A few weeks ago, Good News publicized that 80, mostly anonymous United Methodist leaders had concluded that the way forward for the Church was to split. To quote Maxie Dunnam, one of the known signatories, “We can no longer talk about schism as something that might happen in the future. Schism has already taken place in our connection.” Unity, it appeared, should be abandoned in order to let each side in the argument over homosexual ethics go its own way. The movement seemed to be moved by Wesley’s first simple rule: “do no harm.” Let us stop holding ourselves close enough to one another that we can hit each other.
Today, Good News publicized an open letter to Adam Hamilton and Michael Slaughter, who had proposed a compromise meant to maintain the unity of the church across division. In the letter, the signatories profess that they share Hamilton and Slaughter’s “love for the church and [their] desire to keep it united.” In fact, one of their primary complaints against the Hamilton/Slaughter proposal is that it “will not keep us united.”
The strange thing is that several of the signatories to the proclamation of schism are also among the signatories to the letter complaining of the “disunity” in the Hamilton/Slaughter proposal. Take, for instance Maxie Dunnam, Charles Savage, and Larry Baird. (This list actually includes all of the signatories that I know of on the original call for schism.)
So, what has happened here? Have these ministers, in the short time of a few weeks had a radical change of heart?
To those who have watched the strategy of Good News and the Confessing movement, that will not seem the most plausible of the possibilities. Rather, what we see seems much more like a repeat than something new.
For the last twenty years, as I have pointed out, the Good News and Confessing movements have been participating in a repeated (and repeatedly successful) strategy as they approach the General Conference. Basically, the move is to threaten schism if the General Conference changes its official position on homosexuality. United Methodists are deeply interested in unity, so it is doubtless that the danger of schism has played some role in past votes on the language about homosexuality. At the last General Conference, a proposal to “agree to disagree” on the issue lost by only 6 percent: 53% to 47%. It would only have taken a 3% shift in the General Conference to have had a very different situation at this point.
So why the need to ramp up the “schism” effort this round? Well, there are lots of trends that are running against the maintenance of conservative hegemony in the General Conference. Not least of which is the demographic shift in the United States toward the acceptance of homosexual marriage. But this only builds upon the tension that already existed within the Church. It should be remembered that, around 30% of the vote at the last General Conference was from the African contingent of United Methodism. Presumably, the vast majority of those votes went against the proposal to “agree to disagree.” As such, of those representing American United Methodism, up to 67% voted in favor of the “agree to disagree” proposal. The idea that conservatives would be able to maintain hegemony without dissension in the United States was unrealistic to say the least. Progressives within the UMC have been emboldened, undertaking ecclesial disobedience. Given the size of the disagreement, it is also unsurprising that they have found that some even as high up as the Council of Bishops have become frustrated enough with the inability to change the Discipline, and have been willing to set aside punishments for ecclesial disobedience.
So this round of threats to schism had to be special, they had to feel more real. They appear to have achieved that, at least in the small world of those who pay attention to UM politics. The reaction to the call for schism was typically United Methodist. Annual Conferences came out in favor of unity. A poll by United Methodist Communications found that the Church had no interest in schism. The call for unity ruled the day.
Perhaps most significantly, however, the schism threat led many to advocate for compromise proposals. The most significant of these was, of course, A Way Forward, the Hamilton/Slaughter proposal. They put out the first somewhat detailed proposal for how to find an institutionally viable way to agree to disagree and thus maintain some unity in the Church.
Hamilton and Slaughter are great pastors, but they appear never to have watched much of Washington politics. There is a reason that no one ever wants to propose a budget first. Everyone knows that the first budget proposed is going to get roasted. Realistic plans come with realistic costs. Critics are free to point out the problems in the realistic proposal without offering any realistic alternatives.
This is not to say that the Hamilton/Slaughter proposal is ideal. It has many very real downsides. But critics were too quick to jump on the critic’s bandwagon without offering their own alternatives. The greatest irony, given the motivating conditions for the proposal, is that many (especially from the conservative side) suggested that the problem here was that it didn’t really preserve substantive enough unity. The plan has thus been labeled as “congregationalist” and even as “close to amicable separation.”
This seems to have provided an ideal point for Good News to step back into the fray and publicize a “workable” alternative for unity: just keep the conservative language in the Discipline and add language requiring stricter enforcement of the Discipline. (Such is about the only proposal I can see that is compatible with the statements in the recent Good News letter). This is, apparently, the only real way to maintain the unity of the Church. We might call it “the return of the enforced conservative option.”
Again, for those who have been watching Good News politics for some time, this does not seem that new. There is no reason to posit a remarkable conversion of opinion in the last few weeks from Dunnam, Savage, and Baird. Rather, they can be interpreted as participating in a fairly consistent strategic program.
In the end, the schism proposal and the “enforced conservative” proposal even actually share marked similarities. They both allow conservatives to maintain hegemony over whatever of the Church is theirs rather than participating in compromise.
Interestingly, in retrospect, the schism proposal is actually, I think, both more humane and more realistic than the “enforced conservative” option. It is more humane in that it is grounded in the idea of doing no harm, where the “enforced conservative option” embraces allowing only one side to do harm to the other. It is more realistic because the idea of turning the clock back to a time when one side of the Church exercised hegemony is a recipe for further strife. It would maintain a façade of unity for a while. But addressing the problem of order without addressing the underlying problem of disagreement about the ethics of homosexuality is addressing a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself. There is no putting the cat back in the bag. The people called Methodists disagree about this issue. Their disagreement is reasonable, and they disagree in good faith. They disagree passionately.
I am no fan of the schism option. And I am an advocate of a return of order in the Church. But any proposal that wishes actually to establish unity must do so with open eyes about the reality of disagreement within the Church, and must find ways to allow the institutions of the Church to acknowledge that disagreement. This will come with costs. There is no realistic option that will not. But such is the life of the Church in the period before the Kingdom. I welcome all who wish to acknowledge that reality and search for unity to offer their proposals!