Part 2 of a series using John Wesley’s “Reasons Against Separation from the Church of England” as a model for evangelicals in the UMC.
In this installment, we begin looking at Wesley’s “Reasons Against Separation from the Church of England” itself and how it might instruct us in the present crisis facing the Church. Wesley had twelve reasons for not separating the Methodist movement from the Church of England, and here we look at the first six along with some commentary on how we might apply them today.
Reasons Against Separation
WHETHER it be lawful or no (which itself may be disputed, being not so clear a Point as some may imagine) it is by no Means expedient for us to separate from the Establish’d Church:
I. BECAUSE it would be a Contradiction to the solemn and repeated Declarations, which we have made in all Manner of Ways, in Preaching, in Print, and in private Conversation:
The Wesleys were adamant about remaining connected to the Church of England and made their intentions public. All of us who are members of the United Methodist Church also took a public pledge of loyalty to the United Methodist Church, promising to “do all in [our] power to strengthen its ministries” (UMH 38). Those of us who are ordained took the additional step of publicly promising loyalty to the Church by “accepting its order, liturgy, and doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, and accepting the authority of those who are appointed to supervise [our] ministry” (BOW 695). In other words, those charged with defending the Church’s doctrines must not retreat when the going gets rough! Instead, in preaching, in print, and in private conversation we continue to do our best to uphold our vows, challenge the prevailing winds and itching ears of cultural accommodation, preach the Scriptures and our doctrines, and continue to serve. It’s a matter of integrity.
But it what sense are we to “defend” the doctrines and polity of the Church? Recently, the process has been through church trials, defrockings and refrockings, social media polemics, and angry speeches. Those techniques rarely seem to achieve the desired effect. Perhaps the best “defense” of the Church’s doctrine in polity is in demonstrating that it works in real life. Does it work in the sense of lives changed? Does it work in terms of human flourishing? Does it connect the deep story of Scripture to the lives of people in our communities? If not, then no amount of money, energy, and time we invest in propping it up will matter. We must demonstrate that it works!
2. BECAUSE (on this as well as many other Accounts) it would give huge Occasion of Offence to those who seek and desire occasion, to all the Enemies of GOD and his Truth:
Wesley understood that the world views the constant schisms of the Church as evidence of its ineffectiveness and irrelevance. When the Church continues to subdivide over issue after issue, we are following the way of the world and its fickleness and not staying true to our calling as part of the Body of Christ. The “enemies of God and his Truth” are myriad, and I can’t help but think that the real Enemy smiles whenever we bitterly divide because it furthers his kingdom and not the Kingdom of God. The world is watching us. Will we simply continue the pattern of conflict, or will we do the difficult thing and demonstrate to the world that Christians can fervently disagree and yet stay connected?
3. BECAUSE it would exceedingly prejudice against us many who fear, yea, who love GOD, and thereby hinder their receiving so much, perhaps any farther, Benefit from our Preaching:
Most schismatic talk tends to focus on those on the “other side” but fails to focus on the vast majority of those in the middle who love God and are hungry for his Word. If the conservatives were to bail out on the Church, many people in our pews who stay in the Church, who might go elsewhere, or other who will wind up going to no church at all will no longer “benefit from our preaching” as orthodox, traditional, biblically grounded Methodists. It’s not that we have a corner on the gospel market, it’s that we committed to preaching to the people in front of us. Many people have invested their lives and their resources in our churches. We must be willing to keep engaging them with the Word, even when they disagree with us.
4. BECAUSE it would hinder Multitudes of those who neither love nor fear GOD, from hearing us at all:
And what about the people in our communities who “neither love nor fear God?” There are church plants aplenty in my community and yet 80% of the people who live here have no connection to a faith community. Separation merely dilutes us into yet another set of churches competing for a small number of sheep that keep getting swapped between them. Perhaps if we stopped turning our attention inward toward our conflicts and turned outward toward our communities we might find some common ground and actually impact people for the Kingdom.
[4.] 5. BECAUSE it would occasion many Hundreds, if not some Thousands of those who are now united with us, to separate from us; yea, and some of those who have a deep Work of Grace in their Souls.
Separation forces people to make choices that are painful and less cut and dried than most schismatics and consensus-makers would like to think. If we were to look at membership in the UMC as a bell curve, it’s clear that the vast majority of our people are in the middle—conservative on some things and liberal on others—while the extremists occupy a small but noisy space at either end. Edwin Friedman, in his work on family systems, said that our obsession with consensus gives strength to the extremists, while self-differentiated leaders are able to take principled stands with staying connected to those with whom they disagree. How many people who have “a deep Work of Grace in their Souls” will be damaged or fall through the cracks because we gave into extremism?
6. BECAUSE it would be throwing balls of Wildfire among them that are now quiet in the Land. We are now sweetly united together in Love. We mostly think and speak the same Thing. But this would occasion inconceivable Strife and Contention, between those who left, and those who remained in the Church, as well as between those who left us, and those who remained with us: Nay, and between those very Person who remained, as they were variously inclined one Way or the other:
It may be a little late since the “balls of Wildfire” have already been thrown by both sides in the Church. Despite the “United” in our moniker we are not, in many places, “sweetly united together in Love” nor do we “mostly think and speak the same Thing.” The divide between the Methodist movement and the Church of England may not have been as large a fissure as we see in our day, but the principle is the same. The idea of “amicable separation” seems like an oxymoron and the painful process of separating will no doubt “occasion inconceivable Strife and Contention” between those who are on the way out and those who choose to remain. Even those people who remain and are “variously inclined one Way or the other” would continue to engage in conflict. We like to believe that separation will solve our problems but it’s not a zero sum game; nor is it the way of Christ.
In Part 3 we’ll look at reasons 7-9.