Talk of schism in The United Methodist Church abounds, exposing an already distracted church. Contemplating split precisely when the world needs an embodied message of reconciliation is a transparent betrayal of the church’s nature and mission.
John Wesley in his sermon “On Schism” declares:
To separate ourselves from a body of living Christians, with whom we were before united, is a grievous breach of the law of love. It is the nature of love to unite us together; and the greater the love, the stricter the union. . . . It is only when our love grows cold, that we can think of separating from our brethren. And this is certainly the case with any who willingly separate from their Christian brethren. . . The pretences for separation may be innumerable, but want of love is always the real cause.
As Christ’s followers, we are commanded to love one another with the same love with which Christ loves us. Love is precisely the criteria by which the world knows we are disciples: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”(John 13:15).
However we may rationalize schism as faithfulness to truth and orthodoxy, or as the cost of bold prophetic witness, the world correctly sees it as the failure to love. A church that cannot struggle together with conflicts over sexuality, interpretation of Scripture, and orthodoxy has little to say to a violently divided world.
The failure to love is also a negation of the church’s leadership. History is replete with examples of the church’s failure to provide leadership in times of polarization and division.
A historian of American religion, C. C. Goen, provides a relevant case study. His book Broken Churches, Broken Nation: Denominational Schisms and the Coming of the American Civil War chronicles denominational schisms as precursors to the violent breech in the nation.
Though he does not contend that the churches caused the split, Goen argues that the denominational divisions represented a tragic “failure of leadership.” The Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians opted for retreating into homogeneous ecclesial enclaves rather than engage in difficult conversations on slavery and human dignity. Attempts at persuasion gave way to legislative coercion. When legislation failed, division and violence became the attempted solutions.
Rather than leading the nation toward justice and reconciliation, the denominations simply mirrored society’s brokenness. By splitting into self-justifying enclaves of like-minded congregations, the denomination opted to mirror the brokenness in society. The church, thereby, provided an ecclesial model and theological underpinning for a broken nation and subsequent civil war.
The United Methodist Church is once again positioned to provide leadership to a world dreadfully divided and retreating into dangerous ideological ghettos. Will we once again exhibit a failure of love and leadership?
I am finding a hopeful alternative in an unexpected place. I have the privilege of providing a pastoral presence with approximately forty people living with some form of dementia, their families, and staff who care for them. Those marginalized children of God embody reconciliation and oneness that transcends uniformity.
Every worship service is Pentecost at Bethany, the memory care facility. Although each participate is unique and the religious backgrounds include Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and “none,” we gather as one community. Many have lost verbal abilities and comprehension. Theological and creedal abstractions elude them. Behaviors are unpredictable. Disruptions are accepted in stride.
It is not uncommon to hear a resident sing “Amazing Grace” in her native Portuguese or another in Spanish or Italian. A Jewish man joins in praying the Lord’s Prayer. People who can’t remember their own name recite Psalm 23 in unison. Some who have forgotten who Jesus sing “Jesus Loves Me” with gusto.
Much of the language is babble and incoherent. Yet, there is an understanding that transcends cognition. I asked, “How is it that you seem to understand one another?” A woman whose persistent petition during intercessory prayers is for world peace, responded: “We love one another. We communicate with the heart.”
That is leadership! That is love! Loving one another and communicating with the heart! That is the way forward for a denomination that claims as its mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
 Albert C. Outler, editor, The Works of John Wesley, Vol. 3(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986), p. 64.