The United Methodist Divorce
We all knew it was coming, but it’s still a surprise to see it: the United Methodist Church will go into formal schism over the issue of homosexuality. From the NYT:
Leaders of the United Methodist Church, the second-largest Protestant denomination in the nation, announced on Friday a plan that would formally split the church after years of division over same-sex marriage.
Under the plan, which would sunder a denomination with 13 million members worldwide, a new “traditionalist Methodist” denomination would be created, and would continue to ban same-sex marriage as well as the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy.
A separation in the Methodist church had been anticipated since a contentious general conference in St Louis last February, when 53 percent of church leaders and lay members voted to tighten the ban on same-sex marriage, declaring that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
In the months following, a plan was put together by a 16-member committee of bishops and other church representatives, who determined that separation was “the best means to resolve our differences, allowing each part of the Church to remain true to its theological understanding.”
Like some of you, I wondered why it was that the traditionalists won the general conference vote, but are the ones who are being forced out of the UMC. The answer, I think, is that in the United States, trads are in the minority. They only prevailed at the general conference because they had the votes of overseas (especially African) Methodist churches.
If the quadrennial General Conference approves this plan in May, when it meets in Minneapolis, the two separate denominations would start there immediately, with separate General Conferences. The liberal church of course would delete United Methodism’s current affirmation of sex only within male/female marriage.
This denominational schism would be historic and largely the first of its kind since the 1840s when Methodists and Baptists divided regionally over slavery.
It’s likely the General Conference, even if it approves this plan, will amend it.
My prediction: General Conference will approve a version of this plan. During several subsequent years of sorting, United Methodism’s current 6.7 million members in the USA will drop to about 6 million. About 2.5 million will join the conservative church, and about 3.5 million will be in the liberal church. Nearly all the 5.5 million overseas members, mostly in Africa, will join conservative church, so the conservative denomination will have about 8 million members globally.
This process will be messy and often tragic. Many local congregations will divide and die. But United Methodism is already dying in America. This division will allow evangelistic-minded Methodism to plant new congregations and grow. American Christianity and society desperately need a theologically cohesive rejuvenated Methodism.
I wonder how the Methodist church in my hometown is going to vote on this. You would think, maybe, that being in a small Southern town, it would be conservative. That’s not necessarily so. I would guess the vote will be close, and generationally lopsided. A big factor for a church like that is whether or not the plan would allow congregations to keep their church buildings and property. It’s hard to overstate how much the simple 19th-century wooden church means to longtime congregants of the St Francisville United Methodist Church. I can easily imagine conservative people voting to stay within the liberal UMC just so they can hold on to the building, if losing it would be the cost of departure. No matter which way the local vote goes, I would imagine that a significant number of Methodists in that congregation would grit their teeth and accept it, because they wouldn’t want to leave that church building, in which generations of their family members have been baptized, married, and prayed over in death.
Hard conversations ahead for Methodists. I would like to hear from Methodist readers about what your thoughts are on the topic. I would also like to hear from conservative former Episcopalians who had to surrender their church buildings and property when their congregations left TEC. What was that like? How did you make the decision that you did?
I believe, with Mark Tooley, that the liberal UMC will wither away and die. The traditionalist Methodists will be smaller, but stronger and more vibrant. They will not have an easy time of it in this post-Christian culture, but they will have what it takes to endure.