I don’t really understand why progressive United Methodists (also known as “United Methodists,” as the term “progressive” is redundant) feel the need to cater to remaining “united” with those Methodists whose professed beliefs are more in line with, say, the Southern Baptist or other Evangelical churches. Pastors and congregations who are pushing Biblical literalism of any form are only United Methodist in name, and if they were to read their own Book of Discipline, they’d already know the shoe doesn’t fit. It never has. The Wesleyan movement was always one that employed not merely sola scriptura but reason, tradition, and experience, as well (the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral“).
If the goal is to remain “united” with people whose theology essentially resembles more conservative churches than it does the direction the United Methodist church has historically moved in (i.e. a progressive one), why not reach out to other denominations entirely in an ecumenical move that undoes the Reformation? Why not return to the fold of the Anglican church? Or better, to the Roman Catholics if they’d take Methodists back? With all respect to Adam Hamilton, this whole notion that local churches should decide on an individual basis what they think about sexuality or the authority of scripture (and whatever else the slippery slope might offer) suggests that Methodists should extend a hand to all Congregationalist churches, as well, if the polity is going to be no different, really, from those church movements.
To me, the United Methodist church appears to be clamoring to avoid losing members, which is a financial issue (and admittedly a disturbing one), but to kowtow to the extreme right-wing of the church to avoid financial disaster is to miss the mark on why the church makes theological statements to begin with. It’s not a business; it’s a family, and family’s break up sometimes. And then, sometimes, they get back together, too. The story doesn’t end with a split even though sometimes a split is inevitable. To worry so much over the dreadful disaster a schism might bring is to forget the whole message of resurrection. It’s to forget the church’s own history of how it became the Methodist Church to begin with.
If, indeed, the church does “split,” it won’t be a matter of there suddenly forming two separate churches, and there won’t be the need for the United Methodist church to lose the term “united.” It’ll just be that a group of pastors and congregants came to the unfortunate realization that the doctrine they apparently hadn’t been reading over the years was never quite in line with what they’d been preaching in those churches all along. Granted, if this is solely an argument about homosexuality, I can see how you could make the case that the Discipline, for a long time, has been on their side, but this conversation is much bigger than issues of sexuality; it’s about how the church approaches its holy writ at large. And the beauty of those texts is that every generation since they were first composed gained something different from them, just as future generations will continue to glean new metaphors and messages from the same ancient documents.
I’m not saying the church has to split. In a sense, I’m saying it already has. The argument concerning homosexuality is over. While the current leadership within the church hasn’t yet claimed that in General Conference, youth and young adults – the future of the church – have already claimed where they stand. Period. So, if that gang of 80 or any gangs decide to rip the church apart, maybe it isn’t the end of the world. And letting them have their way to keep the church financially out of the red is letting money guide the conversation. The way forward isn’t to run around the issue; it’s to work through it with, at the least, a little honesty about why schism scares people – and whether it should or not.