Methodist Church Schism: A Happy Ending For Its Scapegoats?

When Aaron finishes making atonement for the Holy of Holies, the Tent of Meeting, and the Altar, he will bring up the live goat, lay both hands on the live goat’s head, and confess all the iniquities of the People of Israel, all their acts of rebellion, all their sins. He will put all the sins on the goat’s head and send it off into the wilderness, led out by a man standing by and ready. The goat will carry all their iniquities to an empty wasteland; the man will let him loose out there in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21-22)

Less than two weeks after relaunching Whosoever, we have our first headline from mainline Protestantism confirming that the struggle over the place of LGBTQ+ people in the church is continuing and profound: United Methodist Church leaders have drafted a divorce settlement to satisfy the restive half of the denomination whose members remain aghast at the welcoming and affirming behaviors of its congregations and conferences mainly in America.

Formally, it’s a plan to allow the denomination to split, effectively becoming what is likely to be a more progressive American church and a more “traditional” offshore church — with the latter perhaps taking some American congregations with it.

The proposed split is in fact eerily like a divorce: Crafted by attorneys, on behalf of two parties who sound exhausted from the years-long effort to stay together, each prepared to pay a heavy price, and each seeing a better life for themselves at the end of it all.

My mother’s way of explaining divorce to me when I was too young to understand its nuances — “when two people who love each other can’t live together” — seems applicable here as well, which I think is important to remember.  I recall being in the Anglican Communion two decades ago during all the loving work that went into trying to keep that denomination together in spite of the same doctrinal differences.

I read that feeling into what Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, told The New York Times: “People of all theological perspectives have grown very weary of the conflict and don’t have a vision for how it can end.”

So what’s old is new again: Methodism, which split over slavery before the Civil War, could find that splitting over LGBTQ+ inclusion finally ends its own wearying version of a civil war.

If approved at the denomination’s General Conference in May, the plan would see the traditionalists walk with significant assets such as clergy pensions, and $25 million.

Meanwhile, the progressives would walk away with a more immediate opportunity to craft a future free of ugly episodes such as the denomination’s first openly gay bishop, Karen Oliveto of the church’s Mountain Sky Conference, having her consecration declared “incompatible with church law”, as the current denomination’s highest court did in 2017.  Everyday clergy could also spend less time looking over their shoulders every time they perform a same-gender wedding, or come out themselves.

As Bishop Oliveto told the Associated Press, “We are no longer using LGBTQ+ people as scapegoats.”

Ah, scapegoats.  What a fitting metaphor for what LGBTQ+ people mean to the traditionalists: By casting them out of the church, a traditionalist can exorcise at least one perceived demon and move on to the rest.  And what might those demons be?  Perhaps the seven deadly sins of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride?  I wish them well.

Lust being the cardinal sin GLB people are accustomed to being stereotyped with.  Because in the traditionalist worldview, lust isn’t about pure physical desire and all the unwelcome ways it haunts everyone — it’s mainly about not being heterosexual.  For them, our lust is knowing in our hearts who we love and who we are — and then claiming that in spite of a single clobber passage from the bible.

The clobber word in that clobber passage being “unnatural”, and the unnatural acts described in that passage being the acts of but a moment of physicality.

Here’s what I think is actually “unnatural” for Christians: Ignoring Matthew 25 in favor of Leviticus.  Or the institutional church spending so much time wrestling with those who would keep people from loving — either themselves or others — that we’re all left with less time to love: Less time to witness, less time to comfort, less time to meet the needs of a neighbor.

Because let’s face it, we’re only human, and there are so many hours in a day.  Attorneys charge by the hour to prepare a divorce settlement; the cost of the hours spent cleaving a denomination is that there’s just less time left over to comfort our neighbor.  And that’s so regrettable.

But sometimes you go through that wilderness because you can finally embrace what’s on the other side.  You get woke.

As Methodist Bishop Kenneth H. Carter of Florida told The New York Times, “There was a clear message; it is almost like what happened in St. Louis [when the denomination voted in February 2019 to strengthen its ban on gay and lesbian clergy and same-gender weddings] was not reflective of the majority in the United States. That church just awakened.”

That woke church rejects the temptation to project sin onto a scapegoat rather than taking a hard internal look and asking ourselves, in conversation with God, just how much we might have fallen short of whatever mark we’ve set for ourselves.

The silver lining I see in this pending divorce is that for the scapegoats of the traditional church, the path into the wilderness — the path away from the denomination they know and probably love — doesn’t have to terminate in that wilderness.  It can come out on the other side and reveal itself as leading to the front door of a church that isn’t confusing on its best days and spiritually violent on its worst.

And that’s a benefit that for a lot of people clearly outweighs the currently impracticable ideal of church unity.  As Bishop Carter, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, told The New York Times, “It could not be a unity at someone’s expense. There is a kind of unity that oppresses persons.”