Brexit negotiations are finally underway and over the coming weeks and months, we will learn what exactly the parting of the ways between the UK and the EU will mean for all of us. In church contexts, rumours abound about the possibility/probablilty of splits and schisms, especially over the issue of same-sex relationships. Both have forced me to ask one question: what if you find yourself on the wrong side of the line?
Let me explain. Come 2019 or '20, I will find myself, against my own wishes, as an EU citizen living outside the EU. At the moment, there are no concrete guarantees that I will have the same rights and protections that safeguard other EU citizens on the other side of the line. Already, since the referendum, Britain has become a less welcoming place for non-British citizens and many have already voted with their feet and relocated to the EU27. We might not be far behind them ....
In the context of church splits, the United Methodist Church in the US is already on a path that could well lead to that outcome. Some talk of schism as, at worst, a nuisance on the way to the creation of a church or churches that can move forward more confidently. Disagreement in this context is seen as a barrier to mission, a distraction from the real work of the Church. But is this the case? Put another way, should we equate agreement with fellowship?
What I know for sure is that, if the split happens, I will end up with beloved friends on both sides and perhaps in two separate Churches. Given the nature of the split, I will also be confronted with at least one Church where I am not welcome and where my ordination and ministry might well be denied. Even as I write those words, my heart is heavy and I feel a sense of gried at that prospect. And even if that is not the case, I will have the dilemma of whether to engage with a Church that is predicated on excluding people like me from ministry.
Any talk of schism assumes that congregations are monochrome on issues and so will declare for one side or the other. My experience is that most congregations are diverse and so, even if the majorities in the new denominations are for the policy, there will be minorities who have chosen relationships over belief. Schism is a short-term solution that often takes decades to heal. John Wesley was unequivocal:
'To separate ourselves from a body of living Christian, 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.... The pretences for separation may be innumerable, but want of love is always the real cause ....' (Sermon On Schism, 1786)
Before any of us move towards the exit, we would do well to heed these words.