June 21st, 2016

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Methodist Schism, Part One

I read an old book this week, entitled The Schism in the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1844: a study of slavery and ecclesiastical politics, published in 1923 by John Norwood. It was a thorough account of something only vaguely covered in Methodist History classes in seminary. It is probably completely unknown to all but Methodist clergy.

The tale, in outline, is thus. Methodism had always seen slavery as an evil in society; however, over time, it softened its stance in order to keep unity within the Methodist Episcopal Church. It continued to say that slavery was not good, but it accommodated slavery in piecemeal fashion. By the 1840s, owning slaves, per se, was not a bar to any office within the church, though itinerant clergy were not expected to have any, and bishops, certainly not expected to have any. At the same time, the ME Church was officially hostile to abolitionists within the church, seeing them as troublemakers. In this, the ME Church straddled a fence that ran all the way through American society.

A pair of cases, however, came to the 1844 General Conference that brought things to the breaking point. A minister in the Baltimore area had acquired slaves by marrying a wife who owned them. When charged in a church court for owning slaves, he replied that he hadn't bought them, that he couldn't legally free them in Maryland, and besides, there was no actual rule in the Discipline against owning them. I forget now whether he was convicted or acquitted by the local church court, but in any case, the matter was appealed to the General Conference, which had to deal with it.

At the same time, a Southern bishop named Andrew was also found to be a slave-owner. This caused quite a bit of scandal, since it crossed a line that hadn't been crossed before. Once again, his wife was the actual owner, but it appears the good bishop had bought them himself in his wife's name. In any case, Bishop Andrew offered to resign before General Conference in order to spare the church embarrassment, but he was appealed to by the Southern delegates not to. Their reasoning was a) there was no actual rule forbidding his ownership of the slaves in question, and b) to resign would make it appear there was something positively wrong in slave-owning, which would be to the disadvantage of all the Southern Methodists, by putting them in the wrong before their Northern brethren. Bishop Andrew did not resign.

General Conference shiprocked on this pair of cases. There was no way of resolving them without destroying the unity of the church. To affirm that slavery was wrong, even if tolerated, would be insulting to Southern Methodists. To allow the last line to be crossed in the acceptance of slavery would be intolerable to Northern Methodists. All kinds of maneuverings and appeals and ad hoc committees dealt with this over the most of a month (General Conference was even more a marathon back then than now). As you might think, the bishops were all for putting off a decision and forming a commission to look into the matter (nothing ever changes). In the end, the exhausted Conference approved a Plan of Separation and adjourned.

The Plan of Separation was intended to be an act of love amidst great differences. It was also hoped not to be needed. It gave Southern Methodists the right to call for separation, if they wanted to. And it asked the Annual Conferences to approve suspending one of the Restrictive Rules in order to allow for the division of assets -- particularly, the Book Concern, which funded ministerial pensions then as now -- in case the Plan was acted upon.

After General Conference adjourned, the Southern delegates stayed on for a few days to consider their options before separating. They ended up calling for a convention of Southern Methodists a year hence (May 1, 1845) in Louisville, Kentucky. Then they went home. Immediately, what had seemed to be achieved at General Conference began unraveling.

The Southerners calling for a convention before even leaving the site of the 1844 was seen as an unfriendly act by the North. The Southerners saw it as a necessity so that the South could act, Yes or No, upon the initiative given them by General Conference. Southern Methodists strongly agreed, except in those areas of Appalachia that later formed Unionist pockets in the Secession crisis of 1860-61, that they should separate. The outcome of the 1845 meeting was all but assured. The Southern Methodists would vote to separate, and appoint commissioners as indicated in the Plan of Separation to divvy the assets of the ME Church with the North.

Meanwhile, Northern Methodists were outraged at what their delegates had agreed to. Vague opposition to slavery now began to swing to the opinions previously only expressed by the abolitionists within their ranks. And the vote to approve the suspension of the Restrictive Rule to allow for division of property failed. The Southern Methodists voted for it nearly unanimously, as one might expect, but the Northern Methodists much less so. The aggregate vote was about two-thirds in favor -- but a three-fourths majority was required. This rendered the entire Plan of Separation moot, the offer of amicable division withdrawn, in the eyes of Northern Methodists. The Southerners could leave, if they liked, but only in the manner of previous schismatics.

In the end, the ME Church, South sued the ME Church in two different federal courts: New York and Cincinnati. The Plan of Separation was upheld in New York, but not in Cincinnati; however, on appeal, the North's victory in the Cincinnati case was reversed. The North, already feeling guilty for denying Southern clergy their pensions over a matter of mere money, took the civil courts' ruling as cover to do what their own understanding of the Discipline would not, and proceeded to an amicable division of the assets of the Book Concern. The matter of "border churches," however, was never settled amicably, and led to competing MEC and MEC, South, congregations in several States. Long after the Civil War was concluded, these competing forms of episcopal Methodism continued to articulate reasons why they were the real thing, and their compatriots over yonder were not.

The schism wasn't healed until the 1939 merger of the two denominations with the Methodist Protestant Church, to form The Methodist Church. The Methodist Church united with The Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968 to form The United Methodist Church. I'll go into some of lessons to be learned from the Schism of 1844 with implications for our current situation in Part Two.
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Methodist Schism, Part Two

In Part One of this pair of posts, I told the story, in outline, of the schism of The Methodist Episcopal Church following the General Conference of 1844. In this post, I want to think over some of the lessons and implications of that event for our time.

