Who’s for Schism?

By Walter Fenton

United Methodists could be forgiven for thinking the denomination’s debate over same-sex marriage and the practice of homosexuality is filled with vitriol. More than a few commentators use hyperbole to characterize the debate.

For instance, Mr. Ricky Harrison recently wrote that, “talk of schism has run rampant across the connection,” and that “some have strongly advocated for ‘amicable separation.'”

One suspects that even Mr. Harrison knows his claims are exaggerated since he fails to provide one source for his purported “rampant talk of schism.” And he doesn’t identify anyone who has “strongly advocated for ‘amicable separation'” (emphasis added).

In reality, no one is actually calling for “schism.” The only people bandying around that scare word are those who evidently want to tar others as proponents of schism. And while it is true that some have raised the possibility of “amicable separation,” to lump them with those purportedly calling for schism is neither fair nor helpful.

Harrison, a member of The United Methodist Church’s Connectional Table, begins his article on the evils of schism by recalling that in May 2014 “approximately 80 United Methodists released a public statement through Good News Magazine encouraging ‘a plan of separation.'” It was after that, he says, that “talk of schism” began to “run rampant across the connection.”

To put it charitably, this is a very incomplete recounting of events.

Ironically, given that his commentary is on the evils of schism, Harrison never informs his readers that the “80 United Methodists” were actually responding to pastors who openly broke covenant with the church and to bishops who refused to hold them accountable in any meaningful way. Indeed, one bishop even joined in the covenant breaking, and still others offered their tacit approval.

In light of these open acts of defiance and the 40 year old debate over human sexuality, one of the 80 United Methodists Harrison alludes to, the Rev. Dr. Maxie Dunnam, civil rights advocate, former president of Asbury Theological Seminary, well known author, and a delegate to numerous General Conferences, humbly asked this question: “Why not be Christian and civil, valuing each other, and work out a separation that will allow both groups to serve the Kingdom with the kind of commitment and passion essential for any powerful witness we wish to make?”

These are hardly the words of a hell-bent schismatic, and it only heightens the tensions in the church to pretend he is one. Dunnam’s question was echoed by the other 80 involved – all of whom called for “Unity and Integrity” instead of the path of separation. If Harrison did not have Dunnam in mind, then precisely who?

Who in the UM Church is promoting schism or strongly advocating for separation, amicable or otherwise?

Harrison quotes liberally from John Wesley on the evils of schism (and of course here at Good News we’re all for Mr. Wesley — who isn’t?). It’s all well and good to quote Wesley, but he never makes the case that his words actually apply to our present situation.

In an inadequate attempt to paraphrase Wesley, Harrison writes, “When our hearts grow cold as love withers within, the sickness of schism that has infected our souls festers and grows into hateful actions and evil works that destroy our life together.” And he has plenty more to say about the sickness of schism and the nasty behaviors that come with it. And in general, I’m sure no one would disagree with him, but does his description actually fit any organization, group or recognized leader in the church today?

The conflict within our church today is not caused by “cold hearts” or “withered love.” Instead, it is a deep disagreement over the meaning and authority of Scripture and our United Methodist doctrine.

One assumes that Harrison, a member of the Connectional Table sub-committee that crafted the proposal called “A Third Way,” believes that body’s bid to redefine marriage as “between two people who are married to each other” will preserve unity and save the church from separation. I doubt it.

Many United Methodists – in Africa, Europe, The Philippines and the U.S. -will separate themselves from a church that undermines the authority of Scripture and the power of Christ’s cross to transform hearts, minds and behaviors. And as they depart, none will regard themselves as promoting schism.

Still others will regard the CT’s plan as nothing more than a cynical form of bureaucratic pragmatism, purchasing an illusionary peace for the sake of the institution, and doing so at the price of justice and acceptance for people in the LGBTQI community. Some will leave, and will not feel schismatic in the least. Others will stay, but the CT’s “A Third Way” will only be a way station to their ultimate goal.

One can quote Wesley on schism as much as one wants, but the Connectional Table’s plan will surely bring about actual separation.

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and analyst for Good News. 


  1. Schism, heresy, apostasy — whatever one wants to call it, we are experiencing it in the Untied Methodist Church. And, those who have created this crisis are the very ones expressing foul now. They have driven the church to the brink, then accuse those who are reacting to their actions as the problem. They started the fight and are attempting to shift the blame elsewhere, specifically those reacting. And, in this secular age of obsessive political correctness, have succeeded with their tactics. Bottom line, the forces attempting to get the church to change its Biblical position on marriage and the sinful practice of homosexuality have yet, after forty plus years, been able to present one piece of Scripture to support their position.

  2. In essence no one wants schism but most pew people want accountability by our leadership, top down to the local Church. Staying as a Church on paper is like a bucket with holes all in it still being called a bucket but it is of no apparent value of holding water. The Church can not long endure under the circumstances that we now find our Church to exist. Faith requires us to be Humble, to Love Mercy, and to act Justly.. Justice requires us to follow the Scriptures and accordingly to our own Methodist doctrines of pragmatic carrying out of that faith.

  3. Since the church is the body of Christ, it seems to me that the schismatics are the ones trying to separate from Christ. We know of Christ and the salvation he offered through the scriptures. He and the scriptures are described as the W/word of God, that is, the expression of God, in being and in word. Going against His revealed Word is going against His plan, which separates us from Him and is called sin. So if going against scripture separates us from God, isn’t that schism? Aren’t those that call for relinquishing Biblical teaching in actuality the schismatics? Those who they accuse of wanting to break away are in actuality staying IN Christ, everything else is just names and bureaucracy.

