What the Current Schism in the United Methodist Church Says About and Means for Christianity
“Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.”
— Mahatma Gandhi
Over the past week, I’ve tried to write this several times. In fact, this is my fifth draft.
This kind of vacillation is not typically part of my writing process . When I write, I do so because I have something on my heart and mind that urgently needs to be said. The awareness of the points I hope to cover and how I want to do so is enough to propel the words forward.
The only other time I’ve dealt with this was the last time I wrote about religion — so maybe it’s due to the subject matter at hand and the necessary seriousness of it that presents such an obstacle to adequately conveying my thoughts.
I’m sure that the general uncertainty I’ve dealt with regarding my relationship with the Christian church as a whole (and the United Methodist Church in particular) also plays a big role in the difficulty of tackling this issue.
I’ve written many times over the last few years about my journey from the conservatism I was raised with to becoming a vocal, active liberal. As a Christian, it has been one of both challenge and growth. I have been forced to confront the assumptions I grew up believing and examine them with a critical eye, looking for the truth in each matter and deciding where I stand on them.
In doing so, I have also had to determine where my individual beliefs fit within the wider context of Christianity — particularly in terms of denominational and congregational constraints. The things I once regarded as matters of clear-cut black and white morality began to seem less conclusive as the decidedly gray nature of life became more apparent. As a result, I began to question the church’s stances on many of those subjects.
These issues — reason vs. tradition, skepticism vs. unquestionable authority, morality vs. immorality — are representative of the larger debates within the United Methodist Church that have precipitated a split within the denomination over differences in ideology and theology.
“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”
― John Wesley
Human sexuality and its moral and religious implications has always been a contentious issue within the Christian church.
Even as our understanding of the psychology and biology of sexuality has evolved, the tensions between those who regard things like homosexuality and being transgender as a sin and those who see them as a part of human variation that cannot be inherently sinful have grown.
The debate over the inclusion of LGBT clergy in the United Methodist Church is essentially a microcosm of this wider debate. In 2016, the western district of the UMC elected the denomination’s first openly gay bishop. The impact of this event was cataclysmic.
Prior to that point, several regional districts within the UMC had appointed LGBT clergy and allowed same-sex weddings. Many of those actions led to trials in the church’s legal system, as the UMC’s Book of Discipline states that the denomination “does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
In response to these events, the Wesleyan Covenant Association was formed in 2016 as an advocacy group for the conservative traditionalists within the UMC that hold to a literal scriptural understanding on issues of sexuality.
In recent years, UMC General Conferences have focused their efforts on a way forward that appeases and accommodates everyone within the denomination. One of my earliest blogs, in February 2019, was about this issue. The main question at that year’s General Conference was which of three plans the church should adopt going forward.
The Traditional Plan reaffirmed the church’s Book of Discipline’s traditional teachings about homosexuality. The One Church Plan, on the other hand, would have lifted the bans on LGBT clergy and same-sex marriage while protecting the rights of those who did not agree with the full acceptance of LGBT inclusion in the church, and the Connectional Conference Plan would have replaced the current regionally-based jurisdictions with three ideological ones — progressive, unity, and traditional — under the idea that the UMC is a “big tent” under which diverse perspectives can exist.
A comprehensive comparison chart of the three plans by lay member of the Commission on a Way Forward, Dave Nuckols, can be found here: https://mainstreamumc.com/documents/Matrix-3-Models-DN-Final10-21-2018-LegalPaper.pdf
Ultimately, the Traditional Plan won out, albeit by a narrow margin — 438–384, or 53.3% to 46.7% of those who voted. Most of the U.S.-based delegates opposed the plan, but they were outvoted by a team of conservatives within the U.S. and many of the delegates from Africa and the Philippines, which also tend to be more conservative.
According to United Methodist Insight, the U.S. delegates in favor of the Traditional Plan were outnumbered two to one in 2019. In 2020, that number had grown to three to one, or 76%. The percentage of delegates against the Traditional Plan by 2020 was 69% or higher in every U.S. jurisdiction.
In the summer of 2019, a committee made up of traditionalists, centrists, and progressives met to discuss a way forward that would resolve conflicts within the denomination.
The main question at hand was (and still is):
Whether the UMC should continue as it has in the recent past, with the hope that progressive and conservative ideologies can respectfully coexist within the larger doctrine of the UMC,
— or —
If one ideological branch or the other should split from the UMC with the understanding that the two opposing ideologies are incompatible and form a new denomination, and if so, how that disaffiliation should occur.
That mediation team came up with the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation, a plan that both the Council of Bishops and the Global Methodist groups support.
Under this protocol, which is to be voted on at the next General Conference, conservative congregations and regional conferences would be allowed to separate from the UMC and form a new denomination, the Global Methodist Church. They would receive $25 million in UMC funds and be able to keep their properties.
According to Stay UMC, there are presently about 1,500 congregations aligned with the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The WCA estimates that between 3,000 and 5,000 congregations in the United States will secede and join the GMC. This represents somewhere between 10% and 16% of the 30,000 United Methodist Churches in the United States. The WCA estimates that 95% of these congregations will have less than 500 members.
