Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.
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.