11/8/12

New calls for "amicable separation"

Back at the 2004 General Conference, it came to light that some conservative leaders were discussing the possibility of bringing forward a proposal for "amicable separation," splitting the church along liberal-conservative lines so as to finally (presumably) end the bitter arguing over sexual morality within the church and get on with the mission.  When the proposal became public, many people (including other conservatives) denounced the idea of schism, and the General Conference passed a resolution stating that we remain United Methodists.


Fast foward a few years.  General Conference 2012 saw a very well funded, very organized, highly vocal and strategic effort by progressives to liberalize the church's position fall short of its goals by even larger margins than in the past, despite comparatively low key efforts of conservative groups.  Why?  The demographic realities are becoming clear to everyone.  The areas of the church in the US that are growing (or simply "not-shrinking") mostly tend to be in the more theologically and socially conservative areas of the Church; the fastest declining parts of the Church tend to be in the more liberal/progressive areas, but everything happening in the US is really small potatoes compared to the massive growth in the conservative overseas regions, in Africa and Asia especially.  The representative membership of each future General Conference will reflect these demographic shifts toward the moderately conservative American South and toward the even more conservative Global South.

Because it looks highly unlikely that The United Methodist Church will abandon historic Christian teachings and Biblical interpretations on sexuality anytime in the next century we are now beginning to hear calls from progressive/liberal United Methodists for exploring an 'amicable separation' of the church.  Consider this piece by Rev. Jack Jackson, a young professor at Claremont seminary.

In his article Rev. Jackson asserts that progressives/liberals have essentially 4 options:
1) Continue to live under the current Discipline while hoping for a change that is increasingly unlikely,
2) leave the denomination for a more liberal one,
3) "ecclesiastical disobedience" (he actually uses the somewhat misleading appelation "civil disobedience") or
4) begin a conversation about a denominational split 

He notes that, while both conservative and liberal members have opted for other churches more to their liking (and continue to do so) because of endless fighting, we have in recent months seen a couple of liberal/progressive bishops and Jurisdictions calling for ecclesiastical disobedience (many of us are eager to see if and how the Council of Bishops will address this at its fall meeting, going on now).  But Jackson asks a wise question: what is the ultimate goal, what is the "end game" for that strategy?  To somehow force progressive/liberal views on an traditionalist majority that does not accept or believe in them (all in the name of 'justice')? 

Surely even a few moments of consideration can make clear to everyone that ecclesiastical disobedience (and, indeed, calling the position of the majority of Methodists 'evil') is not likely to help us remain in communion, or even dialogue, with one another.  Jackson quite rightly asserts that many traditionalists will not remain in the UMC if it reverses course on sexual issues (especially, we might add, if the decision to do so looked to have been somehow manipulated by a vocal minority).  He suggests that if even 10 percent of the active US membership left the denomination over a short period of time in response to a liberal turn on this issue, this would wreak financial havoc upon the structures of the remaining Church to such a degree that shrinking liberal/progressive jurisdictions simply could not have the resources to cope with it.  That assumes only 10% would abruptly leave, suppose it was much more?

So Rev. Jackson now advocates option 4: splitting up the church.  It seems there are some potential benefits: we might end up with two remnant churches (I'll call them "The Progressive Methodist Church" and "The Methodist Episcopal Church") each better able to clearly articulate their identity, beliefs, and mission than the UMC is now able to do; however I think such a split would further underline the serious ecclesiological deficiencies that seem "built into" Protestantism.  It seems we heirs of the Reformation simply cannot "maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" as the Lord, through Scripture, commands (whether the Roman or Eastern churches do it better is an open question worth exploring).  I don't claim to know what the best way forward is for The United Methodist Church at this moment in our history.  Considering our debilitating impasse, it looks to many as if schism is ultimately inevitable, be it a formal schism or simply a drifting away of individuals (the 'personal schism' of option #2).  As things are now, the distracting in-fighting continues to drain our energy and scatter our attention and hurt our church.

So I do not claim to know the best way forward, yet still, I know that Jesus prayed (as I do) for unity among all his followers.

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7 Comments:

Blogger Craig L. Adams said...

I really don't know what to make of the Jackson article. Is he a liberal speaking to his fellow liberals (that's how many people have taken the article) — or is he a conservative politely inviting the liberals to leave? It could be read either way. And, what is the split about? Incompatible views of sexuality that he doesn't spell out. Hmm. So, no same-sex attracted people will be born to conservatives? No liberals will have access to the Bible and the traditional teachings of the church? No gays will ever choose celibacy? No conservatives will ever again argue that same-gender sex is morally okay? The article is weird.

12:15 PM, November 08, 2012  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

It certainly has gotten a lot of press. I doubt that Jackson is a conservative inviting liberals to leave, not primarily because he is a professor at Claremont (though that is not completely insignificant), but because the language of his article certainly presents itself as the language of a progressive speaking to other progressive 'insiders' (e.g. He speaks of the church "becoming inclusive" rather than "moving to the left" on sexual issues, etc.)

If in fact he is a "closet traditionalist" inviting liberals to leave, he has in my view been rather dishonest about it and not helped anyone.

I do agree with your implication that the debate, while it may become more muted would still go on in both hypothetical remnant churches. Conservative churches will still be in the culture, and liberal churches will still read the Scripture. And if history is a good teacher, new debates would emerge pitting people against one another who had been united in their views on the sexual morality issues.

1:19 PM, November 08, 2012  
Blogger Craig L. Adams said...

Well, I'm not pulling the idea that Jackson is a closet conservative out of thin air. I read on an FB friend's timeline that Jackson was a Wesley Scholar. And, he teaches evangelism at Clairmont.

1:32 PM, November 08, 2012  
Blogger kg said...

I don't have any wisdom to offer----as a Lutheran, we've struggled with the same issue, and have undergone a less-planned out split. So, you do have other examples to look at.
Lutherans have evolved into many flavors. While my church leans more "conservative", it is also much less "traditional" in worship styles. And the more "liberal" church we split from worships with a more "traditonal" style.
It is apparent that God is working in both congregations. And after some hard feelings, we are both healing and doing some activities together.
Our unity is in Christ. The change has caused both groups to make changes that are life-giving.
Answers to which group is "right"?
After the split, when the dust settled, we stopped asking that question and moved on.

8:58 PM, November 08, 2012  
Blogger Craig L. Adams said...

Daniel,

Take a look at Jackson's bio here: http://www.cst.edu/academics/faculty/profile/jack-jackson/

He has two degrees from Asbury Theological Seminary.

11:12 AM, November 10, 2012  
Blogger Craig L. Adams said...

My response: http://www.craigladams.com/blog/files/no-dr-jackson-splitting-the-umc-is-a-bad-idea.html

3:00 PM, November 10, 2012  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Craig,
Mr. Jackson's resume' certainly does raise questions in my mind; however it should be noted that just because one has attended Asbury or been a Wesley Fellow in th past does not necessitate that one must be conservative on sexual issues today (any more than teaching at, say, Claremont makes one liberal/progressive on these issues). I agree that it does matter which is true for Mr. Jackson.

Though normally we would say that the identity of a spokesman is irrelevent to the merits of his argument, in this case I think it does matter if he is actually a traditionalist/conservative speaking the language of progressives. He certainly is asking Progressives to consider leaving, and it does make a difference in how wide a hearing he receives as to whether or not he is speaking as one in sympathy with them or as one antipathetic to their aims. Thus, as I said before, if he is a closet traditionalist he has by his language implied that he was progressive and thus been dishonest.

7:40 AM, November 11, 2012  

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