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Why the United Methodist Church worldwide is about to split over LGBT+ people

Why the United Methodist Church worldwide is about to split over LGBT+ people

  • The UMC is about to split into pro-LGBT+ and anti-LGBT+ denominations – with individual churches getting to choose which one they stick with.
UMC church with rainbow flag flying.

I was on the phone when the United Methodist Church announced a proposal to split the over ‘fundamental differences’ on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage.

The person I was speaking with was Reverend Joel B Guillemette of Sudbury UMC. His United Methodist Church is a Reconciling Congregation. That is one which welcomes people of all gender expressions and sexual orientations.

And that was at the very front of our minds that Friday morning of 3 January. Indeed, he and I were finalizing plans for me to come out to preach. I would join the church as they celebrate its upcoming 15th anniversary as a Reconciling Congregation in March.

Of course, we were also acutely aware of the debate in the church. When Rev Guillemette invited me, he noted that this year’s celebration would come shortly before the UMC General Conference vote on LGBTQ legislation in May 2020.

So he said: ‘It is important to us to invite a preacher who will encourage us during a tumultuous time in our relationship with our global connection and, to be honest, in our congregation’s own internal connections.’

How the UMC split will work

Just minutes after our phone call ended, my smartphone flashed the news. I let out a long sigh of despair.

In summary, church leaders now believe the fundamental theological issues around LGBT+ people have become too great.

So they propose to split the United Methodist Church over the issue of homosexuality and create a new ‘traditionalist Methodist’ denomination.

Of course, the May 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis still needs to approve the plan.

But if it does, the church would grant the new ‘traditionalist’ denomination $25 million. Meanwhile local churches will be free to vote to affiliate with the new denomination and keep their assets if they leave.

The current UMC will allow LGBTQ marriages and clergy. But the new ‘traditionalist Methodists’ will allow outright discrimination and denunciation of LGBTQ people in the name of God. 

And, of course, it will divide the nation’s third-largest denomination worldwide.

‘Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching’

LGBTQ inclusion in the policy and practices of UMC has been a long contentious and exhausting battle – both nationally in the US and globally.

Truth be told, the UMC has always been contradictory in its policies concerning LGBTQ worshippers.

Officially, it states that we have and are of the same sacred worth as heterosexuals. And it is committed to the ministry of all people regardless of gender identities and sexual orientations. But the church still views queer sexualities as sinful.

The Book of Discipline states that sexuality is ‘God’s good gift to all persons’. It adds that people are ‘fully human only when their sexuality is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the church and society’. However, this rule does not apply to LGBTQs.

Since the church’s conservative and liberal wings merged in 1968 to become the UMC, it has implemented stricter positions against us.

In 1972, for example, UMC delegates updated The Book of Discipline. They inserted the line: ‘We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.’

Battle over sexuality within the United Methodist Church

In the hopes of avoiding a schism, the Council of Bishops in 2018 recommended the One Church Plan.

That plan would grant individual ministers and regional church bodies the decision to ordain LGBTQs as clergy and to perform same-sex weddings.

They hoped such a decision on a church-by-church and regional basis would reflect the diversity. It would also allow the global UMC to affirm the different churches and cultures. 

The One Church Plan, however, was one of three proposed plans by the UMC’s Commission on a Way Forward.

The One Church Plan would remove the offensive, anti-LGBTQ language from the Book of Discipline. Instead, it would replace it with compassionate and up-to-date wording about sexuality.

But in 2019 a special UMC conference voted down the One Church Plan by a narrow margin. Instead it chose the Traditionalist Plan which excludes LGBTQ parishioners.

Since then, the UMC has seen appeals against the Traditionalist Plan for being unconstitutional. And several parts of the church have refused to implement it.

UMC and the religious backlash against LGBT+ rights

Many UMC members will point a finger to its African churches as the sole reason for the new ‘traditionalist Methodist’ denomination.

However, that’s not true. The US conservative wings – the Wesleyan Covenant Association and the Good News movement – had been preparing to leave before the Traditionalist Plan narrowly won in 2019. 

The schism in the UMC, sadly, mirrors today’s ongoing battle among religious conservatives.

Meanwhile many have been persuading state legislatures across the country to disenfranchise LGBTQ Americans. The current rash of ‘Religious Freedom Restoration Acts’ are a backlash to the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage, after the US Supreme Court legalized it in 2015.

Likewise, we should note how the Supreme Court ruled in the 2018 Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado Civil Rights Commission case.

The Justices found in favor of Jack Phillips, the baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple on the grounds of religious freedom.

I had hoped the case would render once and for all a cease-and-desist order. That it would resolve the ‘God versus Gay rights’ dispute for those who want to codify discrimination against us under the guise of religious freedom.

As a nation, we’re at crossroads on many issues. It’s a shame when a church cannot bring us together.