The reaction to Bishop Martin McLee’s words, “Church trials result in harmful polarization and continues the harm brought upon our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters,” has surfaced, not for the first time, the word schism. I was prompted to search out a definition for the word, and found this:

Schism: “a division or a split, usually between groups belonging to a religious denomination”

What is it about same sex marriage that provokes among some on both the right and left, thoughts and words about schism? Many on the left describe schism as necessary for protecting LGBT people from further harm. Many on the right argue that schism is the only way for the church to remain (in their opinion) faithful. Still others on all parts of the spectrum don’t see schism solving anything and see a split being harmful.

What is the the history of schism in the Methodist Church?

Most of us know that the African Methodist Episcopal Church was established in 1816 and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1821. Both of them begun because of the racial discrimination black persons experienced in the Methodist Church. This was schism caused by racism. But, another schism took place 170 years ago, in 1844  when the Methodist Episcopal Church South was formed. This schism took place over disagreements about the owning of slaves
as well as whether or not a General Conference had the authority to discipline a bishop for owning slaves.

Historian I am not, but how does this schismatic history relate to this moment in The United Methodist Church?

  • First, we as United Methodists have engaged in services of confession and repentance in response to the racial insensitivity/racism in the Methodist Church that caused the formation of the AME and AMEZion denominations.
  • Second, in 1939 in a “Unification Conference,” three of the separated branches of Methodism united with the compromise of the creation of the racially-segregated Central Jurisdiction). I do not have knowledge of whether or not efforts were made to involve the AME and AME Zion denominations in the 1939 Conference.
  • Third, with this history of Methodist schism and partial reunion, what will church historians of the future say and write, if the United Methodist Church experienced schism over marriage equality for same sex couples?

Langston Hughes in his poem, “I, Too, Am America” writes of “the darker brother being sent to the kitchen when company comes.” Then Hughes writes; “Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table when company comes…They’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed.”

Do we in The United Methodist Church of 2014 have enough shame about our racial history and our history in response to slavery, that we dare not add further shame to our history by division in response to marriage equality for same sex couples?

Bishop Leontine T.C. Kelly, now deceased, Bishop Melvin Talbert, and Bishop Martin McLee, are African American Bishops, who because of their racial history understood the meaning of Martin Luther King’s words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” May those who have ears, hear. 

Rev. Gil Caldwell

The Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell is a retired United Methodist Minister who lives in Asbury Park, N.J. He was active in the Massachusetts unit of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and participated in the civil-rights movement throughout the nation. In 2000, he, with others, organized the RMN Extension ministry United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church (UMOC), an organization committed to the full inclusion of LGBT people in every aspect of church and society. His recent book, Something Within: Works by Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell is available from Church Within A Church. Gil's advocacy efforts were also featured in the film "From Selma to Stonewall - Are We There Yet?" Learn more at truthinprogress.com

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