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CLUB 444: “A Messy Methodist Church Schism”

August 22, 2022

Mark Tooley, a member of the United Methodist Church and President of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, wrote the following, which appeared in The Wall Street Journal on 8.18.22 —

Theological schisms are never pretty. The United Methodist Church—America’s third-largest religious body, with over 6.2 million members—is in the thick of its own over its teachings on sexuality. Hundreds of congregations have voted to leave the denomination, which had 13 million members world-wide as of 2020, and thousands more likely will. On Aug. 7, United Methodism’s second- and seventh-largest churches by attendance, both in the Houston area, voted to quit the denomination.

What brought United Methodism to this divide was its decision-making body’s 2019 “Traditional Plan”—a document that affirmed its ban on same-sex marriage and mandated that all clergy be celibate if single and monogamous if married. That sets the church apart from nearly every other mainline Protestant denomination. The traditionalists won thanks to votes from conservative African delegates, whose churches have grown by millions even as the U.S. has declined by nearly the same magnitude.

When liberal-leaning U.S. bishops and clergy chafed at complying with the plan, a compromise was born. In early 2020 conservative and liberal church leaders announced a “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation.” The protocol allowed each congregation to vote its preference between a more traditional or more liberal denomination—and was expected to be approved at the General Conference’s quadrennial assembly in Minneapolis that year. But then Covid arrived, and the convention was postponed three times, to 2024. The decision left many traditionalists feeling betrayed and exasperated. In May of this year, those who couldn’t wait any longer launched the Global Methodist Church—a traditionally conservative denomination, led by the Rev. Keith Boyette. 

Now some congregations are weighing whether to join this Global Methodist Church. Local church properties are owned by the denomination through state-level conferences. The 2019 General Conference approved a temporary policy allowing congregations to leave with property by paying two years’ worth of “apportionments” to the national church, plus clergy pension liabilities. Those exits must happen by December 2023.

Between 2019 and 2021, 167 congregations exited. When the 53 local annual conferences met this spring, they ratified 305 additional exits from 24 conferences. At least 11 conferences will host special sessions later this year to ratify reportedly 1,000 more. Additional thousands are expected next year as congregations scramble to meet the 2023 deadline. (There are about 30,000 United Methodist churches nationwide.) Complicating the process are more firmly liberal conferences that are adding extra payments to churches’ exits. Some conferences with more sympathetic conservative leadership have reduced payments by applying millions of dollars in their reserves toward the exit fees.

The messiest departure so far has been in the Florida conference, where 106 congregations (roughly 20% of the state’s membership) are jointly suing the bishop for charging exorbitant exit fees. They believe they’re being held for “ransom.” Their litigation also alleges that their bishop isn’t upholding denominational law about sexuality. One Florida minister, the congregations point out, has openly conducted six same-sex weddings. The bishop himself attempted to ratify two openly gay clergy in June but failed to achieve the 75% threshold needed from Florida clergy. This litigation complains of wider defiance of church law, citing the 2016 election of an openly lesbian bishop in the church’s western jurisdiction and a drag queen candidate for ordination in Illinois.

Meanwhile, United Methodist leaders in Africa remain committed to the church’s conservative teachings. They are waiting for the General Conference’s convention in 2024, which they hope will ratify the church’s protocol for separating the denomination into liberal and conservative branches. It’s unlikely many of them would stay in a denomination that liberalizes on sex. While most of Africa’s Methodists will likely join the Global Methodist Church, some may be tempted by autonomy.

That temptation could apply to many congregations in the U.S. fed up with denominational bureaucracy. Congregationalism defies Methodism’s more connectional tradition, which has typically featured bishops’ appointing pastors to churches. 

Challenging both United Methodism and the Global Methodist Church are declining denominational interests among American Christians. While most historical denominations are declining, nondenominational churches in the U.S. are growing.

Working against this drift are 60 traditionalist theologians who met in Alexandria, Va., in January to craft a 25,000-word articulation of “classic” Methodist doctrine. Rooted in the teachings of 18th-century founder John Wesley, their statement (“The Faith Once Delivered”) is broken into six sections and addresses the nature of God, creation, revelation, salvation, the church and eschatology.

Promoting a specific Protestant tradition over generic nondenominational evangelicalism in America will be difficult. United Methodism has lost five million members in the U.S. since 1968 and will lose millions more. Mainline Protestantism has been sidelined—and it will take years for United Methodism’s schism to resolve.

The hope of traditional American Methodists is that once freed from denominational bureaucracy, they’ll be able to grow anew—as their peers in Africa are doing, and as America’s early Methodists did. Americans hoping for revived spirituality and civil society ought to wish them well.

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