There is little doubt in my mind that Dr. Weems is an admirable man, a learned scholar who is invested in the life of the denomination. However, I take issue with some of the statements issued in the recent article.
American Protestantism is at the 500 year mark. In part, there remain congregations of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. On the whole, however, it is as teetering as 16th century Rome. It is ripe for schism between the faithful people and the institutionalists — those holding to the concept that since “it” exists, it must be preserved. The issue appearing in many areas is sexuality, but underneath this are issues of adherence to Tradition, Scriptural authority, and lex orandi. Do our rites and ceremonies matter? Unlike Rome who had the resources and strength to undertake a Counter Reformation, there is largely no Protestant body that can counter the excesses and famines of Protestantism.
We can blithely say “be united in Christ,” but in the end, the Person of Jesus is what separates us. It is a grave matter who we believe Jesus is — as well as what Jesus did. In speaking with those on the right, I can find common ground because we believe in the Trinity, the atonement, and in holiness. Unfortunately, many of those on the left have divorced themselves from the Great Tradition and the Wesleyan essentials, finding a Jesus of their own creation and consolation.
Dr. Weems does make a case that schism will cause congregations to leave. Of course. Physical separation does in fact require someone to leave. Yes, congregations will leave the whole of the new bodies, but this too is expected. Sadly, I expect more conservatives will leave the new body due to the rampant heresy plaguing the Wesleyans today (i.e., congregationalism). This doesn’t mean a body on the right won’t be strong or financially solvent, only that it will be smaller than the number of conservatives present today. The congregations going to the left will largely remain with the body (unless the congregation is more conservative) because of issues that concern the progressives, namely financial solvency, which they will not have in short order.
Dr. Weems is correct that we have seen a drastic fall off of the Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians. However, there are remarkable gains among conservative Lutheran bodies, the Anglican Church North America, and the PCA as well as the ECO. The congregations are not simply becoming independent units, but are joining the newly formed bodies espousing doctrinal orthodoxy. This leaves the former bodies even more financially insolvent, as we have seen with the Episcopal Church. We are a market-driven nation. We vote with our feet and our wallets. In congregations that are divided down the middle, many of those members will leave — and take their money with them.
My concern in reading Dr. Weems is that he appears to suggest that congregations must be forced to stay in the denomination, against their will, and even if the they must violate their own conscience. In this latter instance, there is the reminder of what Wesley said about staying in the Church of England until he could not. I hope and pray this was not Dr. Weems intent, but I cannot help but to read it this way.
Regardless of how we define schism, it is already happening. If we following the Wesleyan idea, then schism has occurred by the constant violation of Church law — as well as the inaction of the Bishops who should support Church law. Has a physical schism occurred? For many people — my family included — it has. And it is continuing to do so.
Dr. Weems appeals to some mythical “Wesleyan alternative” wherein unity is held despite deep differences. In reality, John Wesley routinely separated from people who did not have the same doctrine or mission as he. For instance, he separated from the Calvinists. Further, he constantly removed Methodists from fellowship if they refused discipline or would practice things contrary to the mission of the United Societies. A “true Wesleyan alternative,” I maintain, is a graceful separation allowing that those who leave are in fact Christian and worthy of fellowship (keeping in mind, of course, they follow the Wesleyan essentials). This is part of scriptural unity.
I must note a few other things. The secondary things of Wesley would not have been sexuality — or feeding the poor. Rather, the secondary things are such things as denominational membership, worship styles, and nearly all other things not contained in Christology, Justification, and Sanctification. Another point is the lack of attention to the Spirit in Dr. Weems’ writing. The Spirit has moved and will move us to seek new homes. To suggest separation is somehow only grounded in historical and social constructs is to, in my opinion, fail to give an honest ear to the Spirit. Further, we cannot place the issue of sexuality as a secondary thing. One side is correct. If it is a sin to act upon natural desires, then to uphold LGBT equality is contrary to social holiness. If it is not a sin, then it is most certainly a sin to reject the gifts and graces offered by gay Christians as well as to withhold from them the rites of the Church (include marriage, ordination, and leadership). Finally, given there is no integrity in those who actively oppose the current will of the Church (resting solidly on 2000 years of the Great Tradition), there is little wonder why “unity” is a far-fetched idea. There is no trust in the leadership of The United Methodist Church and no trust in any agreement.
And this, because the UMC cannot meet the demands of the historic definition of “Church,” schism between members, between congregations, and between the body of Christ and the UMC already exists.