In late February, the United Methodist Church voted to keep its ban on same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT clergy while increasing penalties for those who break the rules. Since 1972, the church’s official guidelines, known as Book of Discipline, have stated that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Church policies bar United Methodist clergy from officiating same-sex weddings, and they forbid the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” But for decades, there have been LGBT-affirming congregations and LGBT clergy despite these strictures. These tensions came to a head last month in St. Louis during General Conference, a gathering of the nearly 13-million-member global denomination, which is also the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
The General Conference was called to consider several plans meant to carve out a way forward; some proposals were crafted in an attempt to avoid a church schism over sexuality, an issue that may lead to the conservative and progressive factions going their separate ways. But as 864 delegates from around the world gathered to debate and vote on plans and petitions, the path to creating unity within the denomination narrowed as the long-standing divisions between the two sides grew.
“The disagreement is so sharp and the visions for ministry so different that some sort of separation needs to take place for the sake of the mission,” said the Rev. Bob Kaylor, lead pastor of Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church in Monument, Colorado, in an email before the meeting. Kaylor serves as a regional contact for the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a conservative organization within the denomination. Its members support the measures passed in St. Louis and are against condoning homosexuality or becoming more inclusive of LGBT people in the UMC.
Church-watchers had anticipated the passing of the One Church Plan, which was recommended by the Council of Bishops, a body with limited authority made up of all active and retired UMC bishops. The One Church Plan would have left the decision to ordain and marry LGBT individuals up to local churches and regional annual conferences, but this plan was voted down.
Instead, a modified version of the Traditional Plan, which increases penalties for clergy who disregard the denomination’s bans on same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination, passed with 53 percent of the vote. The measure’s passage sent shockwaves through the denomination and the global Christian community as people realized just how divided the United Methodist Church is.
The Rev. Scott Field, lead pastor of First United Methodist Church in Crystal Lake, Illinois, and part of the conservative WCA, called the St. Louis meeting “the Humpty Dumpty General Conference.” In observations shared after the meeting, Field told his congregation that unity within the denomination was unlikely. He wrote, “We are divided. Period.”
The Rev. Matt Miofsky pastors one of the fastest growing UMC congregations in the country—the Gathering in St. Louis—which is LGBT-affirming. “What happened at General Conference didn’t solve anything,” he told me in an email. “The diversity in thought and practice still exists within United Methodism and is something we are not done grappling with yet.”
The United Methodist Church as an institution may be intact for now, but it’s hard to look at the events in St. Louis without noticing seemingly irreconcilable differences or seeing a growing split in the church. The church also recently approved a plan to secure pensions for clergy who might choose to leave the denomination, and they approved a disaffiliation plan to enable churches to leave more easily. Any attempts from denominational leaders to foster healing and unity will likely fall on deaf ears as congregations further entrench and brace themselves for the unknown future. Regional bodies of the church have also started announcing that they have no intent to abide by the Traditional Plan. It is unclear how much of the plan will go into effect as many within the denomination expect a large portion of plan to be ruled unconstitutional under church law. Adding to the confusion are new allegations of voter fraud taking place at General Conference, which were uncovered by The New York Times, putting the whole process under a cloud of suspicion.
The Rev. Mark K. Norman, a UMC district superintendent in Arkansas, told me that his “body and soul just ached” after the final vote. He said, “What gets me is that being born and raised Methodist, where it’s been this doctrine of grace, there’s been this wide tent that is just basically crumbling before my eyes.”
THE HISTORY OF METHODISM “is one of splitting as much as staying,” according to the Rev. Alfred T. Day III, the general secretary of the UMC’s General Commission on Archives and History. In 1844, the American Methodist church split over the issue of slavery, with the opposing factions not reuniting until 1939. The church’s current iteration came from a merger in 1968 of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church—a union that created what we now know as the United Methodist Church.
“United in the title of the church is actually a proper noun and not always an adjective,” said Barry Bryant, an associate professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Bryant said there has never been “an issue that’s more central to our history, doctrine, and policy than the issue of race,” arguing that race “even looms in the background of the way we talk about sexuality. Because a lot of the hermeneutics that were created to defend slavery have been applied to the exclusion of LGBTQ” individuals. Biblical verses that seemed to condone slavery were once applied to uphold that institution, and biblical verses are now used to condemn homosexuality.
Complicating any efforts to preserve unity are the diversity and global nature of the church. Unlike some American Protestant denominations grappling with the inclusion of LGBT congregants, the United Methodist Church boasts members around the world who are able to influence official church policy. While 58 percent of General Conference delegates were from the United States, 30 percent came from African countries, including places where homosexuality is illegal such as Liberia, Nigeria, and Kenya. Other delegates came from the Philippines, Europe, and Eurasia. There was a vocal contingent from Russia, where LGBT rights are limited and LGBT people are often in danger.
The UMC is experiencing noted growth in Africa. The tension between the church in the United States and the church in Africa is often oversimplified and reliant on racist and colonialist narratives. All too often, these ignore significant cultural differences and the ways in which Christians, including Methodists, have missionized and historically acted on the continent, including spreading anti-LGBT attitudes and ideas. The common storyline also ignores the fact that neither Methodists in the United States nor those in Africa are in agreement on the inclusion of LGBT persons within the church. A survey done prior to the General Conference by a group advocating for the One Church plan found that while 67 percent of U.S. delegates supported the plan, more than one-fourth did not, with 7 percent undecided.
