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United no more

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WORLD Radio - United no more

The United Methodist Church loses more than 7,600 churches due to disaffiliation ahead of Dec. 31 deadline


Members of UMC churches spent 2023 deciding whether to leave or stay in the denomination Associated Press/Photo by Chuck Burton

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday the 4th of January, 2024.

This is listener-supported WORLD Radio, and we are happy you’ve joined us today! Thank you, and good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. First up on The World and Everything in It: United no more.

The United Methodist Church is among the largest protestant denominations in America. It also has churches around the world. Over the last several years, significant divisions cropped up within the UMC over many issues, especially Biblical sexuality.

REICHARD: Nearly five years ago, a General Conference of the church met in St. Louis. Among other topics, they talked about whether to enforce Biblical doctrines of sexuality for church leadership. Sound here from that conference:

DELEGATE 1: Today, the church in Africa is growing in leaps and bounds because we are committed to biblical Christianity.

DELEGATE 2: With the traditional plan that adds teeth, you've not only alienated progressives but also centrists.

Delegates landed on a plan to allow churches to leave the denomination graciously with an application process and deadline of December 31st, 2023.

That was Sunday. Now more than 7,000 churches have left the UMC, many of them joining a new, more conservative denomination called the Global Methodist Church.

BROWN: How did this split come about, and what other fallout might we expect?

Joining us now to talk about it is Chris Ritter. He’s the Directing Pastor of Geneseo First Methodist Church in Illinois.

REICHARD: Chris, good morning.

CHRIS RITTER: Good morning, thanks for having me on.

REICHARD: Well, let’s start with some background. What is the history behind the denomination’s name, the United Methodist Church?

RITTER: The United Methodist Church formed in 1968 as a merger between the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church, and we merged at the height of the Ecumenical Movement. And I think the mood of the time was that a lot of these denominations would eventually merge and unity was understood in terms of institutional unity. The United Methodist Church only acknowledged the Evangelical United Brethren part of our church but also expressed an aspiration for greater unity.

BROWN: Well, you’re talking about the 1960s. The last time the Methodist church went through a major split was before the Civil War over the issue of slavery. What led so many churches to leave the denomination in recent years?

RITTER: Well, I was a delegate to the General Conference 2016 and 2019 and 2016, there was definite fracture lines in the church over biblical interpretation and human sexuality. And there was almost a current that the church would divide at that time. And the General Conference asked the bishops to develop a commission on a way forward to bring us some plans on how we might resolve this. And that commission met over a period of the next month's letting leading up to General Conference 2019, where three different plans were presented. And that was supposed to be the meeting that solved this issue. And of course, it didn't.

REICHARD: What do we know about the churches that have left so far…are they all conservative, or were there also some self-titled progressive churches that left as well?

RITTER: There are a few progressive churches that left but the overwhelming majority of congregations that have exited have been more traditional leaning churches. General Conference 2019 sort of thought the progressives would be the one leaving. But through a series of events, traditionalists got themselves together and decided, this is our time to exit. And we've been using a process called disaffiliation. That was kind of a little backdoor release valve kind of thing that was approved at General Conference 2019. But it became a major factor over the last few years.

BROWN: Earlier this week, Mainstream U-M-C, one of the liberal groups within the denomination that decided to stay, sent out an email celebrating the new year.

Here’s what it says at one point: “We can remove the harmful language and usher in a new era of global cooperation in mission through regionalization.”

Chris, what is regionalization, and why are some African churches concerned about it?

RITTER: Well, the United Methodist Church, as it is currently constituted, is more economically, theologically divided than it's ever been. Most of our members live in Africa, and they have not had an opportunity to disaffiliate like the United Methodist traditionalists have. And so how do you keep a church like that together? And the solution that's being offered by many in the United Methodist Church is is regionalize. That will, there'll be one church, but each region will have its own ethical standards and application of the Book of Discipline. And so there'll be regional conferences where the real rules will be set, but there will still be a connecting point. That would require a few compromises. One is bishops. You can't regionalize bishops by our Constitution, there's a restrictive rule that says you can't alter the Episcopacy. So for Africans to accept regionalization, they would have to accept the gay bishops that have been elected in the United Methodist Church, and that will probably be a bridge too far for many of them.

REICHARD: Well, the church has a General Conference coming up in a few months…what do you expect to see happen as this story continues to develop?

RITTER: Well, in the United Methodist Church which I'm no longer a part of, I'm part of the global Methodist Church, but I watch the United Methodist Church closely and there's two competing moves that are coming to the April General Conference. One is to change teaching on marriage, and the other is to regionalize the church. So it's a chicken and egg conundrum. If they change Church teaching before they regionalize, that's going to further encourage the majority membership of the church to leave in Africa. And regionalization is not just something that General Conference can do. That has to be ratified in all the annual conferences that, so that's a two year process. So even if you can pass it, which is a super majority, not just a majority, a very uncertain future about how that will be received and all the annual conferences. So I think 2024 is going to be a bigger year than 2023, and 2023 was a really big year.

BROWN: Indeed! Chris Ritter is the Directing Pastor of First Methodist Church in Geneseo, Illinois. Chris, thank you for your time!

RITTER: Thank you.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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