget Company can get back to focusing on widgets.

No business analogy, of course, works perfectly when dealing with issues in the church, but there’s a principle here that we’d do well to heed: There’s power in a common mission. If a church can’t agree on the basics, or on what its primary “product” is, maybe the time has come to consider a spinoff.

Or whatever name you prefer calling it.

What do you think? Should all United Methodist congregations (conservative, progressive and moderate) be in the same denomination and under the same “brand”? Would we be stronger together or separate? Can you think of a creative solution that would allow different expressions of Methodism to exist peacefully within the same denomination?

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