American Methodist denominations have been debating human sexuality for almost a century, according to Ashley Boggan Dreff, author of Entangled: A History of American Methodism, Politics, and Sexuality. While church conservatives have claimed tradition is on their side, Dreff argues that both sides in the debate have a claim to tradition. “Both of these Methodisms have histories that are true but they’re very different understandings of theology,” said Dreff, who is director of United Methodist studies at Hood Theological Seminary. “They’re very different understandings of how we as Methodists relate to God and how we as Methodists relate to each other. John Wesley can be as easily cherry-picked as Scripture.”
The UMC is a connectional church, meaning that its congregations are connected in “a vital web of interactive relationships,” as the church law book states. These congregations do not operate completely independently of one another. Bryant said, “The problem that we struggle [with], in terms of our connectionalism, is that how do you connect a congregation in Mississippi with another congregation in San Francisco? Because the settings are incredibly different.”
Pastor Kaiyra A. Greer, who is openly queer and serves as the associate pastor of First United Methodist Church in Stamford, Connecticut, wrote in an email, “I find that most members of United Methodist Churches, while feeling a strong connection to the work and ministry of the local church, are disconnected, unconcerned, or simply not cognizant of the connectional polity of the UMC.” Greer was raised in the UMC and is pursuing ordination in the church. “Most members, friends, and guests are connected to their pastors and the local structure, but the district, conference, or other levels of the church are not as easily recognized or understood.”
Historically in the United Methodist Church, churches can’t take their buildings with them if they leave the denomination, since the larger church, not the local congregation, owns the property. In the final hours of General Conference, delegates passed a disaffiliation plan pushed largely by conservative members of the church that some have called a “gracious exit” to ease this potential transition. Detailed legal agreements are needed when large denominations fracture because of issues related to property rights and clergy benefits. When, for example, the Episcopal Church officially split in 2008 over the question of same-sex marriage and full inclusion of LGBT people, many of the departing churches found themselves in court with the denomination regarding their church property.
In the meantime, the work of local congregations will go on. The Sunday after General Conference, Day—the head of the UMC history commission—attended a small rural church where the pastor chose not to address the meeting. Day was “stewing in his seat” at this omission before his wife leaned over to say, “Look at the bulletin, look at all they’re doing, look at all they’re involved with, look at all their engagement in the community. They’re cooking for the homeless and they’re providing beds here, and they’re educating, they’re doing all these great things and this isn’t interrupting that so maybe there’s some good news in that.”
Similarly, Kaylor of the Wesleyan Covenant Association said “things will continue as normal” for his congregation. “The primary focus of most people is their local church, and denominational issues only tend to rise when they hit the news media or when there is a change in pastoral appointment,” he wrote in an email. “Our people will continue to love everyone who comes to the church and love the people of our community; we will continue to preach the good news of Christ’s transforming and redeeming love and grace, and we will always speak the truth in love.”
To church members, Greer wrote a letter after General Conference, “encouraging them to discern what God may be saying in this moment and in the future.” As a queer pastor, Greer said, “I also assured them that as long as I am appointed to be their pastor that I will journey with them in whatever form that takes.”
ON THE FLOOR OF General Conference, the Rev. Adam Hamilton delivered a speech opposing the Traditional Plan before the final vote. Hamilton, pastor of one of the United States’ largest UMC congregations—Church of the Resurrection near Kansas City, Kansas—spoke of looking around his hotel and seeing the church’s centrists and progressives, “some of whom seldom talk, dreaming together about the future.” He added, “Those proposing the Traditional Church Plan, you have inspired a lot of people to action at this GC!”
In the weeks since General Conference, there has been reinvigorated progressive activism within the UMC. “There is a rallying cry of progressives like I haven’t seen before,” Dreff said. Within ten days of General Conference, the Reconciling Ministries Network, a United Methodist organization uniting LGBT-affirming individuals and congregations, announced on Facebook that more than 1,000 new individuals had become Reconciling United Methodists. “Something new is in the process of being born,” Day said. “Or maybe some things, plural, new are in the process of being born. Our faith is in a God whose life is about bringing new life from death and hope over despair and growth and transformation through challenge and dead ends.”
Much of what happens next for the United Methodist Church is still unknown. The Judicial Council will not make a final ruling on the Traditional Plan as passed in St. Louis until late April. While many anticipate that the council will rule large portions of the plan unconstitutional, it is unclear whether that means the whole plan will be ruled invalid or only the specific parts found to be unconstitutional tossed out.
Even if the Judicial Council allows parts of the plan to remain, it won’t go into effect until January 1, 2020, and no large-scale formal separation can occur until May 2020 at the earliest, when the General Conference meets again for its regular gathering in Minneapolis. “I honestly don’t know what’s next for the UMC,” Greer said. “However, I do know that God is not done. God isn’t done with the church. God isn’t done with the UMC. And God is not done doing what God does and that is; extending love, grace, hope, and truth to a world in need of reconciliation and healing.”
Shannon Straw is a senior director at West End Strategy Team, where she works with foundations, faith-based nonprofits, and advocacy organizations. A lifelong United Methodist, she lives in the Chicago area with her family.