by Chris Ritter
“Can two walk together without agreeing where to go?” Amos 3:3
William Lawrence’s most recent commentary argues that The United Methodist Church is splintering, not splitting. I agree with Lawrence that how we understand this Methodist moment helps determine our response to it. Yes, framing is important. Labels carry political messages. Sides are something to take; splinters are something to avoid. There is no disputing that exits from the UMC have been, to this point, small and varied. Perhaps less than 1% of our 30,000 congregations have completed exit. These include some of our largest U.S. churches who paid significant sums to assume independent status. Others have joined denominations like the Free Methodist Church, the ACNA, and the UCC. Lawrence has ammunition to back his claim that, so far, we have the main trunk of a tree… and we have various splinters.
But we cannot so easily label the Global Methodist Church just another splinter. Its announced creation is in response to the very splintering that Lawrence sites. With the third delay of General Conference, the GMC Transitional Leadership Council determined they must create a place for those leaving to go. From here on, I predict, we have a tale of two churches. How these churches interact will help determine the health of both. Will this be a healthy mitosis or a litigator’s dream? The splinter language tends toward the second option. “One Church” United Methodism can only regain equilibrium if some “traditional incompatibilists” leave, but it also can’t resist the temptation to shame them as they go. Lawrence offers a rhetorical assist when he numbers UM exit-ers among:
…splinters that have been strewn around, as they are every time the followers of Jesus Christ decide that they cannot tolerate a community of faith centered in a prayerful unity under one Lord, despite differences. Today, United Methodists are adding more splinters to the residue of unfaithful and broken discipleship.William Lawrence
A Splitting Headache
“Split” is language problematic for an institution that may not fare well in a side-by-side polity comparison. The GMC incorporates common-sense reforms long waylaid by UMC political inertia (limiting terms of bishops, scuttling guaranteed appointment for clergy, enhancing rights for local churches, addressing decline, holding general agencies more accountable, down-sizing the bureaucracy, etc). The #BeUMC platform trumpets unity, but fails to address the elephant in the room. If the UMC is becoming a wider tent in which various expressions of Methodism can move forward, why is expensive, top-heavy, authoritarian control needed in a do-what-you-want denomination? How will needed reforms be enacted when the most vocal proponents for reform are leaving? How will Centrist leaders pivot from critiquing the “right wing” to becoming one?
“Splinter” is a word born of privilege that a majority uses to speak about a minority. The main body of Christendom labelled Martin Luther a heretic and outlaw. Methodism itself a splintered off Anglicanism. Although Wesley never officially left the Church of England, he was widely criticized for operating outside its governance. Within our Methodist family tree, one might argue that some splinters have been healthier than our ill-executed mergers. Lawrence fails to mention the many times that the main branch got it wrong.
- The Salvation Army splintered off when the British Methodist Conference refused to release William Booth to full-time evangelist work.
- The African Methodist Episcopal Church splintered away after blacks were pulled from their knees during prayer by white Methodists impatient to use the building. Richard Allen, a former Delaware slave, was forced to sue in Pennsylvania courts for the right of his congregation to exist as an independent institution.
- The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (now the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church) was splintered off when the MEC, South set its black churches on an independent path.
- The Free Methodists became a splinter when a reform group was expelled for their vocal opposition to slavery and pew rental.
Methodists and Salvationists now cooperate, admitting the mission field is better served by both. A three-hour repentance ceremony in sackcloth and ashes was a centerpiece of the 2000 UMC General Conference for the majority’s sins against African Americans. At the 1910 session of the MEC General Conference, a full apology was made for the ill treatment of Free Methodist founders. The credentials of FMC founder BT Roberts were posthumously restored. Being in the majority (or the minority) in a split or splintering is no badge of authentic faith.
In a denomination out of communion with itself, we cheapen the concept of unity by claiming it for ourselves. Pressures inside the trunk cause splinters to form. Splintering is bad. But splinters can be good. Sometimes a stone rejected by the builders becomes the chief cornerstone. Fresh shoots can erupt from a seemingly dead stump. A small and scattered flock, led by Jesus, inherits the Kingdom. In the days of Elijah, God reserved a remnant in Israel that did not bow the knee to Baal. And so we look toward May 1. The GMC will no doubt start small. But if the recent actions of the The Bulgaria-Romania Conference are any indication, the spunky persistence of traditional, Methodist, Christian faith will cause it to flourish. Shouldn’t we all rejoice in that?
Photo Credit SPU.edu (Pictured left to right: Phoebe Palmer, Amanda Berry Smith, John Wesley, BT Roberts, Jermain Wesley Loguen, Daniel Thambyrajah Niles, and Julia Foote. They represent the diversity of Methodism and its movements within and apart from various denominational forms.)