The Divided Methodist Church
The United Methodist Church has always been a “big tent” branch of Protestant Christianity. 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions both belong to the denomination. However, through many political disagreements, from LGBTQ+ rights to the topic of abortion, this big tent could not be maintained forever. The collapse of this carefully cultivated coalition of conservatives and progressives across the world fell apart over the ordination and inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the ministry of the United Methodist Church.
Tuesday, February 26 was the final day of the United Methodist Church’s 2019 General Conference in St. Louis, Missouri. This general conference was extremely tumultuous, occurring after delegates kicked the can down the road at General Conference several years ago. In the 2016 GC, delegates voted to create the “Commission on the Way Forward”, which was intended to present a solution to the divide over LGBTQ+ issues within the United Methodist Church at the 2019 GC. The commission produced a plan, called the One Church Plan, that essentially allowed each district to make their own decisions regarding their ordination of LGBTQ+ clergy and marriage of LGBTQ+ persons. This plan was not ideal for conservative forces in the church, who oppose any ordination or inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons, or for progressive forces, who support completely removing any anti-homosexuality language from the United Methodist Book of Discipline.
Once voting began on Monday, it seemed that the One Church Plan was doomed. Progressives largely supported the One Church Plan, while conservatives generally voted against it. Progressives also forced a vote on the Simple Plan, which would achieve their goal of eradicating any anti-LGBTQ+ language from the Book of Discipline. That too was unsuccessful. The Traditional Plan ended up prevailing, which enforces current Book of Discipline language and imposes stricter punishment on clergy who violate the Book of Discipline’s language.
The United Methodist Church, unlike many other denominations in the United States, is truly a global church. As the Methodist Church’s membership has steadily declined in the United States, it has grown in membership in Africa. Due to this realignment of church power, about 30% of Methodists now hail from Africa. The majority of voters who supported the Traditional Plan and opposed the One Church Plan and Simple Plan came from African countries. This introduces an interesting and potentially troubling dynamic, where LGBTQ+ Christians and predominantly white allies are pitted against Christians who have historically been subjected to colonialism, including but not limited to decision-making with which they disagree.
Now that the Traditional Plan has been approved by a slim margin, it seems that it will only be a matter of time before churches favoring LGBTQ+ rights will break off to form their own “alliance for gay-friendly churches.” This will create a new ideological and geographical divide in the church, with African members and some U.S. members remaining in the denomination, while a majority of U.S. churches will likely choose to leave. If this split occurs, the United Methodist Church will follow the path of many other Protestant denominations, no longer remaining the global authority it is now. Although the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan is questioned, some frustrated progressives are already discussing forcing a vote at next year’s General Conference, while others are exploring what leaving the church would look like. The consequences of such a division are unclear, but it will undoubtedly be painful for those who do not wish to see the church divided, over this or any other issue.