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The United Methodist reckoning

This was a year of splintering for America’s second largest Protestant denomination

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

The United Methodist reckoning
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There is no longer a First United Methodist Church in my hometown. The day after the vote taken to leave the denomination, the church pastor was outside scraping the flame from behind the cross logo painted on the glass doors and covering the church sign with a garbage bag. As of yet, there is no word on what the new name of the church will be.

The picture of black plastic covering church signs, logos scaped off, and contested debates about whether the church or denomination gets to keep the hymnals is one I imagine is fairly common across the country now. According to estimates, one-fourth of the churches within the United Methodist Church—the nation’s second largest Protestant body—have chosen to disaffiliate because the denomination has failed to be faithful to Christian teaching on sexuality and marriage.

The past four years have seen a flurry of attempts by Methodists to reckon with their own inconsistency on the topic of sexuality and biblical fidelity. The 2019 General Conference (the gathering of representatives from the United Methodist Church) passed the Traditional Plan, which would have affirmed the Book of Discipline’s statement that no “self-avowed practicing homosexual” could be ordained to the clergy and that homosexuality was incompatible with the Christian life. It also created a process for bringing charges against churches, individuals, and conferences that were breaking the rules. There was also a provision included that allowed churches to leave the denomination with their property, provided they did so by the end of 2023. Initially this would have allowed liberal denominations to leave, but following the announcement that some groups would refuse to enforce the Traditional Plan, it was conservatives who began to exit.

Other proposals to deal with the internal turmoil and clear divide between groups included the Indianapolis Plan (which would have split the denomination in two and kept the name of United Methodist), the UMCNext Proposal (which would reverse the 2019 vote and allow conservative churches the option to leave, while keeping some connection to UMC agencies such as the denominational pension plan), the Bard-Jones Plan (which would split the denomination into three new denominations), and the N.E.W. Plan (which would have split the denomination into four groups: conservatives, moderates, liberals, and liberationists).

The name United Methodist is not enough to hold together groups that no longer see one another as united.

In following the developments over the past four years, one thing has been clear: The name United Methodist is not enough to hold together groups that no longer see one another as united.

For a movement which once boasted of a church in every county in America, the splintering of this denomination is a time to mourn. Time to mourn the loss of biblical fidelity within the liberal strains of the movement. Time to mourn that conservatives must come out of the church rather than be party to the hypocrisy that says one thing about sexuality while ignoring flagrant violations.

But just as there is a time to mourn, there is a time to build. The Global Methodist Church—the conservative denomination that began in 2022—has already become the new home of over 3,000 of the churches that have left the United Methodist Church.

It is a loss to the American religious landscape when there is not a healthy Methodism. It would be impossible to tell the story of religion in America without referencing the Methodists. It would be impossible to tell the story of evangelicalism globally without referring to Methodists. It would be impossible to tell the story of Christianity, without mention of the influence of Methodism.

We are all better off for having Charles Wesley’s carol at Christmas: “Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set they people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.” Fanny Crosby’s “Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It” was a perennial choice when the music leader asked for requests at my grandparent’s small Baptist church. The spirit of George Whitefield and Francis Asbury as they preached before thousands or rode thousands of miles on horseback is a testament to God’s provision and call to go to the ends of the earth. And there is a beautiful simplicity that all can recognize in the description that Wesley gives of his own conversion at Aldersgate: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Unfortunately, however, the present moment makes clear: The United Methodists are no longer united. If congregations are not united in doctrine, the word “united” is not going to keep them together.

Alex Ward

Alex Ward serves as lead researcher for the ERLC. Alex is currently pursuing a PhD in history at the University of Mississippi studying evangelical political activity in the 20th century. He is married to Lindsey and they have one daughter.

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