April 30, 2004
A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. William B. Lawrence*
the grace of the calendar, 2004 is one of those years when all major
Christian bodies in the world celebrated the resurrection of Jesus on
the same Sunday. Orthodox Christians associated with the East call it
Pascha. Roman Catholics and Protestants in the West call it Easter. But
in this 950th anniversary year of the Great Schism that divided East and
West, all of Christendom spent at least one day of sacred space on the
|Rev. William B. Lawrence|
To be sure, these separated bodies have
established no unanimity of doctrine or practice. Yet in 2004, this
common Easter celebration did provide a symbol that religious
institutions are shaped by forms of unity that surpass their lack of
unanimity, and by a spirit that is stronger than any schism.
assurance may be important for delegates to General Conference to
remember. It is still the Easter season on the Christian calendar. But
the echoes of Charles Wesley’s hymn to resurrection may compete with
voices encouraging insurrection. The presenting issue is homosexuality.
will need to find sacred space between unanimity and schism. Within the
denomination, some forces will demand disciplined unanimity about
homosexual behavior and threaten schism if enforced unanimity cannot be
achieved. And other forces will insist that unanimity is a matter of
creed rather than conduct, so that any schism as an expression of
political action elevates the human will over the divine will.
face the task knowing that their church is on the verge of a moral and a
constitutional crisis over homosexuality. The issue has been debated
for at least 30 years. But it has been crystallized by the acquittal of a
self-avowed lesbian clergy member of the Pacific Northwest Annual
is a moral crisis because positions in the debate have been framed in
absolute terms. Zero tolerance for homosexual activity is, to some, the
only permissible moral ground based on their interpretation of
Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. To others, full openness
to all persons is the only permissible moral ground the church can
adopt, based on their interpretation of the same four sources and
guidelines for making theological decisions.
is a constitutional crisis because two fundamental entities within the
structure of the church’s constitution seem to be at odds. General
Conference is responsible for all legislative matters in the
denomination as a whole. It writes laws on such matters as the
qualifications for anyone to be ordained as a minister. Annual
Conferences, however, decide who may be ordained as ministers. While
annual conferences cannot alter the church law, they alone interpret and
apply the church law on such matters as ordination. So annual
conferences are the final authority on who may be ordained, and there is
no appeal from the judgments they reach.
America have faced moral and constitutional crises during previous
General Conferences. The most dramatic one occurred 160 years ago. The
issue in the 1844 General Conference was slavery. A specific situation
involved a bishop of the church who — through marriage — had become the
owner of some slaves.
It was a moral crisis because
Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, had been an ardent opponent of
slavery, and many within the church insisted on maintaining that
absolute position. But Methodists in such regions as South Carolina felt
it was not a violation of Methodist life to be a slave owner.
was a constitutional crisis because the General Conference wanted to
write laws about slavery and impose them on the whole church, including
bishops. But some bishops, including the principal drafter of the
denomination’s Constitution, insisted that separation of powers between
the bishops and the General Conference meant that only the bishops
themselves could exercise matters of discipline on their number.
that atmosphere of crisis, the outcome at the General Conference of
1844 was schism. It took nearly a century to overcome. Yet even when
they reunited in 1939, Methodists bore the scars of racism so visibly
that the denomination created a segregated system which lasted until
Methodism has endured a precipitous decline in membership since 1968,
and that has generated plenty of soul-searching about whether this
evangelical church has forgotten how to evangelize. It has suffered a
weakening of the political muscle that once accompanied its commitment
to social justice ministries, despite the fact that the two most recent
occupants of the White House have had ties to the denomination.
of those facts, however, should lead to the impression that this is
some minor social institution. The United Methodist Church has about
36,000 congregations spread across 93 percent of the counties in the
United States. It has a growing presence in strategically significant
parts of the world, including Russia, central Africa, and eastern
Europe. In North America alone, the revenues of the denomination exceed
$3 billion annually. It has extensive and valuable real estate holdings,
including a structure in Washington, that overlooks both the Supreme
Court and the Capitol. More than 120 institutions of higher education
are affiliated with the church. And its members tend to dwell in the
very core of American culture because they occupy the broad middle of
is part of the denomination’s difficulty. Because it is so deeply
embedded in American life, it incorporates every divisive issue in
At the moment, there is no issue more
divisive in the church or in the nation than homosexuality. If United
Methodists through their General Conference can find some sacred space
for unity without unanimity, for a spirit that supersedes schism, then
they will do more than resolve a constitutional crisis. They will
provide a gift to other church bodies and, potentially, to the nation as
a whole. If not, the church will have missed a glorious moment of grace
and will hand on to some future generation the challenge it refused to
face. And a glorious moment on the calendar will have passed them by.
is dean and professor of American church history at Southern Methodist
University’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas.
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