May 30, 2014

​Conservative United Methodists Say Divide Over Sexuality is ‘Irreconcilable’

 ©2014 Religion News Service

Will the United Methodist Church soon have to drop the
“United” part of its name?

A group of 80 pastors is suggesting that the nation’s
second-largest Protestant denomination is facing an imminent split because
of an inability to resolve long-standing theological disputes about
sexuality and church doctrine.

But more than lamenting the current divisions, the pastors indicated
there is little reason to think reconciliation—or even peaceful
coexistence—could be found. Like a couple heading to divorce court, the pastors
cited “irreconcilable differences” that can’t be mended.

“We can no longer talk about schism as something that might happen in
the future. Schism has already taken place in our connection,” said the
Rev. Maxie Dunnam, a retired president of evangelical Asbury Theological
Seminary in Kentucky, who joined the statement.

It’s a marked shift in tone from 10 years ago, when conservatives
rejected a proposal for an “amicable separation” as premature. “I don’t want us
to talk about separation,” Dunnam said after the church’s 2004 assembly, before
the same-sex marriage issue swept the nation. “That’s not a game where our
energy needs to be focused.”

As 19 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex civil marriage,
the debate has consumed America’s mainline denominations, with the outcome
ranging from bitter divisions to agree-to-disagree compromises.

The issue is especially heightened within Methodism, where
holiness—the beliefs and practices toward Christian purity—is foundational in
its theology. And as Methodist membership plateaus at home and grows in parts
of Africa, overseas delegates have helped hold the line against growing
pressure to liberalize church policy on gay clergy and same-sex marriage.

Amid a wave of open defiance over rules that prevent pastors from
presiding at same-sex marriages, and a host of high-profile church trials that
have largely upheld church policy, some UMC pastors say the 11.8 million-member
church has reached an impasse. Many feel that the sexuality debates simply
touch on larger issues of how Methodists understand Scripture and how
leaders uphold church teaching.

Frank Schaefer, a former Pennsylvania pastor, was found guilty of
violating church law when he officiated at his son’s 2007 wedding, though his
appeal will be heard on June 20. Schaefer was told he could keep his
clergy credentials if he recanted his support of gay marriage, but he refused.

The tipping point for many conservatives came, however,
after Bishop Martin D. McLee of New York announced in March he would drop
a case against a retired seminary dean who officiated at his gay son’s 2012
wedding and called for an end to church trials for clergy who violate the
denomination’s law on ministering to gays.

Hailing from the UMC’s five jurisdictions, the group of 80
pastors and theologians released a statement on May 22 outlining
the crisis they see emerging within the UMC. They pointed to pastors who
violated the Book of Discipline, a lack of subsequent punishment, a crisis over
the authority of Scripture and differences in how leaders are teaching the
practice of holiness.

“Can we not learn from the pain that other mainline denominations have
experienced and find a way forward that honors (Methodism founder John) Wesley’s
rule that we do no harm?” the statement says. “A way where there are no winners
and losers, but simply brothers and sisters who part ways amicably, able to
wish each other well?”

The UMC declined to provide an official response.