On Friday, January 3, leaders of the second largest Protestant affiliation in the United States, the United Methodist Church, announced that, due to irreconcilable differences in moral theology, the competing orthodox and progressive camps within the group were going to formally split. This was not a surprise. The divide had been foretold by a General Conference meeting (think of a group-wide ecumenical council) that took place in February of last year. During the conference, Methodist leaders from around the world sought to define their collective position on calling same-sex couples “married” and ordaining gay and lesbian clergy. In a highly contentious vote, the orthodox won out with 53% of the vote, and it was predicted at the time that schism between the two camps was now inevitable.
Given recent events and statements throughout the Catholic world and a number of parallels between the circumstances of the UMC’s split and the current realities of the Catholic Church, this event may be worthy of examination as a cautionary tale.
We don’t yet know what the final outcomes of the Amazon synod will be, but if some of the more consequential recommendations regarding priestly celibacy and women’s ordination are adopted, what we will see is an exception made for a specific region to the Catholic Church’s traditional teachings and disciplines. This regional synod approach is not unlike the half-measure initially proposed by the Methodist leadership to avoid schism. In May of 2018, the judicial council of the UMC suggested that the issue of ordaining gay and lesbian clergy and performing same-sex so-called weddings be left to regional leadership, or (in an echo of the guidance regarding the reception of Holy Communion by the civilly divorced and remarried seen in Amoris Laetitia) individual pastors. It was this suggestion that led to the subject’s inclusion in the UMC general conference.