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Greater NW Pride: Schism



The word, “schism,” means “division or disunion, especially into mutually opposed parties” (dictionary.com). Schism is a theological or “church” term, used to describe those groups that break away with a church and establish a rival church. According to Britannica.com, the term originally referred to those divisions that were caused by disagreement over something other than basic doctrine. “thus, the schismatic group was not necessarily heretical. Eventually, however, the distinctions between schism and heresy gradually became less clear, and disruptions in the church caused by disagreements over doctrine as well as disruptions caused by other disagreements were eventually all referred to as schismatic” (Britannica.com). The United Methodist Church is currently in the throes of a possible schism. While the UMC is not technically broken and in schism yet, it is in a discerning period of time, in which, at the end of this discerning process, there could be a schism.
And why is there a possible schism in the UMC? There is a disagreement not over basic doctrine per se.  After all, everyone in the UMC who is engaged in “next steps” is still a devotee of all things Wesleyan and the best parts of Methodism. The disagreement is over the place and presence of LGBTQ+ people in the UMC in general. In particular, it is over the statement that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and that no self-avowed, practicing (or in the new wording, simply self-avowed) homosexual can be ordained, and no UMC minister may officiate at a same-sex wedding. Or as I observed in an earlier blog, this is not really about LGBTQ+ people. It is about a group of people in the UMC who decided that they had the power and judgment and wisdom, not God, to determine who or which group of people is worthy to receive God’s grace and who isn’t. 
While this conversation is going on at the macro level of the UMC, there is an impact on the micro level of the church, e.g., the local church, and LGBTQ+ people, and our allies. I remember when the Presbyterian Church (USA) moved to change the wording in our Book of Orderin regard to the qualifications for ordination in 2011—which basically depends upon the person being a faithful follower of Jesus Christ—there was the birth of a new denomination of disaffected members of the Presbyterian Church (USA): ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, an outgrowth of the Fellowship of Presbyterians. This new denomination rejected the premise that LGBTQ+ people could serve as Ministers of the Word and Sacrament. Other former churches within the PCUSA joined the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) who openly reject not only the ordination of LGBTQ+ people, but also women. When people asked me what had happened, I said, crassly, that I caused a schism in the PCUSA. Yep: Brett caused the schism within the PCUSA. Yet, it wasn’t I per se, individually, but those of us who are LGBTQ+, and our courageous claim of faith that we too are created in the image of God, called by God’s Spirit to be a part of and serve others within the body of Christ, as we live out the words of Jesus to love one another, just as we have been loved. So, if we, who are LGBTQ+ “caused” a schism, we surely choose not to be victims of the schism. All we—who are LGBTQ+--did was live out the truth of our calling as people of God, or as we say in PCUSA circles, people of God’s own choosing. We who are LGBTQ+ are also part of this throng who are a chosen race, part of the royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people in order that we may proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called us out of darkness into God’s marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
In the past, there have been denominational schisms among the mainline Protestant denominations over black participation in Protestant churches, especially in the South, in the 1800s, as well as the ordination of women through the 1950s-1980s. Perhaps like those who are black or women before us, as a gay man, knowing that there was a schism regarding our ordination into ministry, let alone the opportunity to be married by a Minister of the Word and Sacrament in a church building, has left mixed emotions within me, even today. To meet someone today who is a member of a break-off church from the PCUSA, while pleasant on the outside and disappointed on the inside that they were not open to God's grace spread liberally among all of us, I want to share the good news of all the great things that are happening in the PCUSA since they left, and the various ways we are living the Jesus’ life, preaching and living and sharing good news with those who live in poverty, proclaiming and living out the good news to those imprisoned, rejoicing in recovery of sight to those who are blind, liberating those oppressed, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, per Jesus' instructions (Luke 4:18). I would like that person to know that my life is very good, as the gifts and services that were gifted to me by God’s Spirit are being well-used in the body of Christ today, both as the LGBTQ+ Advocacy Coordinator (UMC) and organizing a new Presbyterian Fellowship (PCUSA) even though that other person thought that would be impossible, all because I am in a significant partnered relationship with a man, in which I experience love daily, just as I am.  Sometimes the sweetest revenge is a life well lived. While there is some lingering resentment for the 40 years that we struggled within the PCUSA, I would want that other person to know that, at the end of the day, we are both the same, in which we both—LGBTQ+ and  non-LGBTQ+--want to know a love that shows us each our beauty, our worth, and our importance in the life of someone else, and the community of faith in which we belong (Jean Vanier). For in the end, there will be no more schism in my life, and I choose not to be a victim or cause of the schism within the PCUSA, as I pray the same will be true with my friends in the UMC In the realm of God, there is no schism either.  Instead, I am a part of the new life, the "new heaven and a new earth" that emerged from the schism within the PCUSA and know that there will be lots of new growth and new opportunities from the schism that is about to come upon the UMC. Imagine: a Methodist Church that welcomes all LGBTQ+ people as clergy, lay leaders, and members, with weddings of same-sex couples allowed, and funds available to support LGBTQ+ programs! Imagine! Stay tuned…the best is yet to come!

Brett Webb-Mitchell
Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell is an openly gay Presbyterian pastor in the Portland area serving as the part-time LGBTQ+ advocacy coordinator for The Oregon-Idaho Conference of the UMC. He can be reached at brett@umoi.org. Become a subscriber to the Greater NW Pride blog to get Greater NW Pride in your email box!