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Methodism slowly divides

But some conservatives aren’t waiting any longer and start a new denomination

An LGBTQ flag flies at Union United Methodist Church in Boston. Getty Images/Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe

Methodism slowly divides
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United Methodism’s formal schism began on May 1 with the conservative traditionalists launching the Global Methodist Church. But the split of the global denomination and its 13 million members will unfold haphazardly over the next few years as congregations and jurisdictions deliberate, one by one. Meanwhile, new data indicates that, for the first time, most of the denomination’s membership resides in Africa, as U.S. numbers plunge.

This summer, United Methodism’s quadrennial governing General Conference, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic since 2020, was expected to ratify a formal division of the denomination. But a church commission dominated by U.S. liberals postponed it until 2024, citing the pandemic and visa troubles for African delegates. Ironically, African commission members, anxious for the church to move forward and severely underrepresented given their continent’s majority status in the denomination, actually voted to meet this year. But they were outvoted.

In early 2020, factions from across the theological spectrum agreed on a protocol to divide the denomination, with each congregation and local jurisdiction allowed to choose its way. The process would have taken several years. That agreement followed a special session of the General Conference in 2019 that defied liberal expectations by affirming and strengthening the church’s teachings and enforcement of traditional Christian views on sexuality.

United Methodism has not followed other historically liberal U.S. mainline Protestant denominations in compromising its official position on sexuality because its membership is global, with millions of church members in Africa, where beliefs are very conservative. Same-sex rites are prohibited in United Methodism, where members of the clergy are required to be celibate if single and monogamous in a male-female marriage. However, most U.S. bishops and clergy are liberal, and some refuse to uphold church law.

While its official position on homosexuality has not changed, United Methodism in the United States has liberalized over decades, along with the rest of mainline Protestantism. But the denomination’s growth in Africa has been dramatic over the same period. In 2020, U.S. church membership fell to under 6.3 million, down from 11 million when United Methodism was formed through the merger of two denominations in 1968. Not yet released figures for Africa show more than 7 million members. U.S. church membership dropped by 400,000 over two years while Africa’s grew by 800,000.

Meeting after meeting, African delegates to the governing General Conference vote nearly unanimously against any acceptance of same-sex marriage or actively homosexual clergy. Seeing this obstacle and stunned by their 2019 defeat, church liberals accepted a negotiated split, which the 2020 General Conference certainly would have ratified had it met as scheduled.

Conservatives believe liberals who supported a formal split are now equivocating, hoping the traditionalists will just go away.

But the pandemic postponed the gathering of delegates—three times. The latest postponement struck the traditionalists as odd since other denominations, including ones with overseas representatives, have successfully met. Moreover, conservatives believe liberals who supported a formal split are now equivocating, hoping the traditionalists will just go away.

But some conservative congregations in the United States are not waiting for 2024. Since the 2019 General Conference, more than 130 churches have used a new provision for congregations to leave with their property, which is owned by the denomination, if they dissent from church teachings on sexuality. And both conservative and liberal congregations have left, with the traditionalists objecting to ineffective enforcement.

After this year’s General Conference postponement, a group of traditionalists unveiled May 1 the Global Methodist Church to receive churches that cannot and will not wait any longer. United Methodists of Bulgaria-Romania have already voted unanimously to join the GMC, defying their bishop’s objections. More than 100 congregations in Florida—20 percent of churches in that conference—announced they would join the new denomination. But the terms still must be negotiated with their bishop. The 2019 legislation requires departing churches to pay two years’ worth of expected payments to the denomination.

In January, amid denominational division, nearly 60 orthodox United Methodist scholars met near Washington, D.C., to craft a 24,000-word theological statement for the future of Methodism, which they will release later this month. Decades of theological and institutional decay have left many Methodists, even traditionalists, without a firm appreciation of Wesleyan doctrinal distinctives. Renewed catechesis is required throughout American Methodism.

While the new Global Methodism will need to address more than a half-century of United Methodism’s intellectual, spiritual, and demographic decline, the path of division remains a zigzag, not a straight line, because of the absence of a formal denominational vote. Some conservative congregations will make their move in the next couple of years. But many likely will stay in the denomination until the General Conference officially acts. Almost certainly the 7 million Africans will wait.

Meanwhile, although it appears that U.S. liberals will not make it easy for U.S. conservatives to keep their church property when they leave, those liberals, anxious to adopt the LGBTQIA+ agenda after nearly a half-century of trying, do not want to wait much longer. But even if all U.S. traditionalists leave or quit, the African majority could block full liberalization.

Within several years, most U.S. conservative traditionalists, along with churches in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines, will join the Global Methodist Church. U.S. liberals will be left with the unsustainable bureaucracy of a once strong denomination whose demographic future aligns with dying mainline Protestantism. They will have chosen to live in a disaster of their own making.

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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