  4. The potential ugliness and loss which will likely come about as the result of a division between UM progressives and traditionalists will result in neither group being able to avoid negative PR. The loss of membership, revenue, standing among other denominations and our ability to be an effective witness for Christ will all suffer greatly. However, after years of watching this slow train wreck, it seems as though the division will indeed happen. Given this likely outcome, each group will now jockey for position to establish the other side as the ecclesiastical culprit. Despite prayers and polemics, we will seek to rise above the “other side” and declare ourselves as the preservers of the Wesleyan tradition. While I too acknowledge this likely end-game, I mourn for a church that has allowed itself to drift so far from God’s word. If it is to be done, let it be done quickly and with as much lack of rancor as possible. God forgive us.

  5. Rev. Lyle M. Miller, Sr. Retired says

    I just want to take some time and share something I have heard many times over by my clergy brothers and sisters who support the Gay Agenda by saying that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality in the New Testament of the Bible and claim that is sufficient evidence to toss out any of the Old Testament teachings against the practice, as well as those that Paul and other new Testament writers had to say on the matter. Now, let’s go to Matthew, Chapter 14 and read how Jesus responded to those who tried to trap him by asking him about divorce. Read this carefully and note that he didn’t reply directly to their question but went on to describe what the Creator had in mind at the dawn of creation, that is to create a male and female human being for one another and then said [paraphrased] that the man should leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two should become one flesh. Surely nothing said about homosexuality, but clearly Jesus’ response was about the relationship between a man and a woman and he made it very clear that is how it was and has been intended by God from the very beginning. Now I want to conclude with this statement. If anyone wants to admit it, the process of God’s creation wasn’t complete until the man and woman were brought together in the Garden of Eden. and until that time Adam was an incomplete part of the creation, likewise so was Eve, but when they were joined together in the Garden, Creation was competed and God took time off to rest. I believe this is true unto this day. No man is complete in and of himself and neither is any woman. Let’s take that one step further, no two men who claim to be joined together in a kind of make believe marriage will ever be complete in themselves and neither will two women in the same situation. I believe this is something worth while thinking about and explains somewhat why so many gay folks feel that they have to do something to make a point that they are human just like everyone else. I would submit that in all of it they are and will be confused about their identity until they die and meet their maker. God bless you all.

  6. Rev. Lyle M. Miller, Sr. Retired says

    For years I said I would remain in the United Methodist Church and fight for what I believe to be the right an Godly course of action on this whole issue of homosexuality, but as I age more and the more I learn of Bishops and Pastors denying the Word of God and trying to rewrite Scripture to fit into a lifestyle they are comfortable with, the less appealing this church is for me. What I read and hear from church leaders is that our so called United Methodist Church is no longer United, but it is divided not unlike the church in Corinth when Paul ha to send them a letter and tell them to shape up of suffer the consequences. The immorality in the church at Corinth was rampant and needed to be challenged. The immorality in the United Methodist Church is rampant today and continues to need to be challenged, but it appears that there may be too few of us left to challenge. I will continue to pray for this church, but will most likely affiliate the rest of my days with a group that truly believe God’s Word is not something to be tampered with. Amen.

  7. [One suspects that even Mr. Harrison knows his claims are exaggerated since he fails to provide one source for his purported “rampant talk of schism.” And he doesn’t identify anyone who has “strongly advocated for ‘amicable separation’” ]

    Who is talking of schism? Really?!? Has Rev. Fenton forgotten the “Task Group on Amicable Separation”, the brain child of Bill Hinson and James V. Heidinger? It was the very group who post Rev. Fenton’s thoughts that began this concept. People who live in glass houses…..

    • Editor’s Note: Good News appreciates all the comments from our readers, both positive and negative. However, whenever necessary, we reserve the right to step in and correct the record when it is askew. In the above response, it is asked if “Rev. Fenton has forgotten the ‘Task Group on Amicable Separation,’ the brain child of Bill Hinson and James V. Heidinger?”

      The problem with the question is that the “Task Group” never existed. We assume the writer is referring to informal meetings at General Conference 2004 between liberals, moderates, and conservatives who were seeking to resolve the impasse that has been a feature of nearly every General Conference since at least 1992.

      For clarification, this was an ad hoc group, pulled together on the spot. It was not the “brainchild” of Heidinger and Hinson, but of a range of people across the theological spectrum –– including staff and board members of the Commission on Christian Unity. Tom Porter from Just Peace served as the facilitator.

      Those involved never referred to the gathering as the “Task Group on Amicable Separation.”

      Furthermore, no one at the Pittsburgh General Conference proposed “schism.” After votes on the homosexuality issue that some liberals found hurtful and dismaying, Dr. Hinson, in a very personal and gracious speech before the delegates, essentially said he never wanted his ministry to be about hurting people, and therefore, if liberal congregations wanted to leave the church, he did not think the institution should enforce the trust clause in an effort to keep their property and assets.

      The Hinson speech about a possibility of an amicable and just separation for those disagreeing with the UM Church’s position can be read HERE.

  8. Steven Zinser says

    “Who’s for Schism?”

    It’s not the ‘third way’ or the “way forward” or the “way to unity”.

    But, it is the only “honest way.”

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