The 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, provincial and country roads, their ethos marked by a steady but quiet faith, simple worship and serious social service.
But the United Methodist Church is also the latest of several mainline Protestant denominations in America to begin splintering, as the Episcopal, Lutheran and Presbyterian denominations have lost significant minorities of congregations and members this century amid debates over sexuality and theology.
At annual regional gatherings in the US earlier this year, United Methodists approved requests from about 300 congregations to leave the denomination, according to the United Methodist News Service. Special meetings in the second half of the year are expected to vote 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 seceding. Some aren’t waiting for permission to leave: More than 100 churches in Florida and North Carolina have filed or threatened lawsuits to break out.
Those who leave are still 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 toward the exits, including some of the largest in Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas.
Flashpoints are the denomination’s bans on same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly LGBTQ clergy — though many see these as symptoms of deeper differences in views about justice, theology and scriptural authority. The denomination has repeatedly supported these bans in legislative General Conferences, but some US churches and clergy have defied them.
This spring, conservatives launched a new World Methodist Church, where they are determined to both maintain and enforce such bans.
A proposal to amicably split the name and its assets, introduced in early 2020, has lost its once-wide support after years of pandemic-related delays in the legislative General Conference, whose vote was needed to ratify it .
Now dissolution and 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 lies and inaccuracies” from breakaway groups. In particular, he disputed claims that the church is changing key doctrines.
But he said the doctrine seeks to strike a balance between encouraging congregations to stay, but also enabling them to go.
“It’s both/and,” Bickerton said in an interview. “We want people to know straight up that we don’t want them to leave. We need traditionalists, we need centrists, we need progressives willing to engage in a healthy conversation to discern what God’s will is.”
But more departures are expected next year.
In the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference alone, about 300 of its 800 congregations have begun exploring the withdrawal process by the end of 2023, according to the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Not everyone may follow, but some see it as inevitable.
“We feel that we want to stay the same in our mission and our theology, we need to change doctrines,” Reverend said. Steve Cordle, lead pastor of Crossroads Church. Based in Oakdale, Pennsylvania, it is one of the largest congregations in the conference. He is considering becoming independent or joining the United Methodist Church.
A few miles away in Bethel Park, another Pittsburgh suburb, Christ United Methodist Church remains committed to the doctrine.
The Rev. Chris Morgan said his church has a “big tent” of liberals and conservatives with most congregants “leaning toward the center.” The church recently hosted an educational series on hot topics including schism, guns, abortion and COVID-19.
“Instead of becoming like society, we try to be an example of what it looks like to disagree and treat people with respect, care and love,” Morgan said.
He was not alone in seeing a parallel between the Methodist debates and wider social polarisation.
“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 toward the exits, though the vast majority remain so far.
Graves said he wants to help congregations leave if they want to, but has spent many hours urging them to consider all the factors and be sure it’s God’s will.
“It’s very taxing,” he said. “They are intense meetings.”
But conservatives say denominational leaders are making it difficult for those who want to leave.
Currently, congregations can leave after paying two years of “shares” — essentially nominal fees — plus their share of unfunded pension liabilities. Conferences may also impose additional requirements, and some ask for a percentage of the property value of church buildings.
“In many cases, (the requirements) are burdensome, they’re punitive,” said the Rev. Jay Therrell, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a conservative advocacy group that works to help congregations transition to the World Methodist Church.
Bishop Karen Oliveto of the UMC’s Mountain Sky District — who in 2016 became the UMC’s first openly lesbian bishop — said via email that it is “extremely hurtful to LGBTQ people that our very personhood is being used as a wedge to disrupt unity in the church ». He expressed hope that UMC churches “will be safe places for all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Conservatives have complained that the UMC has failed to enforce its Book of Discipline on ordination and marriage standards.
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 true throughout the denomination, where LGBTQ people have been examined at every step of the ordination process and found to possess the gifts and graces for ordination.”
United Methodists are part of a worldwide movement that traces its roots to the 18th-century English revivalist John Wesley, who emphasized personal piety, evangelism, and community service.
US membership has fallen to about 6.5 million, from a peak of 11 million in the 1960s. Overseas membership has soared to match or exceed that of the US, fueled mainly by growth and mergers in Africa.
It is too early to say whether there will be widespread departures from the 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 accusing conservative advocacy groups, including one called the Africa Initiative, of collaborating to “destroy our United Methodist Church.”
The African Initiative responded that it respected the bishops but would continue its efforts “to see biblical Christianity taught, lived and supported.”
Neal Christie of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition, a coalition of progressive and ethnic Methodist advocacy groups, said “the idea that outside the United States there is a monolithic voice is a caricature.”
The coalition is pushing for a more decentralized church where districts would be able to make their own decisions on issues like LGBTQ inclusion based on their cultural contexts.
“We believe that this is a big tabernacle church, that the church is big enough for everybody,” he said.
But after decades of controversy, some are over.
“Traditionalists have decided that this is like a toxic relationship now, and we’re just hurting each other,” said the Rev. Laura Saffell, president of the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. “The best we can do is bless and send” each other in different ways.
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