Schism Doesn’t Mean Failure: It Means We’re Alive


Is it possible, for a moment, to discuss the idea of schism without attaching any theological or political baggage?  I realize this may be an impossible task.  Schisms, by their very nature, are driven by theological crises and political agendas.  It is hard to look at “schism” beyond our motivations for advocating or denying the need for division.  Perhaps this is why we are warned so eloquently against schism by those who practice it so well.

John Wesley was a schismatic.   In the plainest language possible, the Church of England wasn’t good enough for him or his vision.  With flimsy authority and a well developed ego, his actions created a schism in the Anglican Church.  He ordained two priests in 1784, a major schismatic act by any standard.

History has judged those actions kindly.  Perhaps it’s the political season or the “fact checking” so common at the end of the day’s news cycle; for one reason or another I cannot except Bishop Carder’s quote from Wesley’s Sermon “On Schism” as factually accurate.

To separate ourselves from a body of living Christians, with whom we were before united, is a grievous breach of the law of love. It is the nature of love to unite us together; and the greater the love, the stricter the union. . . . It is only when our love grows cold, that we can think of separating from our brethren. 

He’s lying, not telling the truth, and distorting reality.  OK, he may not be lying but he’s certainly not expressing a standard he ever applied to himself.  Should I go on?  John Wesley’s career and our denominational presence are premised on one group of Christians separating themselves (over time but consciously) from a tradition believed to have gone cold.  We all preach to ourselves.  This, however, is different.  It’s far more, “schism is bad for others but just fine for me.”  The incongruence between the traditions defining Methodism’s past and our current fears over schism forgets our heritage of division

Anglicanism is born out of 16th century European power politics and a single divorce.  The Anglican movement is itself a century’s long struggle for legitimacy.  Wesley came from a long line of Anglican dissenters; called non-conformists.  These proto-Methodists couldn’t accept the state’s long arm of influence in the Church of England.  Wesley came from this schismatic stock.  So yes, he knows of what he speaks when it comes to schism.  Nonetheless, are contemporary United Methodists looking for unity in the life of a man whose career was defined by schism?

Then there’s scripture.  Creation itself is an act of schism. Genesis tells us that God divides the light from the dark.  When God separates Abraham from his homeland and tell him to go west, that is the defining schismatic moment in western civilization.  When Joseph is torn from his family and sent to Egypt, schism occurs so healing occurs later.  The Bible is replete with God’s schismatic movements.  If we see and fear schism as failure, then I believe we fear God at work.

I’ve just lived through another hurricane.  I’ve seen things torn apart.  A hurricane is about schism.  It’s a fact of life.  As I sit among the division of the schism called Matthew, I don’t deny its reality or pray the next storm won’t come.  I try to put the pieces back together.  It’s not failure.  It’s living and as I’ve heard so many times over the past few days, “we’ll put it back together”.  Putting it back together, as my neighbors say, means “I love you”.  From where I’m sitting, love grows out of schism.  So bring it on, schism.  It doesn’t mean we’ve failed.  It means we’re alive.


*For the record, I’m not a Wesleyan Covenant Association member or supporter.