Every host and hostess who has prepared for a big event has a moment of panic when they wonder, “Will anyone come to my party?” In the case of the United Methodist Church’s push toward separation, the “party” may have been called off by unexpected circumstances that could be a blessing in disguise.
Getting to the question of whether the biggest Methodist branch will divide requires a look at why separation poses such a monumental challenge for the 12-million-member worldwide denomination, with more than 7 million members in the United States.
A quick recap: The United Methodist Church has been warring over LGBTQ acceptance since 1972. During the past four years, United Methodist movers and shakers have been driving toward a formal break-up into possibly three camps:
- An “orthodox” denomination rooted in a breakaway group known as the Wesleyan Covenant Association.
- A “progressive” denomination of those who favor full inclusion of LGBTQ persons including ordination and same-sex marriage.
- A “live-and-let-live” middle that likely would retain the name, symbols and organization of the current United Methodist Church.
Separation fever climbed in 2019 after a disastrous special legislative session when dubious votes (including at least one ballot later found fraudulent) instituted harsh penalties for violating the UMC’s stance that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” A massive rebellion to the new strictures erupted in the American part of the church, where UMC leaders voted in local sessions to oust nearly 75 percent of U. S. delegates who had adopted the new penalties.
Thereafter, various ad hoc caucuses and individuals began to unveil differing plans to dismantle the United Methodist organization. This is no small task because the UMC best resembles a multinational corporation with “branch offices” on four continents: Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. The UMC’s worldwide governance is fashioned similarly to that of the United States, where the church was founded. There’s a legislative branch known as the General Conference; an executive branch known as the Council of Bishops; and a legal branch known as the Judicial Council.
Augmenting this broad structure are 13 boards and agencies; 13 official seminaries to train clergy; hundreds of missionaries to conduct evangelism and outreach; and dozens of schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, retirement homes, children’s homes, camps, campus ministries and community centers, all with enough ties to the global church to receive both money and personnel. Compared to the simpler way Baptists conduct church business, the UMC resembles a tangled ball of yarn attacked by a kitten.
The twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic and the uprising against racism have combined to yank United Methodists out of their navel-gazing around the church’s inclusion of LGBTQ people.
Amid this complexity, when it comes to the issue of LGBTQ acceptance only the General Conference, meeting once every four years, can speak for the entire denomination. Consequently, just as Antietam was the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War, General Conference has become the bloody battleground over LGBTQ acceptance and the drive to separate the church.
This year, 2020, was to be the next engagement at which various plans for dividing up the UMC would be fought. A front-runner among separation plans has been a professionally mediated scheme known as the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, shortened to “the Protocol.” This controversial document resulted from several months of negotiations organized by Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone involving representatives from most (but not all) of the factions around the issue. The document engendered controversy because it was negotiated privately, outside the denomination’s usual decision-making channels, and because it proposes to give $25 million in start-up money to the “conservative” faction, but only $2 million combined to any other breakaway groups.
The Protocol was gaining steam among General Conference delegates and rank-and-file United Methodists until the coronavirus pandemic struck in early 2020. As the threat of infection began to peak in the United States, General Conference organizers did something they’d done only a handful of times before: they postponed the global legislative assembly, scheduled for this past May in Minneapolis, until August 2021.
With that decision, momentum for dividing up the United Methodist Church stopped dead. “It was like all the oxygen went out of the room,” a General Conference delegate said recently.
As United Methodists began to perform socially distanced ministries for those affected by the coronavirus, a second catastrophe piled on: the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died of asphyxiation after a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, held a knee against Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, recorded in a bystander’s video. Mr. Floyd’s death was at that time the latest in a string of killings of Black people by police and others.
The resultant uprising against police brutality and systemic racism held an additional sting for United Methodists. Not only did George Floyd’s death occur in the same city where General Conference was to have met, it brought back memories of the United Methodist Church’s own history of racial segregation and discrimination, evident in its demographic of 93 percent white U.S. membership.
The Floyd killing galvanized United Methodists to join marches, demonstrations, prayer vigils and other racism protests from Minneapolis around the United States to Europe and Africa. The Council of Bishops declared “Dismantling Racism” to be the denomination’s new priority, kicking off a multi-level initiative with an online “service of lament” for past racial prejudice.
The twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic and the uprising against racism have combined to yank United Methodists out of their navel-gazing around the church’s inclusion of LGBTQ people. Functionally, U.S. United Methodists already have embraced LGBTQ clergy in local churches. LGBTQ-friendly pastors have conducted same-sex marriages, following the lead of the denomination’s U.S. Western Jurisdiction that elected and installed a married lesbian as a bishop in 2016. Nonetheless, a divide remains in the wider church, especially among Africans and Russians who oppose LGBTQ acceptance.
Being faithful to God may not manifest solely in following each “jot and tittle” of Scripture, but in responding to human needs with Christ’s love.
However, as a result of the twin crises, United Methodists seem to have awakened to a new possibility: that being faithful to God may not manifest solely in following each “jot and tittle” of Scripture, but in responding to human needs with Christ’s love. This spirit can be seen in ongoing diverse ministries amid the coronavirus pandemic; in the passionate participation of clergy and laity in anti-racism efforts; and in a new movement, slated to begin in July, of international conversations, live-streamed at two separate times to account for time zone differences, on what kind of church United Methodism — still intact — could become.
Aside from the persistence of the Wesleyan Covenant Association that continues to pursue its schismatic efforts, many denominational leaders are no longer engaged in all-out war over who gets the power to interpret Scripture’s meaning for human sexuality. Instead, being confronted with threats to the church’s actual existence, more United Methodists are turning toward a new question: how to live and work in unity for mission and ministry without requiring uniformity in non-essential doctrine. The answer to this question lies some 14 months into the future when, God and pandemic willing, General Conference will meet in Minneapolis.