Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A global perspective on the possibility of a #UMCschism

The American United Methodist blogosphere has been abuzz the last several days with conversations about the possibility of a split in the UMC over the issue of homosexuality and in particular the performance of same-sex weddings by UMC clergy and the ordination of LGBT UMC clergy.  The most recent spate of conversation has been set off by a group of conservative pastors unhappy with the trend toward more open performances of same-sex weddings, though there have been calls for schism by both conservatives and liberals over the past several years.

Where calls for schism are not coming from, however, is the UMC outside the United States.  The debate about homosexuality in the UMC and the resulting calls for separation are an American phenomenon, and it is important to note this.  United Methodists in other countries have views on homosexuality, and most of those views (though not all) are more traditional/conservative, but that does not mean that homosexuality is at the top of the agenda for United Methodists in Africa, Europe, or Asia.  Other issues, ranging from evangelism and church extension to fighting malaria to faith development to typhoon recovery to interfaith relations as a religious minority, are much more pressing issues.  What constitutes the most pressing issue facing the UMC varies from country to country, from church to church, and from individual to individual, but for very few United Methodists outside of the United States is it homosexuality.

There are a number of reasons for this differing sense of priorities. One important reason is that the drive for LGBT rights is much more limited in many areas where the UMC operates, and fewer rights mean less debate in society as a whole.  Yet there are other reasons as well.  In some places, the UMC is facing real challenges to its growth or survival from other political, religious, and cultural forces, and these have nothing to do with homosexuality.  In still other places, the plight of the poor, sick, and economically disadvantaged is a much more pressing concern.

When Americans talk about splitting the UMC, they place their theological and cultural issues at the top of the agenda for the church.  More than that, they are stating that their theological and cultural issues, and not those of United Methodists elsewhere, should determine the future of the connection.  Both American conservatives, who claim the support of many international United Methodists on issues of sexuality, and American liberals, who disagree with the views of many international United Methodists on issues of sexuality, are guilty of this cultural arrogance in which they demand that other United Methodists around the world pay attention to their issues while simultaneously ignoring what those other United Methodists see as the most important issues facing the church.

The inability to see the debate through international eyes extends to institutional as well as theological / cultural matters.  One of the points raised about the results of a schism is the institutional problems that would be involved in separating out two separate but overlapping churches within the United States.  Congregations, institutions, and individuals would be forced to choose, whether or not they wanted to.  Yet that choosing would not stop at the borders of the US.  If Americans split the UMC, they will be forcing people all over the world to choose sides.

Moreover, that will often be a hard choice to make with significant potential negative consequences for international United Methodists.  If Americans force international United Methodists to choose sides in a church split, they may be forcing them to choose between partnerships with different American churches or to choose between different funding relationships with Americans in a way that will limit the support for the good mission going on in other parts of the UMC around the world.  If the split between United Methodisms extends to other countries, that will fracture what in some cases are already small bodies into even smaller bodies in ways that could threaten the mission and even the viability of United Methodism in some other countries.  It could impose foreign theological labels on United Methodists elsewhere and force them to choose between labels that may better suit their context and relationships with Methodists in the US that have chosen the other label.

In short, the call for schism in the United States shows a total preoccupation with American issues that disregards the priorities of United Methodists elsewhere and the impact of American debates on the rest of the church worldwide.  Both conservatives and liberals have charged each other with endangering the covenant that is at the heart of the connectional system, but they are both guilty of ignoring their covenant with United Methodists of all theological stripes in other countries.

7 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Very well thought out, David! Regardless of one's views on homosexuality, your insights raise the important question about bigger battles that we face. A former student of mine was recently killed as a result of gang violence. I wish there was more emphasis within the church about reaching marginalized groups, such as at-risk youth right next door in impoverished areas of the suburbs rather than carefully refining views on homosexuality.

    To be cliche, ridiculous, and somewhat provocative, I ask "what would Jesus do?" Well, he didn't throw stones at people caught in sexually immoral acts. While the Old Testament and Epistles are often sighted for anti-homosexual leanings, I don't know that the Gospels give a clear, definitive guidance about homosexuality and church policy. Rather than condemning people and arguing church policy at length, Jesus shaped lives by serving others and meeting their deepest needs. Perhaps Christians and the Church would be more effective by finding ways to join together in meeting needs rather than focusing time, money, and resources to be as right/righteous as we believe we are.

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  3. Thanks for this post, David. Years ago the Mission Society for United Methodists "split" from the GBGM. Local churches in other parts of the world simply chose to continuing working with, and receiving funds from, whichever group met their needs--and often from both groups. Now fast forward over a quarter century later, and the two groups have friendly relationships with each other. I've been in Zimbabwe and seen local groups work with multiple groups that would have been seen as mutually exclusive in North America. church. At the same time, one fears that if schism occurs in the US, the reaction of our fellow UM's elsewhere could justifiably be "a pox be upon both your houses." Nobody likes to be part of a group whose agenda is "made in America."

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  4. Thanks, David. Over at Via Media Methodists we are also interested in seeing where both sides of the debates in the church have things to add to the conversation, and things that are problematic to the conversation. You rightly name the arrogance attached to both sides demanding that these North American interests trump those of the worldwide church. Thanks for this.

    For more: viamediamethodists.wordpress.com

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  5. Fantastic post. Thank you for sharing these insights.

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  6. I agree that human sexuality issues in the U.S. church should not drive how the church globally organizes itself, nor how it carries out mission and ministry.

    I also agree that schism is far more consequential than the current discussion acknowledges.

    I am troubled, however, by the absence of recognition that in many African nations LGBT people face social exclusion, discrimination, imprisonment, and even death merely for being who they are. This is not merely a civil rights issue, it is a theological issue.

    The issue in the U.S. has become polemical, and one that seems for some to be beyond resolution. I understand that. But I don't agree that we cannot find a way to move forward and maintain our unity and our important connection.

    But I am confronted with questions: Are people being denied the opportunity to flourish as God intends for all people to flourish? Does the grace of God extend to all? What does "united in Christ" mean?

    While few African religious leaders acknowledge it publicly, some privately and off-the-record have told me they know that the dilemma of views on human sexuality are simmering in Africa, especially among young adult leaders, and the time is coming when they will have to deal with it in the light of day. Hopefully, it will not be as Uganda has dealt with it.

    While the various agendas of the U.S. should not drive the global church, neither should we assume that because an issue has not surfaced publicly in a given context real suffering is not happening, and that our faithfulness is not being challenged.

    We face a complex, life-threateing dilemma.

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  7. I hope this brings more attention to the issue as a global one. Though, unfortunately I doubt it will. As an American working in Africa I have seen both sides of this debate and been asked questions by United Methodist pastors here in Africa trying to understand the history of the situation and how it has taken center stage for a church that they see as global, but that is acting very locally right now. I understand the importance of the debate for the American church (of which I am a part), but it has been hard for me not to grow frustrated with people who make this the only issue of importance, and worth a church split of this size. In the end it only means the slow death of the UMC, mainly because of the financial implications and age brackets of those on both sides of the issue in the US (another blog that might be worth writing).

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