John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
News emerged Jan. 3 that the United Methodist Church (UMC) would be united no more: the denomination was going to disunite into two smaller sects, one called “traditionalist.” The split comes because Methodists last February voted at their St. Louis General Conference to reaffirm Christian teaching that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The American UMC had gradually accepted homosexual and lesbian clergy and come to solemnize same sex “marriages,” practices the General Conference rejected.
The press spun the story as individual churches needing to decide whether to join “any new traditionalist denomination or remain in the United Methodist Church.” At first glance, it seems counterintuitive that the people who reaffirmed continuous Christian teaching are now the “new” denomination while those who innovated sexual ethics are seen as the core from which the “dissenters” split. But since there is no authority within Methodism to say whether someone is or is not a Methodist, there is no vehicle to compel the sexual revisionists to leave.
So, like in 1534 with the Anglican schism, sex once again sundered the body of Christ.
Why write about Methodist divisions here? Because there are some concerning aspects in the event.
Christian orthodoxy affirms description of the Church as marked by four “notes” — one, holy, catholic and apostolic. The first of those notes is unity.
Although, in practice, classical Protestantism made mincemeat of unity by its own divisions, it at least paid oneness lip service: the Reformers each believed that their denominations were the locus of unity of the “true” Church, “purified” from “Romanism.” In other words, they at least thought (or pretended) that Christian truth should be the core to which any “church” should answer.
But that was then and this is now. The Church of Christ is in competition with the Church of Nice, a process far advanced in the Protestant Mainline but not alien to parts of the Catholic Church. And the ecclesiology of the Church of Nice is very much operative behind the UMC division.
Granted, each Methodist faction believes it remains faithful to Christian “theology” but — other than looking to live in peace while each continues its “theology” — there appears to be little distress over this further rending of Christianity (except perhaps in splitting the communal property). American Methodists seem to be engaged in essentially an ecclesiastical version of no-fault divorce. So American!
It should also be noted that, for the longest time after the emergence of Protestantism, most division was on the doctrinal, not moral, level. Granted that Henry’s split was in part due to sex (specifically, marital indissolubility, though one wonders why our woke era rarely comments that Episcopalianism was born of serial spousal abuse) and that Zwingli defended his rejection of celibacy because the clergy were allegedly “rioting in fornication,” even the most cursory review of the classical Protestant “confessions” and the Tridentine responses shows an overwhelming focus on doctrine. Even as doctrinal differences expanded, Christianity still lived off the fumes of an essentially common moral understanding.
That’s why even pro-contraception author John Noonan had to admit that, up until the Anglican Lambeth Conference of 1930, there was no Christian denomination that accepted contraception as moral. Since contraception is not just about contraception but about what a Christian understands sex to be for, it means essentially that Christians shared a common understanding of the meaning of morality — especially sexual morality — into the 20th century. Yes, there were weaves and bobs here and there (e.g., Protestant acceptance of divorce while otherwise being strict literalists about “what the Bible says” and Orthodox claims of commitment to marital indissolubility while practicing epikeia) but the main lines of Christian moral teaching were clear. Until 1930.
Contraception was, of course, the camel’s nose under the tent, leading to the widespread mainline Protestant acceptance of a new sexual ethic that had no connection with 20 centuries of received Christian practice. Catholicism held out strongly through the 1960s and still officially holds the line today, although many bishops’ conferences have had their own ecclesiastical version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” since Humanae vitae.
The so-called “Minority Report” of the Papal “Birth Control Commission” in the 1960s warned that an ethic that did not affirm the relationship of sex to procreation and unity had implications not just for contraception. Splitting the procreative from the unitive meanings of the sexual act — prohibition of which was the core teaching of Humanae vitae — left the shards to be connected any way one wanted. Sex is connected with connecting two people and with children. That is simply its reality. The question is what happens when we break apart these two meanings, which are inherent to sex. As the “Minority Report” noted, abandoning the Christian sexual ethic affords no principled basis upon which to say masturbation, fornication or sodomy — all consistently recognized by Christian teaching as wrong — as wrong.
There is no need to rehearse the history of moral theology over the past 50 years. Like the Anglicans who in 1930 were only allowing “a little bit of contraception” among “marrieds” who already children, the defiance to Humanae vitae led to the exception eating up the rule. The theologians who pooh-poohed as hysteria the warning of the “Minority Report” in 1968 were soon defending all the actions they claimed did not need to follow from tampering with Christian moral doctrine.
The Methodist split is just further proof that, when it comes to fidelity to Christian teaching versus sex, the latter often prevails. I don’t deny that people often fall short of what Christianity teaches, but something is even more deeply wrong when they shift the shortcoming from themselves to the teaching.
Today’s accommodationists, eager to “welcome” every trend, would argue that the Church must “adapt.” But such arguments have severe ecclesiological implications: if the Church is incapable of teaching right and wrong on fundamental issues that affect people’s everyday lives, then in what sense is the Church in any sense a divinely-instituted institution? A “church” is then simply a human organization that assembles like-thinking individuals into a kind of spiritual Alcoholics Anonymous, following a common path but doing so by human lights and human powers. And, as today’s Nones are showing, why does anybody need such an organization? It might be nice, but it’s optional: We can bowl alone, and we can be saved alone.
Except we can’t.
As Methodists divide up the common property, it seems they’d decided to establish a $39 million fund to assist “’communities historically marginalized by the sin of racism.’” That’s worth two observations. First, the UMC division is in part driven by the fact that Methodism is exploding in Africa (especially former British colonies) while imploding in the United States. The American UMC is divorcing its African confreres. (At least they have no Cardinal Kasper to tell the latter to keep quiet). Second, the last time American Methodists split was before the U.S. Civil War, when some thought slavery was okay while others said “no way.” Maybe in 150 years, Methodists will set up a fund to assist communities affected by the sin of marginalizing Christian truth.