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Methodism implodes amid litigation

Liberals in Florida refuse to abide by or enforce church law on marriage

A gay pride rainbow flag flies along with the U.S. flag in front of the Asbury United Methodist Church in Prairie Village, Kan. Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Riedel

Methodism implodes amid litigation
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The implosion of the 13-million-member global United Methodist Church has accelerated as 106 conservative Florida congregations are suing their liberal bishop, Kenneth Carter, for better terms as they quit the denomination. This schism of America’s largest liberal Mainline denomination represents the wider collapse of 20th century liberal Protestantism, whose leading institutions are fast receding if not dying.

Hundreds of other local churches across America have already quit United Methodism, as will thousands more congregations. America’s third largest denomination is splitting over both sex and doctrine.

The Florida churches involved in the legal suit complain their bishop won’t let them leave on fair terms even while he fails to uphold church law against clergy sexually active outside male-female marriage.

United Methodism stands almost alone among historically liberal U.S. liberal denominations in affirming sex only within male/female marriage—at least officially. But this is so only because seven million of the church’s members, over half, are in Africa and are conservative. Their votes at the denomination’s quadrennial governing General Conference have prevented formal sexual liberalization.

United Methodist properties, in a “trust clause,” are owned by the denomination through the local state-level “conference.” But in 2019, when the church’s General Conference again reaffirmed traditional biblical sexual teaching, it okayed a new rule letting dissenting congregations take their property with a one-time exit fee. Dissenters could be pro-LGBTQ liberals or conservatives upset over nonenforcement of church law. Departing churches must pay two years’ worth of “apportionments” to the denomination plus clergy pension liability. The stated deadline for departure is December 2023.

At the Florida United Methodist Annual Conference in June, the bishop and liberal allies tried to ordain two openly homosexual clergy, defying church law that clergy be celibate if single or monogamous in male-female marriage. The ordination failed to get the required three quarters approval from Florida clergy, as a sufficient number of conservatives voted against. The two proposed openly gay ordinands were part of a larger class of 16 persons, several of whom were evangelical. The bishop and liberals forced a vote on the whole group, instead of individual clergy candidates, hoping conservatives would bend. But the whole class was rejected, vexing the bishop and liberals.

The lawsuit against the bishop charges that the United Methodist Council of Bishops (and Bishop Kenneth Carter) refused “to abide by and enforce the doctrinal positions in the Book of Discipline, effectively shifting the theology in the practice of The UMC despite the Book of Discipline explicitly rejecting the doctrinal positions it encourages and allows.” Litigants are asking the court to override the denomination’s claim to ownership of church properties when the bishop refuses to uphold church law. One Florida minister has conducted six same-sex rites, defying United Methodist law, with the bishop doing nothing.

Litigants are asking the court to override the denomination’s claim to ownership of church properties when the bishop refuses to uphold church law.

Conservative churches in Florida United Methodism think they should not be punished with massive exit fees for upholding official denominational teaching. “It’s not too much to ask that traditionalist congregations be allowed to leave with the assets we and our ancestors invested in,” explains conservative Florida church leader Jay Therrell, who helped organize the 106 litigating congregations. Therrell underlined the truth that the Methodists of years past “would have been overwhelmingly traditionalist.”

The litigating Florida churches represent about 20 percent of United Methodists in that area, with other conservative congregations in Florida standing by or yet to decide their future. Perhaps one third of Florida United Methodism ultimately will leave the denomination, many if not most joining the new Global Methodist Church founded in May. Possibly one third of total U.S. United Methodism, with 6.2 million members as of 2020 (and losing 200,000 members annually), ultimately will leave, later joined by most of United Methodism’s seven million members in Africa, and smaller churches in Eastern Europe and the Philippines.

About 430 United Methodist congregations have already left the denomination over the last three years, under the 2019 church law. Many hundreds of others are preparing to leave, and several state conferences will convene special sessions later this year to approve large numbers of church departures. Conservative conferences are using reserves to subsidize exits, while more liberal areas are mandating payments costing some congregations hundreds of thousands of dollars. There will be more litigation around the country.

It was all mostly avoidable. A 2020 “protocol” between conservatives and liberals stipulated a negotiated, largely cost-free church split. But liberals postponed the governing General Conference to 2024, citing the pandemic, and withdrew their support.

Instead of a cordial separation, United Methodists are now headed for a fractious and costly divorce. God willing, from the chaos a new orthodox church committed to replanting Methodism in America will emerge. But whatever happens, liberal Methodism, with the rest of liberal Protestantism, faces a grim and bitter future.

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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