I awoke this morning to the full sound and fury of United Methodist social media. Late last night rumors emerged that the Council of Bishops is considering a plan of schism for the United Methodist Church. These are, at this point, rumors. Anyone who has watched General Conference before ought to know that threats of schism are par for the course. Often times, they are part of the power game that is the General Conference these days. Only time will tell if this is part of the political process, or a serious threat to end the political process.
But before dismissing this as nothing more than politics as usual, it might be worthwhile to look at the power dynamics that would lead to a shift in the calls for schism. Over the last four years, the United Methodist Church has developed a fragile form of de facto compromise over questions of homosexuality. Conservatives control the official stance of the Church. But liberals have found ways to avoid enforcement of this standard in regions where they predominate.
This system is intellectually incoherent, but it has the makings of a compromise that could not be achieved in any coherent system. In any coherent plan, either one side would gain enough power to lord over the other, or individual Annual Conferences and churches would be forced to explicitly take sides (inevitably leading to schisms within churches). As such, I have advocated for maintaining the status quo as the only realistic alternative for workable unity.
Inevitably, however, at General Conference, the two extremes fight to take over. It is too early to have a accurate picture, but the perception out of many corners of the Conference is that conservatives have taken the upper hand. With the power of African votes combined with American conservatives, conservatives have managed to put their own slate of nominees in key positions, including on the Judicial Council. And, in committee, efforts to close loopholes for enforcement of the official standard of the church have been passing. Progressives have likened it to the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1980s.
If there is any truth to the rumors of the recent talk of schism, this would be the reason. If conservatives succeed in closing loopholes, etc, this would end the fragile de facto compromise in which our church lives. With a consolidation of conservative rule, some progressives would rather hit the road than live in a foreign land.
I am still hopeful that this is not the only alternative. The General Conference has yet to vote as a whole on the closing of loopholes, etc. But regardless of what comes of the current rumors of schism, it seems clear to me that the victory of one or the other side in our ongoing debate will lead to the end of our church. At this point, that is a very real threat.