United Methodists split in slow-motion schism

By PETER SMITH

United Methodists have been a mainstay of the American religious landscape for generations – one of the most geographically widespread major Protestant denominations, their steeples visible on city streets, in county seats and along country roads, their ethos marked by a firm but quiet faith. , simple worship and serious social service.

But The United Methodist Church is also the latest of several major Protestant denominations in America to begin to fracture, just as Episcopal, Lutheran and Presbyterian denominations have lost significant church and membership minorities this century. amid debates on sexuality and theology.

At annual regional gatherings across the United States earlier this year, United Methodists approved requests from about 300 congregations to leave the denomination, according to United Methodist News Service. Special meetings in the second half of the year are expected to vote on up to 1,000 more, according to the conservative advocacy group Wesleyan Covenant Association.

Dozens of churches in Georgia and hundreds in Texas are considering disaffiliation. Some are not waiting for permission to leave: More than 100 congregations in Florida and North Carolina have filed or threatened to file lawsuits.

Those leaving still represent only a fraction of the estimated 30,000 congregations in the United States alone, with nearly 13,000 more overseas, according to recent UMC statistics.

But large United Methodist congregations are moving out, including some of the largest in Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas.

The flashpoints are the denomination’s bans on same-sex marriages and the open ordination of LGBTQ clergy — though many see them as symptoms of deeper differences in views on justice, theology and scriptural authority. The denomination has repeatedly upheld these prohibitions at legislative general conferences, but some American churches and clergy have challenged them.

This spring, the Tories launched a new Methodist World Church, where they are determined to both uphold and enforce these bans.

A proposal to amicably split the denomination and its assets, unveiled in early 2020, lost its once-wide support after years of pandemic-related delays at the Legislative General Conference, whose vote was needed to ratify it.

Now the breakup and negotiations are going piecemeal — one regional conference at a time.

New York Bishop Thomas Bickerton, president of the Council of Bishops, issued a statement in August denouncing “a constant barrage of negative rhetoric filled with lies and inaccuracies” by dissident groups. In particular, he challenged claims that the church is changing fundamental doctrines.

But he said the denomination is trying to find a balance between encouraging churches to stay and allowing them to leave.

“It’s both/and,” Bickerton said in an interview. “We want people to know from the start that we don’t want them to leave. We need traditionalists, we need centrists, we need progressives willing to engage in healthy debate to discern what God’s will is.

But other departures are expected next year.

In western Pennsylvania’s annual conference alone, about 300 of its 800 churches have begun asking about the leaving process by the end of 2023, according to the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Not all may follow, but some see it as inevitable.

“We want to stay the same in our mission and our theology, we need to change denominations,” said Reverend Steve Cordle, senior pastor of Crossroads Church. Based in Oakdale, Pennsylvania, it is one of the largest congregations in the conference. He plans to go independent or join the World Methodist Church.

A few miles away, in Bethel Park, another Pittsburgh suburb, Christ United Methodist Church remains attached to the denomination.

The Reverend Chris Morgan said his church had a “big tent” of liberals and conservatives, with most worshipers “leaning towards the centre”. The church recently hosted an educational series on hot topics including the schism, guns, abortion and COVID-19. .

“Instead of becoming like society, we’re trying to become an example of what it feels like to disagree and always treat people with respect, care, and love,” Morgan said.

He was far from alone in seeing a parallel between Methodist debates and wider societal polarization.

“We live in a world of division. Just look at our political front,” said Bishop David Graves, who oversees the South Georgia and Alabama-West Florida conferences. Both conferences have dozens of congregations moving out, though the vast majority have stayed so far.

Graves said he wanted to help churches leave if they wanted to, but had spent long hours urging them to consider all factors and make sure it was God’s will.

“It’s very trying,” he said. “These are intense meetings.”

Conservatives say faith leaders are making it difficult for those who want to leave.

Currently, churches can leave after paying two years of “payout” – essentially denominational dues – plus their share of unfunded pension liabilities. Conferences may also impose additional requirements, and some require a percentage of the land value of church buildings.

“In many cases (the requirements) are onerous, they are punitive,” said Reverend Jay Therrell, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a conservative advocacy group that works to help churches join the World Methodist Church.

Bishop Karen Oliveto of UMC’s Mountain Sky Region – who in 2016 became UMC’s first openly lesbian bishop – said via email that it is “extremely hurtful to LGBTQ people that our personality even be used as a corner to disrupt unity in the church”. She expressed hope that UMC churches “will be safe places for everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Conservatives have lamented that the UMC has not enforced its discipline book on ordination and marriage standards.

Oliveto said, however, that sometimes “the Holy Spirit goes before us and gives us a glimpse of the future to which we are called. This is certainly the case throughout the denomination, where LGBTQ people have been vetted at every step of the ordination process and found to possess the gifts and graces for ordained ministry.

United Methodists are part of a worldwide movement whose origins can be traced to 18th-century English revivalist John Wesley, who emphasized personal piety, evangelism, and social service.

American membership has fallen to about 6.5 million from a peak of 11 million in the 1960s. Overseas membership has soared to match or surpass that of the United States, fueled primarily by the growth and mergers in Africa.

It is too early to tell if there will be widespread departures from international churches. African churches, for example, often combine conservative positions on sexual issues with progressive views on the economy and the legacy of colonialism.

Several African bishops issued a statement denouncing conservative advocacy groups, including one called the Africa Initiative, for collaborating to “destroy our United Methodist Church.”

The Africa Initiative responded that it respects the bishops but will continue its efforts “to see biblical Christianity taught, lived and supported.”

Neal Christie of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition, a partnership of progressive and ethnic Methodist advocacy groups, said “the idea that outside the United States there is one monolithic voice is a caricature.”

The coalition promotes a more decentralized church where regions could make their own decisions on issues such as LGBTQ inclusion based on their cultural contexts.

“We think it’s a big tent church, that the church is big enough for everyone,” he said.

But after decades of controversy, some are done.

“The traditionalists have decided it’s like a toxic relationship now, and we’re just hurting each other,” said Reverend Laura Saffell, president of the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. “The best we can do is bless each other and send each other off.

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