Stay UMC also argues that the conservative faction that plans to leave represents a minority even among traditionalists themselves:
Millions of traditional United Methodists want to remain in the UMC because it is their home, and they would prefer to remain in a “big tent” denomination of traditionalists, centrists, and progressives and move forward in history, working out our differences in Christian love. Many traditional Methodists are not comfortable with the punitive and inflexible nature of the “traditional plan” that passed at General Conference in 2019, or otherwise disagree with objectives of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) they consider schismatic.
Those within the WCA and other traditionalist groups, though, have grown impatient over waiting until the General Conference to settle the matter for good— it was postponed in 2020 due to COVID and is now scheduled for 2024. The Annual Conference is set for this August.
As a result, the Global Methodist Church was officially created on May 1st, when the WCA met to recommend policies for a doctrinal foundation for the GMC.
That legislative assembly voted on two doctrinal resolutions, one with a core set of denominational beliefs, and another on policies that affirm traditionalist views on sexuality and gender.
In contrast to the votes along ideological lines that have occurred during General Conference in recent years, these resolutions both passed with 95% or more approval within the WCA.
Broadly speaking, it is my understanding that the regional conference and local church I have belonged to for the last 15 years are in favor of leaving to join the GMC. Their core belief is that in accepting the full inclusion of LGBT clergy members, the wider UMC is disregarding the Book of Discipline and the vow that ordained elders take to uphold those church laws, which the GMC claims they will use as their foundation.
Regional conferences are currently in the process of working with their local churches to decide whether to remain a part of the UMC or to disaffiliate and transition to the GMC, another denomination, or an independent church.
On a more personal level, this decision — and the weight of it — is reflective of the one I’ve been wrestling with for the last two years.
The results of the 2019 General Conference and my local church’s stance on the matter as well as the active exclusion of me and others who share my political opinions by members of the church have played equal parts in my choice to not attend services since COVID began. At first it was a practical matter, but as time went by, other events occurred that led me to take a more resolute step back from the church.
Since then, I’ve struggled with grieving the separation from church life and the people within it that have always been loving and welcoming, while simultaneously contending with my own ideological, moral, and spiritual convictions that are often in conflict with the consensus of the local and regional church bodies.
As our local church’s decision is approaching, I have taken the opportunity to learn more about the Wesley Covenant Association/Global Methodist Church’s beliefs and doctrine in an effort to determine where I personally might fit within this new denomination.
Several resources already exist on the specific differences between the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline and the Global Methodist Church’s Transitional Discipline:
- One by Rev. Dr. Chris Ritter (a UMC pastor who favors the Connectional Conference Plan)
- One by Stay UMC (a group of clergy and laity from the North Alabama Conference who are committed to the Connectional Conference Plan)
- One that was published by the Wesleyan Covenant Association (the group previously in favor of the Traditional Plan that led the creation of the Global Methodist Church)
The language of each is indicative of their position on the matter, so it is useful (and advisable) to refer to and compare all three to get a more thorough sense of the matter. I could not find any commentary on the doctrine of the new denomination from the perspective of the progressives within the UMC who support the One Church Plan, but if I do I will link it here.
In my own research, I have also referred to the following documents:
- 1956 Doctrines and Discipline of the United Methodist Church
- 1960 Doctrines and Discipline of the United Methodist Church
- 1964 Doctrines and Discipline of the United Methodist Church
- 1968 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church
- 1972 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church
- 2016 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church
- 2020 Proposed Revised Social Principles from the UMC Book of Discipline
- Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline of the Global Methodist Church (Updated April 12, 2022)
- Wesley Covenant Association’s Draft Book of Doctrines and Discipline for a New Methodist Church (Released November 8, 2019)
- Wesley Covenant Association’s Sexual Holiness, Wholeness, and Brokenness Task Force Report (Released October 2021)
- Wesley Covenant Association’s Missional Ministry to Marginalized Peoples Report (Released May 2021)
- A Comprehensive Comparison Chart of UMC, Transitional GMC, WCA Proposals (Published September 1, 2021)
With that said, I’ve decided to break down some of the differences between the two denominations that are of most concern to me personally.
This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive review of all of the changes that exist or might take place in the future, and due to the sheer magnitude of the issues, I’ve been forced to break down the relevant points into a series of posts for the sake of (relative) brevity and clarity.
It is important to note that the GMC’s doctrines and disciplines will not be complete or set in stone until their General Conference, which they believe will take place 12–18 months from its founding — and likely not before 2024.
Until that point, they will be operating under the Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline. The comments and concerns I have on their theology are, therefore, restricted to the information that is currently available.
If you have any specific questions regarding the transition or disaffiliation process itself or about the proposed doctrine of the Global Methodist Church, I would encourage you to refer to the documents I’ve linked above and/or reach out to your local church leader.
These are the issues I will cover in future posts:
- The Specifics of and Differences Between the Doctrines of the United Methodist Church and the Wesleyan Covenant Association/Global Methodist Church
- The History of the United Methodist Church, Its Record on Issues of Social Justice, and Its Relevance Today
- The Christian Right Movement and How the Global Methodist Church Fits into It
- General Concerns over the Split of the United Methodist Church and the Emersion of a New Denomination