Talk of schism in the United Methodist Church has prompted me to revisit the research I did in the 1980s as the Southern Baptist Convention was being transformed into the monolithically conservative body it is today. I wanted to know: How does a denomination arrive at and move through a split?
What I wrote about in my 1990 book, “Baptist Battles,” may just have some enduring lessons for what we are seeing now.
Nearly a century ago, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote “The Social Sources of Denominationalism,” and my research confirmed his contention that differences over theology or practice are rarely enough to split a denomination. The argument has to tap deeper social divisions.
It’s not that theology doesn’t matter. The Southern Baptist argument was begun by conservatives who claimed an inerrantist view of the Bible. They also definitely disapproved of the growing number of ordained women in progressive SBC churches. These were real theological differences between the parties, just as there are today between the traditional and progressive Methodists.
Those groups’ differences were also social and political, however. Southern Baptist progressives — they called themselves moderates — were more likely to come from cities, to value seminary-educated clergy and to favor women’s and minority rights. Conservatives opposed abortion and welfare and were strongly anti-communist (remember, this was the ’80s). They were more likely to have moved from rural to urban areas and to be somewhat less well-off.
In a very large denomination, spread out across the country, even such socially different groups can coexist for a long time without a split. A split also requires an organized movement to “call the question.” That’s what happened to Baptists in the 1980s, and that is what has happened to Methodists over the last decade.
Now that the Methodists have reached the precipice, the very complicated organizational work of division has to get underway, and one thing is sure: Nothing will happen quickly. Whatever division happens will unfold at multiple levels over at least a decade. Denominations aren’t just individuals who share (or formerly share) a theology. They are complex organizations with national bureaucracies, regional branch offices, local congregations and individual members. Each of those parts of the whole will come apart in different ways.
How that happens is determined by the denomination’s “polity,” that is, the way it governs itself. Baptists don’t have bishops, but Methodists do. That means that it is harder for Methodist congregations or clergy members simply to do what they individually think is right. Most critically, Methodist connectional polity means that the congregation doesn’t own its property — although this recent conference seems to have opened the way for churches to leave without giving up their buildings.
Even denominations without bishops, however, have extensive national organizations with lots of influence over what happens in local churches. They develop programs, publish literature, organize mission efforts and educate clergy.
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Source: Religion News Service