There's at least one area of agreement among conservative and liberal leaders in the United Methodist Church: That is, the Methodist denomination is on a path toward breakup over differences on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT pastors.
The differences in the Methodist Church have simmered for years, and came to a head in February at a conference in St. Louis where delegates voted 438-384 for a proposal called the Traditional Plan, which strengthens bans on LGBT-inclusive practices. A majority of U.S.-based delegates opposed that plan and favored LGBT-friendly options, but they were outvoted by U.S. conservatives teamed with most of the delegates from Methodist strongholds in Africa and the Philippines.
Many believe the vote will prompt an exodus from the church by liberal congregations that are already expressing their dissatisfaction over the move. Others don’t know what will happen.
Some churches have raised rainbow flags in a show of LGBT solidarity. Some pastors have vowed to defy the strict rules and continue to allow gay weddings in Methodist churches. Churches are withholding tithe payments to the main office in protest, and the UMC's receipts were down 20 percent in March, according to financial reports posted online.
"It's time for some kind of separation, some kind of amicable divorce," said James Howell, pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, who posted a video assailing the decision for its "real meanness."
The UMC's nine-member Judicial Council convenes a four-day meeting in Evanston, Illinois, on Tuesday to consider legal challenges to the Traditional Plan. If the plan is upheld, it would take effect for U.S. churches on Jan. 1. If parts of it are struck down, that would likely trigger new debate at the UMC's next general conference in May 2020. It will be interesting to see if they look for a way to kick the can down the road (ala Brexit).
[Editorial Update: The Traditional Plan, as upheld by a Judicial Council decision announced Friday (April 26), defines a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” as a person who is “living in a same-sex marriage, domestic partnership or civil union or is a person who publicly states she or he is a practicing homosexual.”
The plan also bars bishops from consecrating, ordaining or commissioning “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” even if they have been elected or approved by the appropriate church body. It prohibits those church bodies from approving or recommending them as candidates, as well.
And it strengthens current complaint procedures and penalties in the Book of Discipline. A clergy member who performs a same-sex wedding will face a minimum one-year suspension without pay for the first offense and a loss of credentials for the second.]
The UMC's largest church — the 22,000-member Church of the Resurrection with four locations in the Kansas City area — is among those applying financial pressure. Its lead pastor, Adam Hamilton, says his church is temporarily withholding half of the $2.5 million that it normally would have paid to the UMC's head office at this stage of the year.
Two Main Options are under Consideration
Under one scenario, many liberals would leave en masse to form a new denomination — a potentially complex endeavor given likely disputes over the dissolution process.
Under the other option, proponents of LGBT ordination would stay in the UMC and resist from within, insisting on LGBT-inclusive policies and eventually convincing the conservatives that they should be the faction that leaves—under what's envisioned as a financially smooth "gracious exit." Sound familiar?
"There's a sense that some conservatives have been wanting to leave for a long time," Hamilton said. "They're tired of fighting about it." Others see the minority liberal faction as more likely to leave.
Formed in a merger in 1968, the United Methodist Church claims about 12.6 million members worldwide, including nearly 7 million in the United States.
While other mainline Protestant denominations have embraced gay-friendly practices, the UMC still bans them, though acts of defiance by pro-LGBT clergy have multiplied. Many have performed same-sex weddings; others have come out as gay or lesbian from the pulpit.
Enforcement of the bans has been inconsistent; the Traditional Plan aspires to beef up discipline against those engaged in defiance.
Traditional Plan (conservative) supporter Mark Tooley, who heads a conservative Christian think tank, predicts that the UMC could split into three denominations — one for undecideds (80% of whom will eventually default to the liberal side), another oriented toward liberal activists and a third representing the global alliance of U.S. conservatives and their allies overseas.
"It's a question of how long it takes for that to unfold — and of who and how many go into each denomination," Tooley said. "A lot of churches will be irreparably harmed as they divide."
Scott Jones, bishop of the UMC's Houston-based Texas conference, says churchgoers in his region are divided in their views, but a majority supports the Traditional (conservative) Plan's concepts.
Ann Craig of Newburgh, New York — a lesbian activist who has advocated for greater LGBT inclusion in the UMC — thinks a breakup can be avoided, though she's unsure what lies ahead.
"We expect something new to happen, but what that change should be or will be has not jelled yet," she said. "I don't think we're going to break up — it's so cumbersome to figure out a way to divorce."
The crisis is being followed closely at Methodist-affiliated theology schools based at universities with LGBT-inclusive policies. There are 13 UMC-connected theology schools around the country.
"There's a lot of turmoil and distress," said Mary Elizabeth Moore, dean of Boston University School of Theology. "We're trying to find a future that will be less destructive than where we are now."
On Thursday evening last week, 300 United Methodist clergy and laypeople gathered outside their denomination’s regional headquarters in Garner, N.C., to protest a recent vote that bans LGBT people from marriage and ordination. Their protest was one of many.
Across the country, from Iowa to Michigan and Texas to Wisconsin, thousands of United Methodists who support LGBT rights are rising up to denounce the denomination’s recent decision to strengthen its ban on gay clergy and same-sex weddings.
These United Methodists are signing petitions, taking out newspaper ads and, in some cases, withholding their dues to the denomination.
The similarities between Methodist pro-LGBT ordination zealots, and Adventist pro-WO ordination zealots are too striking to miss. The Methodist Church is farther down the road of compromise than we Adventists are, but the militant liberal minority in both organizations draw from the same spirit.
“We will get our way eventually, as we keep pushing the issue” said one of the pro-LGBT social justice activists.
Conservatives in Africa helped defeat the pro-LGBT agenda in the February world church vote.
“We are not bound by decisions that we disagree with, and we will continue to disregard the vote by the world church and ordain women and homosexuals because it’s the moral thing to do” say the liberals.
Some Methodist pastors have vowed to defy the strict rules and continue to allow gay weddings in Methodist churches. Adventist liberal strongholds have determined to ordain women in defiance of the world Church vote, and NAD leaders have stated publicly that they are ready to break the chain of Church accountability by refusing to discipline Unions and Conferences under them who defy the world decision(s) on WO.
Some Methodist Churches are withholding tithe funds from the UMC main office. In the Adventist Church, William G. Johnsson said in a 10-29-2018 SECC meeting that the the only thing the GC understands is money (not true) and he has a real problem sending a cent to the General Conference.
Those who support LGBT ordination in the Methodist Church (and in the SDA Church) do so as a social justice imperative.
Accountability is not optional for an organization. Without it, the organization crumbles.
What can we learn from the Methodist crisis? In order for the Adventist Church to survive its current liberal onslaught from within, these measures need to happen.
The Compliance Committees better address insubordination immediately. Proper discipline will make us stronger together. If they have come this far only to lay down, the damage will be incalculable.
We need a fundamental belief on the biblical complementarian roles of male and female.
We need to roll back the unbiblical female elder compromise.
We need to address the two broad schools of thought that now exist in the Church, and formally endorse the Rio (Historical-Grammatical) method of interpreting the Bible, recommending this method to our Seminary and Universities, if they wish to bear the name Adventist.
By God’s grace, we must do these things, before it is too late.
Our differences are an asset, until they become offensive.
“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).