United Methodists have for generations been a mainstay of the American religious landscape — one of the most geographically widespread of the major Protestant denominations, their steeples visible on urban streets, in county seats and along country roads, their ethos marked by a firm yet quiet faith, simple worship and earnest social service.
But the United Methodist Church is also the latest of several mainline Protestant denominations in America to begin fracturing, just as Episcopal, Lutheran and Presbyterian denominations lost significant minorities of churches and members this century amid debates over sexuality and theology.
In annual regional gatherings across the U.S. earlier this year, United Methodists approved requests of about 300 congregations to quit the denomination, according to United Methodist News Service. Special meetings in the second half of the year are expected to vote on as many as 1,000 more, according to the conservative advocacy group Wesleyan Covenant Association.
Scores of churches in Georgia, and hundreds in Texas, are considering disaffiliation. Some aren’t waiting for permission to leave: More than 100 congregations in Florida and North Carolina have filed or threatened lawsuits to break out.
Those departing are still a fraction of the estimated 30,000 congregations in the United States alone, with nearly 13,000 more abroad, according to recent UMC statistics.
But large United Methodist congregations are moving to the exits, including some of the largest in Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas.
The flashpoints are the denomination’s bans on same-sex marriages and ordaining openly LGBTQ clergy - though many see these as symptoms for deeper differences in views on justice, theology and scriptural authority. The denomination has repeatedly upheld these bans at legislative General Conferences, but some U.S. churches and clergy have defied them.
This spring, conservatives launched a new Global Methodist Church, where they are determined both to maintain and to enforce such bans.
A proposal to amicably divide the denomination and its assets, unveiled in early 2020, has lost its once-broad support after years of pandemic-related delays to the legislative General Conference, whose vote was needed to ratify it.
Now the breakup and the negotiations are happening 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 that is filled with falsehood and inaccuracies” by breakaway groups. In particular, he disputed allegations that the church is changing core doctrines.
But he said the denomination seeks to find a balance between encouraging churches to stay yet enabling them to go.
“It’s a both/and,” Bickerton said in an interview. “We want people to know straight up front that we don’t want them to leave. We need traditionalists, we need centrists, we need progressives willing to engage in a healthy debate to discern what God’s will is.”
But more departures are expected next year.
In just the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference, about 300 of its 800 churches have begun inquiring about the process of leaving by the end of 2023, according to the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Not all may follow through, but some see it as inevitable.
“We feel like to stay the same in our mission and theology, we need to change denominations,” said the Rev. Steve Cordle, lead pastor of Crossroads Church. Based in Oakdale, Pennsylvania, it’s one of the largest congregations in the conference. It’s considering going independent or joining the Global Methodist Church.
A few miles away in Bethel Park, another Pittsburgh suburb, Christ United Methodist Church remains committed to the denomination.
The Rev. Chris Morgan said his church has a “big tent” of liberals and conservatives with most congregants “leaning in toward the center.” 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 looks like to disagree and still treat people with respect and care and love,” Morgan said.
He was far from the only one to see a parallel between the Methodist debates and broader 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 to the exits, though the large majority are staying so far.
Graves said he wants to help enable churches to leave if they want to but has spent long hours urging them to consider all the factors and be sure it is God’s will.
“It’s very taxing,” he said. “Those are intense meetings.”
Conservatives say denominational leaders are making it difficult for those who want to leave to do so, however.
Currently churches may leave after paying two years’ worth of “apportionments” - essentially denominational dues - plus their share of unfunded pension liabilities. Conferences may also impose additional requirements, and some are asking for a percentage of the property value of church buildings.
“In many cases, (the requirements) are onerous, they are punitive,” said the Rev. Jay Therrell, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a conservative advocacy group that is working to help churches jump to the Global Methodist Church.
Bishop Karen Oliveto of the UMC’s Mountain Sky region - who in 2016 became the UMC’s first openly lesbian bishop - said via email it is “extremely wounding to LGBTQ persons that our very personhood is being used as a wedge to disrupt unity in the church.” She expressed hope that UMC churches “will be safe places for all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Conservatives have lamented that UMC has failed to enforce its Book of Discipline on standards for ordination and marriage.
Oliveto said, however, that sometimes “the Holy Spirit runs ahead of us and gives us a glimpse of the future to which we are called. This is certainly the case across the denomination, where LGBTQ persons have been examined at every step of the ordination process and found to possess the gifts and graces for ordained ministry.”
United Methodists are part of a global movement that traces their origins to the 18th-century English revivalist John Wesley, who emphasized personal piety, evangelism and social service.
American membership has declined to about 6.5 million, from a peak of 11 million in the 1960s. Overseas membership soared to match or exceed that of the U.S., fueled mostly by growth and mergers in Africa.
It’s too early to say if there will be widespread departures from international churches. African churches, for instance, often combine conservative stances on sexual issues with progressive views on the economy and colonialism’s legacy.
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 replied that it respected the bishops but would continue its efforts “to see biblical Christianity taught, lived and sustained.”
Neal Christie of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition, a partnership of progressive and ethnically based Methodist advocacy groups, said the “notion that outside the United States there’s one monolithic voice is a caricature.”
The coalition is promoting a more decentralized church where regions could make their own decisions on issues such as LGBTQ inclusion based on their cultural contexts.
“We believe this is a big tent church, that the church is big enough for all,” he said.
But after decades of controversy, some are done.
“The traditionalists decided this is like a toxic relationship now, and we’re just harming each other,” said the Rev. Laura Saffell, chairperson of the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. “The best we can do is bless and send” each other their separate ways.
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