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Drag queens and the coming Methodist schism

Support for boundless sexual license is leading to a denominational breakup

Liberal Methodists react to the defeat of a proposal to allow LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage in the denomination. Associated Press/Photo by Sid Hastings (File)

Drag queens and the coming Methodist schism
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Indiana United Methodist minister Craig Duke donned a big pink wig, lots of purple eye shadow, bright red lipstick, and high heels while appearing on a recent HBO episode of “We’re Here.” The series features HBO drag queen hosts visiting small towns to recruit local drag queens to perform.

Pastor Duke called his HBO experience in drag not only “worshipful” but an “incredibly wonderful, refreshing, deepening, powerful spiritual experience.” He explained his drag performance as solidarity with his “pansexual” daughter. Duke is now to be reassigned to a new church, but he is not the only Methodist doing drag.

United Methodist News Service recently posted a video about Illinois local church employee Isaac Simmons in a pearl necklace and bright red wig as “Ms. Penny Cost,” a play on Pentecost. “Drag is over-the-top and joyous,” he explained in character while performing at his church. At age 23, he’s also the first openly gay ministerial candidate approved by United Methodism’s mid and southern Illinois region, defying denominational law.

According to Simmons, who cites Queen Esther as a bold role model, “United Methodism is big enough to embrace both conservative theology and a drag queen.” Official United Methodist doctrine and policy requires clergy to be celibate if single and monogamous in marriage. Active homosexuals are prohibited from ordination, and same-sex rites are banned—at least officially. There is no official church policy on drag queens or transgenderism. Until very recently, no church could have imagined the need for such a policy.

But retired Maryland United Methodist minister Michael Johnson felt free recently to announce he is now the Rev. Mary Johnson. “The only things that have changed are the superficial things, like the clothes and shoes I wear,” he explained. “I wear a little more jewelry and wear scents that I enjoy. I still go on walks with the woman I love and read three or four books at the same time. I still do my devotions and worship the God I serve.”

The woman Johnson loves is recently retired United Methodist Bishop Peggy Johnson, formerly based in Philadelphia, who noted her spouse’s “transgender transition has been steeped in love, mutual respect, and sacrifice.” The bishop recalls having bought her spouse “a pair of bright pink tights” and accepts him as a woman, although they have two sons together and a new grandchild. Rev. Johnson admits gender transitioning entails a “softer experience of God” more centered on “joy in my life” than “obedience” plus less “needing answers to being more comfortable with the questions.”

All of these episodes explain the moral revolution that is about to split the Methodist Church. Much of United Methodism has been questioning historic Christian teaching about sex for over 50 years. The church’s governing General Conference has repeatedly reaffirmed traditional sexual morality since 1972. In 2019 a special General Conference called by the bishops to liberalize instead strengthened penalties for defiance. This traditionalist victory, enabled by the denomination’s growth in Africa, where Methodism is theologically and morally very traditional, stunned liberals and persuaded many that organized schism was necessary.

Early in 2020, a group of traditionalists, progressives and centrists announced their support for a Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation to divide the denomination. Local churches and regional conferences could vote their way into a new traditionalist Methodist denomination. Meanwhile, the post-split United Methodist Church, with traditionalists gone, would instantly liberalize. (Traditionalists are the global majority, but few want to inherit the liberal U.S. church structures.)

The scheduled Spring 2020 General Conference almost certainly would have approved this Protocol but for the pandemic, which forced rescheduling to late Summer 2022. There are nearly 13 million United Methodists globally, about half in Africa and half in the United States, with small numbers in Europe and the Philippines. Africa will align traditional and, based on voting patterns, perhaps so too will one-third of U.S. churches, combining into a Global Methodist Church potentially with 7-8 million members.

Global Methodism will continue United Methodism’s biblical teaching that sex is only for male-female marriage. Almost certainly it will need to address transgenderism. Post-split liberalized Methodism almost certainly will delete from church teaching not only opposition to homosexual behavior but any restrictions on consensual adult sexual behavior. Liberals at the 2019 General Conference actually tried to delete expectations of celibacy and monogamy.

This year, a United Methodist minister who has identified as “centrist” predicted that post-split (liberal) United Methodism would affirm “not only God’s beloved gay and lesbian ones, but a host of other folks who have found the door of the church closed to them: trans folks, bi folks, kink folks, poly folk, gender-fluid folk, and others.” Of course, “poly” refers to polyamory, or having many sex partners congruently. Drag queens certainly will be affirmed, likely surprising many congregations.

Traditionalists in a new Methodist denomination may think they are escaping these sex debates. It’s certainly true that liberal Methodism is marching to the left. But evangelical Methodists—and all believers committed to biblical Christianity—must know that the culture will allow no escape from these challenges.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.

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