When does schism become schism?

A consistent theme in coverage of the United Methodist Church's General Conference was how "stunned" delegates were by a suggestion of freeing theologically divided Methodists to go their separate ways. Reporters also seemed stunned by the idea: after conservatives won the crucial votes on sexuality issues, sometimes by substantial majorities, why would William Hinson of the Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church float such a risky trial balloon? The most menacing explanation comes at the end of this report by Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times, who quotes James R. Wood, a professor emeritus of sociology at Indiana University.

Wood sees Hinson's suggestion as a possible sign of conservatives' burgeoning self-confidence: "A decade ago, the conservatives just wanted to get control of their property so they could leave," Dr. Wood said. "Now they feel secure enough to say, we'll give you your property and pensions so that you can leave."

But Hinson's text indicates no spirit of triumphalism or suggested expulsion. Instead, Hinson repeatedly refers to his sadness about Methodists' 30-year debate, and he says Methodists should be liberated from their internecine warfare:

Last Monday night when six of us met with fifteen persons who are of a different perspective, my sadness took on a new dimension. We took turns talking in that circle about the church and where we were coming from. At the end of more than two hours my feelings had coalesced to the point that I was fully persuaded we cannot bridge the gap separating us. I was and am profoundly saddened by that conviction.

. . . No one enjoys stepping on another person's dream. Some playwright whose name I cannot recall told of the crossing of the Red Sea by the children of Israel. When the waters began to roll over the Egyptian chariots, and as they began to drown in the sea, Miriam and the children of Israel began to sing and dance because of their great victory. God however inquired, "How can you sing and dance when my children are drowning?" No earnest Christian enjoys seeing another human suffering. I believe it is time for us to end this cycle of pain we are inflicting on each other.

Hinson's idea was not presented to the conference in resolution form. Instead, the conference reaffirmed its commitment to unity amid disagreement on a resounding vote of 869 to 41.

In the inevitable shorthand of complicated stories, schism is the buzz word from the General Conference -- so the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's headline mentioned conservatives' "Plea for schism," the Associated Press referred to Hinson's plans for "building support among local congregations for a schism," and a New York Times headline described conservative Methodists as proposing a schism. A Houston Chronicle deck, though awkward, engaged conservatives' point that schism already exists: "Ex-pastor urges 'amicable' division because of schism on homosexuality."

Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal turned in one of the best researched stories, and he captured caution among the conservative Methodists who normally would be Hinson's ready allies:

"It's not something that any thinking person wants to see happen," said Melvin Bowdan of Nicholasville, Ky., a retired military officer and retired political science professor at Asbury College in Wilmore. "It could be so devastating."

The Rev. Darren Cushman-Wood of Indianapolis said he was "deeply disturbed" by talk of a split, saying he wouldn't feel at home in either a left- or right-leaning denomination.

"Doctrinally, I am as conservative as they come, but in my ethics I am as liberal as you are," he told a liberal Methodist bishop Friday during the conference. "Maybe I need to have an adjustment in my heart between my doctrines and my ethics, but that kind of surgery needs to done by the Great Physician (Jesus). I do not trust the surgeons who are in this room to perform that surgery."

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