As deadline approaches, Methodist departures exceed expectations
Schism caused by divide over same-sex marriage and ordination of gays
As recently as a year ago, a recognized authority on U.S. religion was expecting that by the end of 2023, as many as 5,000 congregations would leave the United Methodist Church in a slow-motion schism in a debate over the marriage and ordination of gays.
As of now, that number is well over 7,000, although it is not expected to rise much more as most regional Methodist organizations, which must give final approval to departures, have completed their work for the year. The departing churches make up nearly a fourth of the denomination's congregations.
Still More to Say is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Although the UMC, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, does not authorize same-sex marriages nor ordain “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” — a position it affirmed at its 2019 General Conference — nearly all of the congregations leaving are exiting out of concerns that the denomination will eventually become gay-affirming, perhaps as early as next year.
The most recent departures, 261 of them, were ratified by the UMC’s North Georgia Conference at a special meeting earlier this month. That brought the total number of churches leaving to 7,286, according to the United Methodist News.
Although conservative Methodists have been concerned about liberal trends within the denomination for decades, very few of their congregations left the denomination before 2019, partly because the buildings they worshiped in would stay with the denomination. But the UMC General Conference that year changed the rules until the end of 2023, allowing congregations to leave and keep their property with a two-thirds local vote, regional approval and payment of unfunded pension obligations. Although fewer than 300 congregations had left by the end of 2021, about 1,800 left in 2022 and more than 5,000 so far this year.
Technically, the reason congregations can leave is “for reasons of conscience ... related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” Theoretically, congregations can leave if they find the denomination’s stance too conservative, although it is unclear how many, if any, have done so.
Although some of the congregations leaving are planning to operate without joining another denomination, around half or more are planning to join the Global Methodist Church, a denomination formed in 2022 as a result of the United Methodist schism. The GMC is currently led by its Transitional Leadership Council, made up of members not only from the United States, but also from Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Slovakia and Zimbabwe. The council is chaired by the Rev. Beth Ann Cook, lead pastor at St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Poseyville, Ind.
The GMC plans to hold its first General Conference in September 2024 at San José, Costa Rica.
Like the UMC, the GMC follows the Wesleyan tradition. According to its transitional documents, the denomination teaches that the Bible is “the primary rule and authority for faith, morals, and service, against which all other authorities must be measured” and that “a life of holiness and ultimately ‘entire sanctification’ should be the goal of each individual’s journey with God.”
News reports have indicated that a much smaller number of the departing churches are joining the Free Methodist Church, an evangelical denomination also in the Wesleyan tradition.
Although they are more conservative than the UMC, both the Global and Free Methodist denominations ordain women to the ministry.
The United Methodist Church is the third-largest Protestant denomination in the United States, behind the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Baptist Convention USA and ahead of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Even with the departures, it probably will still maintain its third-place status.