Today, we also face schism, de facto and de jure, in The United Methodist Church. There is a commission to be formed by the Council of Bishops to address our continuing divisions over sexuality with a mandate to report back a Way Forward to either a called General Conference or merely the next General Conference. That Way Forward may, if it finds no other way forward, recommend an amicable separation of The UMC.

Hitherto, it has always been assumed that a separation over sexuality would involve one disgruntled group leaving the existing denomination and forming a new one. Many evangelicals have had one foot out the door over this and other issues for some time, but with the rise of global orthodoxy in The UMC, lately it is the progressives who some see desiring a peaceful exit. In any case, where one group simply leaves, the existing church is not affected other than by their exit. But a plan of separation -- that's a horse of a different color.

Every conference, perhaps every congregation, certainly every clergy member, would have to decide which successor denomination to belong to. Such a division in our day, with our existing Discipline, would be far more complicated than the separation envisioned in 1844. Even the most comprehensive settlement would have to pass General Conference, and then be approved by the aggregate vote of the Annual Conferences. And such a division would probably be just as rancorous, no matter what was actually approved. Different groups understand their rights -- and the rights of others -- differently, even after something has been agreed to.

Meanwhile, we have Annual Conferences and Boards of Ordained Ministry which will not wait for the Way Forward to be articulated, but are surging forward to claim for themselves prerogatives in defiance of the Discipline. In the event we stay together, they intend to determine the character of the church; and if we must separate, they intend to drive that process and get all they can before division.

Reading over the history of the 1844 schism shows me that a) it can be done, eventually, but b) it won't be nice and clean, with everybody agreed and wishing each other well. But understanding the schism can't be done without understanding the issue of slavery in American society prior to the Civil War. And here, too, there are parallels between how slavery was addressed then and how sexuality is being addressed today.

Advocates for LGBTQ equality often make the case that their drive for recognition and approval is like unto the drive for civil rights for African Americans. They see it as a struggle for liberation. But in the larger context, one can also see matters of sexuality as equivalent to the ideological struggle over slavery.

In the beginning all Methodists, North and South -- indeed, all leading elements of American society, North and South -- agreed that slavery was a problem. Its eventual abolition was contemplated even with the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. Southern patriots were embarrassed to have slaves, but said they were merely dealing with the situation they were born into. Various schemes were floated to eliminate it. Meanwhile, the Northern States each in their own way abolished slavery -- some paying compensation to slave holders, some not. They looked forward to the time when slavery would wither away -- probably because it was, ultimately, not very profitable.

A change of attitude came about in the two generations succeeding the founding of the Republic, however. Southerners began to articulate a view that slavery wasn't just a necessary evil, but a positive good. The invention of the cotton gin helped make slavery profitable, and this meant slavery was now, in Southern eyes, an economic good. And in order to justify making profit out of owning other human beings, Southern leaders began to mine the Bible -- and, indeed, to twist it -- in order to justify slavery. Not only did the Bible recognize slavery, they said, the Bible intended slavery to exist. Slavery was not only to be allowed, it was a theological Good. Called Good by God, it was thus good for masters, good for slaves (!), good for society.

Bridging two theological understandings wasn't easy, but Methodism (and society at large) managed it. And those who said slavery was evil and wrong in all cases -- the abolitionists -- were treated as pariahs, even in the North, for they disturbed the unity of church and society.

This parallels how the debates over sexuality have been handled in our day. Once upon a time, homosexuality (the leading issue) was presented as just something that was, nobody's fault. "Nobody wants to be gay," we were told. So we should, in Christian charity, overlook it as far as possible, accommodate it, certainly not berate those who suffered under it. Be nice. But the argument moved on from there. Its apologists began to articulate a new view of homosexuality that saw it not merely as a thing that exists and must be dealt with, but as a part of the Goodness of God's creation. And in order to maintain this view, the Bible has been mined and stood on its head every bit as extensively and articulately as ever it was by the apologists for slavery.

But no matter how cleverly the arguments are stated, and how well-connected the advocates are in the circles of the church, the fact remains that Methodists at large still have the feeling that, one way or another, homosexuality (and now transgenderism and so on) are, well, wrong. Not that we should be ugly toward each other, but still, there is a reluctance to engage in dissimulation. We ought to call things by their right names, and while homosexual practice isn't a worse sin than any other, it's still a sin.

The younger generations in our society don't feel that way as much as the older ones, which gives the progressives hope; nevertheless, in the global context, Western progressivism is still not accepted. And in thinking of the future, we should be wary of assuming that we know who is going to win the argument. In the 1840s and 1850s, not only was slavery legal in the South, it commanded the politics of both sections of the country. It drove expansion into Texas. And it was Northerners like Stephen Douglas and James Buchanan who apologized for it and bid fair to make it possible to bring it into every section of the country.

And now? Who advocates for slavery today? Nobody. The issue that once divided churches and plunged a whole society into Civil War has been decided. Slavery has no apologists today. It still exists, of course. It's one of those things that just is. We'll never get rid of it completely. But we are no longer troubled by justifications for it.

While it doesn't give us any guidance on how to handle our ecclesiastical politics today, any more than it did in 1844, knowing that societies can turn quite suddenly in new directions and embrace new values should give us hope. What was once seen as inevitable and impossible to argue against can lose power and be discarded by society. It is entirely possible that as ever more extravagant demands are made by those who want to claim more and more rights and resources for sexual practices the majority find unpalatable or just plain wrong, there will come a tipping point. One demand too much, one bridge too far -- and the whole intellectual, legal, ethical, theological milieu we deal with today may change, abruptly.

We'll see.