In this last post we look at Reasons 10-12 of John Wesley’s “Reasons Against Separation from the Church of England” as a model for the UMC.
(Wesley’s words are in bold).
10. BECAUSE the Experiment has been so frequently tried already, and the success has never answer’d the Expectation. GOD has since the Reformation raised up from Time to Time many Witnesses of pure Religion. If these lived and died (like John Arndt, Robert Bolton, and many others) in the Churches to which they belonged, notwithstanding the Wickedness which overlowed both the Teachers and People therein; they spread the Leaven of true Religion far and wide, and were more and more useful, ’till they went to Paradise. But if upon any Provocation or Consideration whatever, they separated, and founded distinct Parties, their Influence was more and more confined; they grew less and less useful to others, and generally lost the Spirit of Religion themselves in the Spirit of Controversy:
We, too, are in danger of losing “the Spirit of Religion” in the “Spirit of Controversy.” We’ve seen it happen too many times, even in our Methodist tradition. We’ve seen splinter group after splinter group, with narrower and narrower expressions that tend to breed controversy from generation to generation and increasing levels of schism on one issue or another. To quote Rosanne Rosannadanna, “It just goes to show you that it’s always something.” Separation means that our influence is more insular and more confined. It means that the great common mission projects that we have mutually supported for many years will suffer and wither. Wesley didn’t want to be just another sect, he wanted to change the world. What we need is not another denomination, but a new Methodist movement. More on that later.
11. BECAUSE we have melancholy Instances of this, even now before our Eyes. Many have in our Memory left the Church, and formed themselves into distinct Bodies. And certainly some of them, from a real Persuasion, that they should do GOD more Service. But have any separated themselves and prospered? Have they been either more holy, or more useful than they were before?
Well, have they? Will a new denomination make us more vital? In a culture where the church is increasingly pushed to the margins, is replicating denominational power structures, keeping control of buildings, and maintaining hierarchical systems going to matter? Taking all the rancorous issues off the table, we’re still fighting over a church system that has failed and is no longer sustainable. At the current rate of decline, as Adam Hamilton said at General Conference in 2012, the denomination will be virtually extinct in 30 years anyway. We don’t need another denominational system; we need to consider ourselves as living in a ecclesiastical world that has a lot more in common with the first century than the twenty-first. We’re fighting over power that we no longer have in Western society and a desperate world merely yawns over our wrangling. If we’re going to be more “holy” and “prosper,” we have to think and act in new ways that reflect the apostolic witness and a passion for reaching the lost and not merely replicate the church divisions of the past. The mission field has never been whiter for harvest than it is right now in our country. We don’t need things to be “our way” in the denomination in order for us to head to the field!
12. BECAUSE by such a Separation we should not only throw away the peculiar Glorying which GOD has given us, That we do and will suffer all Things for our Brethren’s Sake, tho’ the more we love them, the less we be loved: But should act in direct Contradiction to that very End, for which we believe GOD hath raised us up. The chief Design of his Providence in sending us out, is undoubtedly, To quicken our Brethren. And the first Message of all our Preachers is, to the lost Sheep of the Church of England. Now would it not be a flat Contradiction to this Design, To Separate from the Church? [5/6] These Things being considered, we cannot apprehend, whether it be lawful in itself or no, that it is lawful for us: were it only on this Ground, That it is by no means expedient.
This is an incredibly dense and powerful statement by Wesley about the mission of the Methodist movement. The “peculiar glorying” which God has given us is that we “do and suffer all Things for our Brethren’s Sake, tho’ the more we love them, the less we be loved.” Note that Wesley says that the “first Message” of the Methodist preacher is to the “lost sheep” of the Church. Catch that—it was an internal mission as much as it was an external one.
Wesley goes on to say much more in this piece and it’s well worth reading in the midst of the swirling debate and clouds of schism we see on the near horizon. I, for one, am committed to staying true to my vows and the of mission of making disciples, even if the Church I committed to seems to have lost its way. So many of us are seeking to be entrepreneurs or power brokers, when the truth is that we are first called to be missionaries—even if the first mission field is the Church itself.
I have to say that I’ve come a long way in my thinking about all of this in the last few months. I’ve been having conversations with colleagues on both sides of the issue, conversations with my district superintendent and bishop, and conversations with the Scriptures and the Wesleyan corpus. My theological convictions remain as strong as ever, but it’s because of those convictions that I cannot join either the voices for schism or the voices advocating for a pragmatic “unity” that’s the equivalent of a divorce where the parents stay together for the sake of the children (er, apportionments). I think the best way forward is to go back to the future—to reach back into the best of our Methodist DNA and begin a movement.
In a subsequent post I’ll offer some dreams and ideas for a way forward that focuses on the core Wesleyan mission and offers us an alternative to either uncritical “unity” or schism. I recognize that this is just another voice adding to the white noise of United Methodist angst, but like many others I really just want to do the right thing—the thing that furthers the cause of the gospel both within and outside the Church.