Was the United Methodist split inevitable? | WORLD
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Was the United Methodist split inevitable?

Supposed moderates claimed to support unity but their actions ensured a breakup

Attendees listen to a sermon at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., on May 8, 2016. Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin

Was the United Methodist split inevitable?
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In America’s biggest denominational split in decades, more than 7,600 conservative U.S. congregations have disaffiliated from the United Methodist Church since its 2019 General Conference.

While this accounts for 25 percent of the American local churches of the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination, the split’s true size will ultimately be much larger, as additional congregations, countless individual members “voting with their feet,” and entire overseas regions join the mass exodus from the increasingly radicalized UMC. Meanwhile, the Global Methodist Church, the new denomination founded by evangelical former United Methodists, is growing rapidly across America and on four continents.

Much has been written about this schism’s history, issues, and mechanics, as well as some liberal bishops’ mistreatment of departing conservatives. But I was recently asked a more basic question: Was such a huge split inevitable?

The best minds in our multi million-member global denomination worked hard to develop different plans to preserve “as much unity as possible.” But all proved to be unworkable.

In February 2019, delegates from around the world gathered in a specially called General Conference to try to settle our dysfunctional infighting over homosexuality. Main proposals surrounding that time fell into three main categories: (1) permit but don’t require gay weddings, (2) establish new structures for different standards within the same denomination, or (3) enhance enforcement of longstanding (but increasingly regionally defied) prohibitions of gay weddings and “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” ministers. Key supporters of each thought that their preferred approach could avoid as wide a divorce as we see now.

Importantly, the high-profile homosexuality debates stem from more fundamental disagreements about Biblical authority, the person of Jesus Christ, and the mission of the Church.

That said, an important sub-faction of United Methodists favored a more permissive approach on homosexuality, but also valued evangelism, followed the rules, and declared that they could recite every line of the Apostles’ Creed without crossing their fingers behind their backs. Yet this moderate liberal sub-faction played a key role in the failure of all three ways of seeking unity.

This group vocally denied the depths of irreconcilable United Methodist divisions and touted their supposedly superior commitment to “unity.” They even called their favored 2019 liberalization proposal “the One Church Plan.”

But despite assurances to the contrary, this proposal would violate the consciences of those with whom moderate liberals supposedly wanted unity. Evangelicals protested how it would necessarily purge adherents of biblical morality from key regional leadership positions, block many new ordination candidates who could not approve a relativist sexual ethic, and leave conservative congregations with no firm right to avoid financially supporting and spiritually submitting to homosexually partnered bishops and/or pastors. But our protests fell on deaf ears.

Now even liberal leaders previously known as rule-following moderates openly break the UMC’s increasingly meaningless “on paper” doctrinal and moral standards.

After their so-called “One Church Plan” was voted down, moderate liberal leaders rapidly dropped further pretenses of supporting even partial protections for conservative consciences in the UMC’s liberal future.

Some conscience concerns could have been addressed by proposals like the Connectional Conference Plan. These would have divided the UMC into two or more largely autonomous, geographically overlapping new structures. At least one would have gay weddings and noncelibate gay clergy, and one would not. However, the necessary changes would have required two-thirds supermajority votes at General Conference. Such broad consensus was never close to possible without moderate liberal leaders willing to work in a sustained way, in good faith, with moderate conservatives to make such “unity in diversity” work.

Instead, the 2019 General Conference passed the Traditional Plan, to maintain Biblical moral standards for ministers while strengthening enforcement mechanisms. This provoked a flood of hysteria about this supposedly “forcibly remov[ing] everyone who disagrees.”

But actually, the Traditional Plan, by itself, would have allowed congregations, ministers, and regional conferences to continue publicly advocating for contrary values on sexuality and other matters, only within the minimal boundaries of not acting in violation of the Biblical moral standards we already had in place.

Moderate liberal leaders could hardly have been louder in declaring that such terms of unity were utterly unacceptable to them. In subsequent denominational elections, they cast their lot with more radical allies to exclude orthodox believers from leadership. Now even liberal leaders previously known as rule-following moderates openly break the UMC’s increasingly meaningless “on paper” doctrinal and moral standards.

Moderate liberals seem to have understood, in a Machiavellian way, that their joining the “resistance,” which increasingly blocked the Traditional Plan’s implementation, was key for their goal of eventually liberalizing official UMC standards. Now so many conservatives have left that this spring’s General Conference is widely expected to officially liberalize the UMC on marriage, abortion, and other issues.

Moderate liberals continue misleadingly portraying our biggest theological disagreements as mainly limited to homosexuality. Even if that were true, the differences could not be papered over. Activists for redefining Christian marriage, however otherwise moderate they may be, have made clear their belief that “heterosexism” is as harmful an evil as racism. Other United Methodists, with no less compassion for self-described members of the LGBTQ+ community, accept Biblical teaching that homosexual practice is harmful to all involved. It is unreasonable to expect either to permanently accept large parts of their own church doing what they sincerely believe terribly harms people.

As other denominations and congregations face similar tensions, the UMC split provides an important cautionary tale.

John Lomperis

John Lomperis is the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s UM Action Director and a United Methodist General Conference delegate.

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