“There are numerous, intended or unintended, consequences of any kind of schism or splinter of The United Methodist Church,” says Rev. John Harnish.
JOHN E. HARNISH
Retired Pastor, Michigan Conference
Before the recent Special General Conference there was a lot of conversation about the potential for “schism”, often compared to the division which occurred in 1844 when the church divided geographically over slavery. The northern half remained as the Methodist Episcopal Church and the southern conferences organized as the ME South. Both branches thrived as major denominations for almost a century until they reunited in 1939. Prior to last month’s General Conference, the Wesleyan Covenant Association was clearly preparing for a such a schism, having tentatively called their “Convening Conference” for April, 2019.
Several months earlier, the WCA released the results of their survey of 9,102 people on their email mailing list. 2,666 responded. They asked a variety of questions about what would happen depending on the action of the General Conference. For example, “If the General Conference adopts the One Church Plan, I think my local church would leave the UMC.” About 1,700 persons responded “agree” or “strongly agree”. In other words, 1,700 individuals thought their congregation would leave if the One Church Plan passed. There is no way to know how many congregations were actually represented, but it is a reading of the pulse of individuals associated with the WCA. If all these responses reflected individual congregations and they all decided to withdraw, that’s 1,700 congregations out of 31,867 United Methodist churches in the USA. Mark Holland, writing for United Methodist Insight said, “The reality is that the UMC is not facing schism so much as a splinter by one well-organized group.” (United Methodist Insight, January 23, 2019)
Now, of course, the tables have turned. The One Church Plan was not approved, and the Traditional Plan supported by the WCA passed. Now the question is, “What about the “progressive” side? Will they decide to splinter or remain as a voice for change in the denomination?” Already there are individual voices calling for separation and the stance of the Western Jurisdiction could be interpreted as the first step in that direction. Potentially, that could result in a geographical division, plus hundreds of local churches in every annual conference which might join with them. Here in Michigan a large number of clergy are witnessing to their opposition to the action of the General Conference in the “Michigan Statement.” If other groups in other conferences follow suit, it might begin to look more like a schism than a splinter.
Or what if the WCA breaks to the right and the Western Jurisdiction breaks to the left, leaving the hulking skeleton of what we know as the United Methodist Church somewhere in the middle? Could we potentially have three brands of Methodism? What becomes of the Central Conferences in the Philippines, Africa and Europe in any of these scenarios? Since particularly Africa is heavily dependent on the vast amount of funds flowing from the USA, how would a schism or a splinter affect them? Where would Africa University get its support? And what would become of the Publishing House and the extensive network of seminaries, colleges, universities, hospitals, nursing homes, social service agencies and denominational boards, commissions and agencies which have been built up over 200+ years of United Methodist history?
If push comes to shove, how many clergy would be willing to withdraw and cast their lot with a much smaller itinerant system with fewer opportunities for their future ministry? More importantly, what would it say about our witness in a divided world if we as the church cannot find a “way forward” together?
All these questions and many more have yet to be answered and it is too early to know the full impact of St. Louis. There are numerous intended or unintended consequences of any kind of schism or splinter, and before we move in that direction, United Methodists should think long and hard about what it will mean for the future.