I love the hope expressed in the Gospel phrase “that they may all be one”. It was Christ’s hope for the church, and it’s the motto of my own denomination, the United Church of Christ.
At the same time, I’m watching as the United Methodist Church moves towards a possible split. There are reports that United Methodist bishops are meeting to propose a way forward that includes the option of a sort of amicable separation. And in its wake I do hear the concern of those who think the church should never schism.
But the reality is that the church of Jesus Christ has been in schism for over a thousand years, and many of those schisms have been necessary and good. The Protestant Reformation was a schism. The Methodist church itself broke away from the Anglican tradition. American denominations were in schism during the Civil War, with the Presbyterians not reuniting until 1983. Other denominations have broken apart over issues involving the inclusion of women. The truth is that schism is practically as old as the church.
And it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Here’s how I think of churches that have to break apart over issues of inclusion: everyone is sitting in a large room, and there is one big table. The only trouble is, not everyone at the table agrees that everyone else should be allowed to sit. So, the ones who aren’t allowed to sit remain standing against the wall while everyone else sits there comfortably, eats well, and debates whether or not they will let the ones standing sit at the table.
Here’s what an amicable separation could look like: Everyone agrees a solution is not coming anytime soon, but a large portion of the group says “we aren’t going to wait for our friends to be allowed to sit anymore.” And so, everyone remains in the same room, but another table is set up where everyone is welcome to sit.
The larger Methodist tradition is that big room, but it could be true that it’s time to set up two tables and let the faithful LGBTQ people leaning against the wall take a seat. The church is already in schism, because a church is not whole that does not recognize the baptisms of all of its members.
Perhaps it’s time that we simply adjust the seating arrangements accordingly.
When denominations debate issues of inclusion or justice they do so because a separation has already taking place. There are already multitudes of United Methodists who are not in the room because they have had to leave it for other rooms. LGBTQ people and their allies have grown tired of waiting for a seat, and have gone to other places where their God-given gifts have been well utilized. In a quiet and gentile way, they have been schism-ed out of the church. (I get that; I was a PCUSA minister for eight years, standing against the wall and waiting. Leaving was the healthiest option I had.)
So now the United Methodist Church is facing a big moment. The UCC, Presbyterian Church (USA), Episcopal Church, and Evangelical Lutheran Church have also been here, of course. But the United Methodist Church remains the largest mainline Protestant denomination in this country, and the split is becoming more deeply entrenched. The fact that the idea transgender people should undergo “reparative therapy”, a fringe treatment condemned by everyone respectable medical and psychological association, is getting serious support at General Conference is just one example.
So the time has come to ask the question: Can the people leaning against the wall wait any longer? Or is it time to set up a table where they can sit down.
Like I said, I do pray for a time in which “they may all be one”. Because we are humans, and deeply fallible, I fear that may not come about on earth. It may only be in the next life, when we see God’s love and truth face-to-face.
But that’s not to say there isn’t something good that can come from this. This week over 1,000 LGBTQ clergy members from other denominations said we would stand in solidarity with our United Methodist LGBTQ colleagues. To me that’s a symbol of what progressive Christians from all mainline denominations should do more of going forward.
I am a devoted student and lover of Reformed theology, and even I can say that in the 21st century church we can’t make our theological differences our idols. The reality is that Luther, Calvin, Wesley, were they alive today, would have far more in common than we realize. I wonder what they would think about their 21st descendants fighting 16th, 17th, and 18th century theological battles when the real work of the Gospel is yet to be done.
And so, if the United Methodist Church splits, I will not see it as a failure. I will see it as a commitment to get everyone a seat at the table. But more than that, I hope it will be a call for all of us who are progressive Christians to gather together in a bigger room, and to all sit together in fellowship. We don’t have to forget where we come from, but we do have to remember why we are here now.
Ironically, maybe it’s this moment of separation that will somehow move us closer to the time that we will “all be one”.