While most of mainline Protestantism — whether Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, or United Church of Christ — has declared victory in the gay-marriage wars and moved on to bigger, juicier heresies, like installing transgender bishops and assigning new, preferred pronouns to God, one corner of that world seems lost in time past.
And that is the United Methodist Church (UMC).
The other mainline groups suffered initial discomfort over the past few decades when they endorsed same-sex unions, as hundreds, even thousands, of conservative congregations bolted for the denominational door, but the church bodies themselves withstood the exodus. These churches are a lot smaller now than they used to be, true, and they’re still shedding members and shuttering churches at a rapid clip, but that may have as much to do with an aging clientele coupled with an antireligious national spirit, an epicene recruitment effort (called “evangelism” in its more robust iterations), a pushback in American Christianity against denominational affiliation, and an all-in devotion to leftist politics as it does to fealty to sexual otherness.
And while America’s second-largest Protestant church body is losing churches and members like its mainline peers, it’s still fighting over same-sex marriage.
This was supposed to have been over by now.
The church body has long harbored a substantial conservative cohort, especially in the southern U.S. and in its overseas affiliates (in Africa most dramatically), that has managed to hold sway on church policy regarding homosexuality. Indeed, it has continued to endorse, at every national convention since it was first passed in 1972, an addition to its Book of Discipline that declared, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
In its most recent ruling on the matter, at a special session of the General Conference in 2019, the UMC voted 438–384 to uphold the church’s ban on same-sex marriage and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. The winning side was buoyed by a sizable contingent from Africa (30 percent of the body), where homosexuality is either illegal or considered taboo.
Many progressives in the church body vowed to resist the vote, however, and have been commissioning gay clergy and officiating at same-sex weddings anyway. All things LGBTQ have remained hot-button issues at official Methodist gatherings, local or national.
In a denomination split over same-sex marriage, the conservatives will go into one body, the liberals into the other.
Tired of arguing, a “bipartisan” group of Methodist bishops and advocacy leaders, late in 2019, brokered a compromise agreement — the “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace through Separation” — which was supposed to save the UMC. According to this agreement, conferences (larger, geographical groupings of congregations) or congregations could vote to leave the denomination and affiliate with a new Methodist church body, or they could remain in the post-separation UMC. The protocol calls for the UMC to pony up $25 million to ease the departing churches’ exit — while it would retain, however, the name and remaining assets of the huge denomination — and departing congregations are allowed to keep their properties; and departing preachers, their health and pension benefits.
However, before a vote on the proposal, scheduled for the General Conference in 2020, could go down, COVID-19 hit. The 2020 vote was postponed to 2022, and then in 2022 it was postponed again, again because of COVID, to 2024.
In the meantime, many churches have grown impatient with another delay — some accusing authorities of attempting to sabotage the protocol altogether — and have jumped to the Global Methodist Church, a body launched in 2022 to receive conservative congregations and that vows not to ordain or marry LGBTQ persons.
The exit of these churches, however, is entangled in strings. Congregations not waiting for the now-year-and-a-half-distant 2024 vote but instead leaving independently must fall back on the provisos of temporary rule 2553 of the Methodist Book of Discipline. This rule mandates that two-thirds of the voting assembly — of those that show up for the vote — must cast a ballot to leave, and the congregation can keep their property only after paying two years’ worth of apportionments (proportional contributions to the larger church’s ministries and mission) and pension liabilities. This temporary provision expires at the end of the year.
Even with these added burdens, churches in great number are finding the door. These churches are largely from the South, historically more conservative and resistant to the LGBTQ takeover of sexual ethics. Five conferences, one each in North Carolina, Alabama, and Indiana, and two in Texas, account for 57 percent of all departures, with the conference in East Texas totaling the largest single tally of leavers (302 out of 600 churches). Churches in the North are largely staying put — the New York conference has tallied zero departures.
Veteran Methodist insider Mark Tooley predicts that at least 3,000, and possibly 5,000, congregations will have mustered the needed two-thirds to vacate the denomination, taking their property with them, by the end-of-year deadline. That’s out of the approximately 30,000 total UMC churches in the U.S. He adds: “Denominational agencies are preparing for a 38 percent drop in funding for 2025–2028, which implies an approximate expected membership loss of 2.3 million members from the nearly 6.3 million the denomination had in the United States in 2020. That is not a minor exodus.”
New congregations are also being born from old ones that decline to leave. Tooley tells of a big church outside of Memphis that voted 773–493 to leave but will have to stay, because 773 is still 24 votes short of the two-thirds needed to exit. But 342 of those 773 will leave and start a new, traditional Methodist congregation. That appears to be Pyrrhic for the remain group. Writes Tooley: “The old church is stuck with a large modern church property it can no longer fill plus its old historic downtown sanctuary, and a large debt of several million dollars that’s possibly unsustainable.”
Also, alleged shenanigans from both sides have marred “disaffiliation,” as the rule 2553 leave-taking is called, in certain areas. Conservatives are accusing certain conferences of slow-walking disaffiliation procedure or preventing conferences and congregations from making their own decisions; some conferences are adding financial burdens to the departing groups.
On the other side, the North Georgia Conference shut down the process last December due to “misinformation” being allegedly spread about the future of the post-separation UMC: Conservative clergy are accused of, according to one report, suggesting to congregations debating whether to leave “that the United Methodist Church no longer believes in the resurrection or divinity of Christ, has changed the Apostle’s Creed and will force churches to host same-sex weddings and receive gay pastors, among other things.”
In a denomination split over same-sex marriage, the conservatives will go into one body, the liberals into the other; it doesn’t seem a stretch to conclude that a post-separation UMC, uncurbed by conservative opinion or votes, will move even further left. Writes John Lomperis: “At the leadership level, the [post-separation UMC] will keep the denominational officials who deny the resurrection of Christ, speak dismissively of the reality of Hell, and teach that Jesus had his own sins. The new traditionalist Methodist denomination will not.”
What all that means to the protocol when it is finally voted on in 2024 — if it is voted on — remains to be seen. It does offer hope of new denominational life for Methodist Christians wanting to remain conservative in their doctrinal beliefs and practices.
Writes Tooley, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: “The hope of traditional American Methodists is that once freed from denominational bureaucracy, they’ll be able to grow anew—as their peers in Africa are doing, and as America’s early Methodists did.”
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