The United Methodist Church is united no more. The nation’s second largest Protestant denomination announced on January 3 that it had approved a plan to allow theologically conservative “traditionalist” Methodists who reject same-sex marriage and LGBT+ clergy to form their own denomination. The agreement, to which representatives of both sides have agreed, gives the traditionalists $25 million over four years to kickstart their as-yet-unnamed Methodist church. The UMC’s General Conference will still have to vote on the plan in May, but most outlets are treating the split as a done deal that will allow both traditionalists and liberals to proceed “unhindered by the other,” as one minister put it.
Initially, it might seem like a few backward mainline trads were just tossed out on their collective ear by the woke majority. But the most important question in any divorce is: “who left who?” And the answer isn’t always obvious.
At the last General Conference in March 2019, delegates rejected two proposals, one permitting LGBT+ weddings and clergy for the entire Church and the other allowing each conference (the Methodist equivalent of a Catholic or Anglican diocese) to decide for itself. Instead they approved the “Traditional Plan.” This not only upheld the UMC’s longstanding ban on gay marriage and clergy, but also threatened to defrock any clergy who defied it.
So if the traditionalists are in the majority, why is it that they will have to throw out their UMC stationary? And why is the UMC so often labeled as part of the American liberal mainline? The answer to the first question, according to Ryan Danker, a professor of Methodist Studies at Wesley Theological Seminary, is that the traditionalists “want a flexible and non-bureaucratic movement” and are eager to ditch the UMC’s “top-heavy” bureaucracy. The answer to the second is that the UMC is not an entirely American denomination. Liberal Methodism is indeed dominant in America, but over the last two decades, Methodism—along with other forms of Christianity—has been growing explosively in Africa. In 2010, the American Spectator estimated that, while the American UMC conferences were losing 1,000 members a week, the theologically conservative overseas conferences were set to contribute 40 percent of the delegates at the 2012 General Conference. The American Methodists introduced a proposal that would have sidelined the Africans from voting on matters that would have affected the American conferences, but it was rejected.
Dr. Danker told me that he estimates the new traditionalist denomination will probably be made up of “2 to 2.5 million” Americans, “[t]ogether with about six million” members from overseas, leaving between 3.5 and 4 million American Methodists to fill the pews of the diminished and diminishing UMC. The pro-gay faction has saved a withered fig tree by hacking off every branch that bore fruit.
As long as the American liberal wing of the UMC maintained its safe majority, it was content to allow the rules enshrining traditional Christian sexual ethics to remain on the books. The anti-gay provisions of the Book of Discipline weren’t worth arguing over when they could just as easily be ignored. But by the time the liberals realized their majority was slipping away, it was too late. A coalition of African Methodists and the traditionalist American minority carried the day.
Immediately, the vitriol began to fly. One liberal minister compared the Traditional Plan to a “virus” that would cross the ocean and “make the American church very sick,” in what appears to be an attempt to draw a theological parallel to the racist Ebola panic of 2014. NPR reported that several of the African delegates expressed resentment over the condescending tone of their progressive American counterparts, attributing it to a colonialist attitude.
Believe it or not, this is actually not the first time that traditionalist African Christians have become entangled in the messy divorce of a U.S. mainline denomination. In his book A Plague on Both Their Houses, Christopher Craig Brittain explains how some conservative Episcopalians, feeling marginalized by the increasingly liberal policies of the national church, began to look to the global south, especially Africa, for reassurance that “the majority of the Anglican world was on their side.” This led to a “re-alignment” movement that culminated in 2009 with the founding of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) under the leadership of Archbishop Robert Duncan, the deposed former Episcopal bishop of Pittsburgh. Duncan allied the ACNA closely with the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), a coalition of conservative Anglican churches located in the global south.
Many Episcopalians sneered at this alliance. One Episcopal priest accused the schismatics of opportunistically “piggy back[ing] on the African people.” Having attended ACNA churches since 2015 and visited several Episcopal parishes, I can testify to this attitude firsthand. When I mentioned to a dapper Anglo-Catholic gentleman over post-Mass drinks that I normally attended an ACNA parish, he said with scorn in his voice, “We don’t need a bunch of Africans telling us what to do.” It sounded like he wanted to use a stronger word than “Africans.”
My anecdotal example is one among many. In 1998, when the African bishops led the charge to defend Christian sexual ethics at the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth Conference, Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, New Jersey, who is not in any meaningful sense a Christian or even a theist, made the shockingly racist claim that African Christians had “moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity.” Others found even more creative ways to infantilize black people, suggesting that if African Christians oppose gay marriage and clergy, they must have been brainwashed into doing so by American right-wingers. As global Christianity becomes less white and more conservative, progressive Christians will need to choose between listening to people of color and upholding their own woke agenda. So far, they’ve chosen the second option.
Liberal American Christians seem to have adopted the same attitude toward the developing world that American foreign policy czars have. If the United Methodists and the Episcopalians agree that Africans aren’t enlightened enough for true Christianity, then the Trump administration certainly believes that Iraq isn’t enlightened enough for true democracy. There are striking similarities between the African Methodists voting for traditional Christianity and the Iraqi parliament voting to expel U.S. troops. In both cases, non-Westerners attempt to apply a belief system that was imposed upon them by the West only to be told that they were never really worthy of that system, be it Christianity or democratic self-determination.
The same liberals who accuse conservative Christians of denying “the image of God in…people of color and LGBTQ people” have chosen to intentionally sever themselves from a thriving Christian community of color. This is woke white cultural imperialism at its most naked. Dr. Danker sees a silver lining, predicting that “a robust [conservative] evangelical Methodism will arise out of all this.” Hopefully. Still, it’s heartbreaking. In the first heady days of the Methodist movement, John Wesley’s enthusiasm for the gospel inspired William Wilberforce to abolish the Atlantic slave trade. With this decision to split, Wesley’s misguided followers have disgraced his memory by eagerly abandoning their African brothers and sisters.
Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. at Georgetown University.