Commentary: Finding sacred space between unanimity, schism

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By the grace of the calendar, 2004 is one of those years when all major Christian bodies in the world celebrated the resurrection of Jesus on the same Sunday. Orthodox Christians associated with the East call it Pascha. Roman Catholics and Protestants in the West call it Easter. But in this 950th anniversary year of the Great Schism that divided East and West, all of Christendom spent at least one day of sacred space on the calendar together.

To be sure, these separated bodies have established no unanimity of doctrine or practice. Yet in 2004, this common Easter celebration did provide a symbol that religious institutions are shaped by forms of unity that surpass their lack of unanimity, and by a spirit that is stronger than any schism.

That assurance may be important for delegates to General Conference to remember. It is still the Easter season on the Christian calendar. But the echoes of Charles Wesley’s hymn to resurrection may compete with voices encouraging insurrection. The presenting issue is homosexuality.

Delegates will need to find sacred space between unanimity and schism. Within the denomination, some forces will demand disciplined unanimity about homosexual behavior and threaten schism if enforced unanimity cannot be achieved. And other forces will insist that unanimity is a matter of creed rather than conduct, so that any schism as an expression of political action elevates the human will over the divine will.

Delegates face the task knowing that their church is on the verge of a moral and a constitutional crisis over homosexuality. The issue has been debated for at least 30 years. But it has been crystallized by the acquittal of a self-avowed lesbian clergy member of  the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference.

It is a moral crisis because positions in the debate have been framed in absolute terms. Zero tolerance for homosexual activity is, to some, the only permissible moral ground based on their interpretation of Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. To others, full openness to all persons is the only permissible moral ground the church can adopt, based on their interpretation of the same four sources and guidelines for making theological decisions.

It is a constitutional crisis because two fundamental entities within the structure of the church’s constitution seem to be at odds. General Conference is responsible for all legislative matters in the denomination as a whole. It writes laws on such matters as the qualifications for anyone to be ordained as a minister. Annual Conferences, however, decide who may be ordained as ministers. While annual conferences cannot alter the church law, they alone interpret and apply the church law on such matters as ordination. So annual conferences are the final authority on who may be ordained, and there is no appeal from the judgments they reach.

Methodists in America have faced moral and constitutional crises during previous  General Conferences. The most dramatic one occurred 160 years ago. The issue in the 1844 General Conference was slavery. A specific situation involved a bishop of the church who — through marriage — had become the owner of some slaves.

It was a moral crisis because Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, had been an ardent opponent of slavery, and many within the church insisted on maintaining that absolute position. But Methodists in such regions as South Carolina felt it was not a violation of Methodist life to be a slave owner.

It was a constitutional crisis because the General Conference wanted to write laws about slavery and impose them on the whole church, including bishops. But some bishops, including the principal drafter of the denomination’s Constitution, insisted that separation of powers between the bishops and the General Conference meant that only the bishops themselves could exercise matters of discipline on their number.

In that atmosphere of crisis, the outcome at the General Conference of 1844 was schism. It took nearly a century to overcome. Yet even when they reunited in 1939, Methodists bore the scars of racism so visibly that the denomination created a segregated system which lasted until 1968.

United Methodism has endured a precipitous decline in membership since 1968, and that has generated plenty of soul-searching about whether this evangelical church has forgotten how to evangelize. It has suffered a weakening of the political muscle that once accompanied its commitment to social justice ministries, despite the fact that the two most recent occupants of the White House have had ties to the denomination.

None of those facts, however, should lead to the impression that this is some minor social institution. The United Methodist Church has about 36,000 congregations spread across 93 percent of the counties in the United States. It has a growing presence in strategically significant parts of the world, including Russia, central Africa, and eastern Europe. In North America alone, the revenues of the denomination exceed $3 billion annually. It has extensive and valuable real estate holdings, including a structure in Washington, that overlooks both the Supreme Court and the Capitol. More than 120 institutions of higher education are affiliated with the church. And its members tend to dwell in the very core of American culture because they occupy the broad middle of American society.

That is part of the denomination’s difficulty. Because it is so deeply embedded in American life, it incorporates every divisive issue in American life.

At the moment, there is no issue more divisive in the church or in the nation than homosexuality. If United Methodists through their General Conference can find some sacred space for unity without unanimity, for a spirit that supersedes schism, then they will do more than resolve a constitutional crisis. They will provide a gift to other church bodies and, potentially, to the nation as a whole. If not, the church will have missed a glorious moment of grace and will hand on to some future generation the challenge it refused to face. And a glorious moment on the calendar will have passed them by.

*Lawrence is dean and professor of American church history at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas.

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