Recent events have brought up the specter of a major split in the United Methodist Church, the second largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.
The talk of schism came to a head last month when a United Methodist Church court failed to discipline a Nebraska pastor, the Rev. Jimmy Creech, for performing a marriage ceremony for two lesbians. The clearest sign of a possible split was seen in Northern California where 22 conservative UM pastors threatened to pull out of the denomination and take their parishes with them. The San Francisco Chronicle (May 1) reports that although the evangelical-liberal rift is decades in the making, the church decision in April convinced them that the battle for the denomination may be lost.
Such large-scale defections would be unprecedented in the church, although smaller protests are breaking out in New England and Georgia. Although official church policy rules against the practice of homosexuality, conservative critics claim that liberal ministers regularly ignore national church policy with impunity, reports Don Lattin. Other observers also seem to be of the opinion that the church is at a theological crossroads.
In the journal First Things (June-July), theologian William Abraham writes that United Methodist have been less prone to schism because they have been able to create their own organizations (such as Good News), and also because they have concentrated on their local congregations (often building very successful parishes). Until now, the denomination has been committed to a liberal pluralism that allowed the different parties enough breathing space.
But today such pluralism is breaking down because of the emergence of a new breed of conservative pressing for the church to adopt a definite body of doctrine. There is also the growing influence of the “radicals” or “revisionists” who claim that the UM tradition is dominated by patriarchy and racial and sexual forms of exclusion, and they are the most active in pressing for acceptance of gay rights in the denomination. This group would also use the UM denominational machinery to carry out their agenda.
Abraham concludes that whether or not there will be a major schism over these issues depends on three groups in the UM: the “institutionalists” are committed to the denomination’s future and they may have to face breaking ranks with revisionists in order to keep church unity; conservatives, who seem split between moderates and activists (as seen in Northern California); ethnic minorities have sided with the liberals on many social issues, but they may change sides in the current battle, since they are theologically and liturgically conservative.
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