(24 March 2022 — This essay was originally posted as part 1 of 2. Documentation for this post is found on this site in UMC Separation Primer part 2: It’s About Elephants)
If you are just tuning in to the UMC separation discussions then here is a quick primer. This is for those who are likely in the traditional/evangelical/orthodox alliance of the United Methodist Church (even though you may not be sure what those terms mean). First thing you need to know is it is not about cats or sex.
True story: Our youngest daughter, now twenty-four, has an obsessive concern for the wellbeing of animals. She gathers stray cats and takes them to spay and neuter clinics. As a toddler we found her trying to make a pet out of a corn worm. We would take her to petting zoos and the deer would walk up and lick her. Once, she gave me directions to a house by saying, “turn left at the house with three beagles, turn right when you pass the cows, and it’s the house on the right with a tabby in the front yard.” Ambulatory creatures make poor landmarks, but it’s the way she sees the world.
When she was about six or seven my wife put the movie Gone With the Wind in the VCR. Our daughter had been in the room when it played before and asked, “Is this the movie with the cat?” I have never seen a cat in Gone With the Wind, but if you watch the opening sequence carefully you will see one resting in the shade. I know because at that point in the film she called out, “See! There’s the cat!”
Most of us would not refer to Gone With the Wind as the movie with a cat in it unless we had a nearly unhealthy obsession with cats. That movie is no more about cats than the UMC schism is about sex. Most of us would not say the pending separation of the United Methodist Church is about sex unless we have a near unhealthy obsession with sex. If sex is one’s greatest motivator, primary daily concern, and if one interprets everything through a filter of sex then I guess the schism is about sex and GWTW is a cat movie.
This schism began with the beginning of the United Methodist Church in 1968 and has been widening ever since. It began before homophobia was a word and before today’s civil unions were an idea. It is about the person of Jesus Christ, the authority of Scripture, and the nature and mission of the church.
We have arrived at a place where we have distinctly different religions trying to share the same structure, Discipline, and mission agencies. One expression of Methodism encompasses the following statements. As you read them please understand these are not fringe beliefs held by a few but are widely held, taught, and approved in the UMC. Within North America, nearly every bishop and most clergy either hold to these tenets or, if they disagree with them, they believe these are acceptable alternative expressions of the Christian faith which ought to be allowed in the church. Those who espouse these beliefs generally self-identify as Progressives. Those who disagree but believe they are permissible within United Methodist teaching generally self-identify as Centrists.
*Jesus is not Divine.
*We should not make an idol of Jesus.
*The Trinity is a false teaching.
*Jesus did not die for our sins.
*The Resurrection of Christ is not a literal historic event.
*Jesus had his own prejudices and bigotry which he overcame through his contacts with oppressed peoples.
*Much of what is in the Bible is in error and never represented the character of God because the authors were products of their own corrupt cultural and the ignorance of their age.
*While the Christian faith may contain the best available revelation of God it is nonetheless incomplete. All religions have a portion of truth and are equally valid. Therefore, any sacred text is useful for preaching from our pulpits and Methodists should not attempt to convert adherents of other religions.
*Tarot cards, Spirit Cards, and other means of divination are appropriate means of discerning God’s will.
*The central mission of the church is to promote justice in this world.
These ideas are in direct contradiction to the received Christian faith, and they produce missions that are in direct opposition to the received Christian faith. The United Methodist Church has doctrinal standards in our Discipline that deny each of these, yet they represent the dominant theology of our church in North America.
Many United Methodists have been contending for the faith for fifty years. We have tried reform. We have tried to work through persuasion, through appeals to our missional agencies, through General Conference, and through revisions to our Discipline, but the governance of the UMC has collapsed. United Methodists are no longer able to establish qualifications for clergy, standards for membership, or to direct the actions of our agencies. To say that only General Conference can speak for the whole church only means that General Conference is solely authorized to put words in a book. No one need abide by those words. No one need teach those doctrines. No one need pursue those missions. In fact, everyone is free to act in direct contradiction of them.
Now we seek to form a church with integrity that is committed to the teaching of the historic Christian faith and to mutual accountability within the church. We look for a church that can equip us to be better pastors, more effective preachers, and more committed to scriptural holiness. We have been patient. The grandchildren of the people who began this work are now approaching retirement age. We must establish that church outside of the North American version of the UMC.
There is a quick primer on the schism. Now, it is true that almost everyone in the Progressive/Centrist alliance aligns in one position of the same sex marriage argument while almost everyone in the Traditional/Evangelical/Orthodox alliance is in the opposite corner. The same could be said about many other aspects of marriage, or abortion, or public prayer, or scriptural holiness, or the imperative of evangelism, or the efficacy of the Sacrament, or a host of other issues. Like the cat in Gone With the Wind it is present, but our schism doesn’t have a thing to do with cats or sex unless that’s just how you see the world.