Will LGBT activists split the Methodists?

1920px Hartzell Memorial United Methodist Church Hartzell Memorial United Methodist church in Chicago. Illinois. | Joe Ravi/wikimedia. CC BY SA 3.0

While the United Methodist Church has reaffirmed traditional Christian teaching on controversial LGBT issues, some American leaders in the denomination have rejected that decision, and now are organizing either to resist the decision or split into a new denomination.

"In the weeks since, several small but powerful cadres of pastors and bishops have begun plotting paths to overturn or undermine the decision," the Washington Post reported March 29.

One group of objectors has "a methodical, political-organizing-style plan for drawing others into their fight," the Post said. Their meetings this week and next in Dallas and Atlanta will host 30 clergy and leaders, including seven LGBT leaders. Another 500 leaders will meet in May at a Kansas church. They hope to draw 5,000 Methodist leaders to a planned meeting this fall.

In a February 2019 Methodist leadership gathering in St. Louis, called the Special Session of the General Conference, Methodist delegates from around the world voted to reaffirm church teaching that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching." They rejected same-sex unions and the ordination of sexually active homosexuals. Under the Traditional Plan, approved in a narrow vote, penalties were increased for ministers who attempt to perform a same-sex wedding.

That decision reflected global divisions and demographic shifts. American delegates largely rejected the plan, but it had strong support from delegates representing parts of the world where the denomination is fast growing, such as Africa. The continent is on track to add five new Methodist bishops and a fourth central conference starting in 2021, United Methodist News Service reports.

The United Methodist Church is the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the U.S., where it has about 6 million members. It claims about 12 million members worldwide.

In reaction to the vote, some Methodist churches in the U.S. displayed rainbow banners or took out newspaper advertisements that voiced grief over the decision. Some individuals and leaders circulated letters, petitions and proposals for action. Some regional leadership groups, called conferences, will reportedly consider barring funding for hearing complaints, investigating and censuring violations of church law related to LGBTQ ordination or marriage.

Not all American Methodists objected to the decision.

"I believe we are watching the stages of grief play out before our eyes in the reaction of our brothers and sisters who wanted to see church teachings changed," Rev. Chris Ritter, a traditionalist, told the United Methodist News Service.

Objectors will gather this May at the 20,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in the Kansas City suburb of Leawood, Kan., the largest Methodist church in the U.S.

"I've been astounded at the number of emails, phone calls, text messages I'm receiving from churches across the country saying we can't live like this," Rev. Adam Hamilton, the church's pastor, told the Washington Post.

Hamilton described these churches as "centrist," and said they felt the decision marked a change from "the United Methodism that we have always known and loved."

"To be in a church that will be in the future led by the most conservative caucus in our denomination feels untenable for them," said Hamilton.

The Reconciling Ministries Network is a major backer of LGBT advocacy within Methodism. It said 18 new churches and communities and more than 3,000 people have joined its ranks since the February general conference.

One member congregation in Columbus, Ohio, King Avenue United Methodist Church, put its denominational payments into escrow as a protest of the vote to uphold traditional Christian teachings on marriage and sexuality. Similar financial action came from another member congregation, Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, which has also covered the words "United Methodist" on its church sign.

LGBT advocacy within Christian denominations and churches has external support, such as the New York-based Arcus Foundation. Since 2011 the foundation has given $1.9 million in grants to the Reconciling Ministries Network, the foundation's website says. It has also "backed pro-LGBT" church policy advocacy from the Methodist group Church Properties Reimagined, Inc.

Arcus-backed groups helped foster a split within the global Anglican Communion over homosexuality. The foundation is also a patron for  dissenting Catholic groups like Catholics for Choice, Dignity USA and the Equally Blessed Coalition. The foundation has funded LGBT advocacy groups in Africa and has been a partner to the U.S. State Department's Global Equality Fund, established under President Obama, which acts to defend what it considers to be "the human rights and fundamental freedoms" of LGBT people.

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United Methodist supporters of LGBT advocacy are not the only ones reporting more interest and reactions.

Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a traditionalist offshoot from mainline Methodism, told United Methodist News Service that his organization has also seen an "uptick" in membership and inquiries.

"The responses that have been on the traditional side have not been of the dramatic public expression - newspaper ads and those sorts of things," Boyette said. Rather, the focus is on questions like "How can we continue to be invested in a church that is this broken?"

Hamilton said the American Methodists who disagree with the decision could split from the global domination, or work to resist it.

Resistance would probably be financial with large American churches halting their donations to the denomination, Hamilton told the Washington Post. This would be done out of hope it would result in an agreement to hold another LGBT vote at the 2020 global meeting. Delegates from Africa and Russia would have to agree to the new vote, and the American faction hopes they would acquiesce in order to preserve funding for mission projects.

An alternative could be that all American Methodists of various beliefs, including backers of Methodist teaching who would prefer a separation, vote in favor of a split into two denominations.
The denomination's judicial council must reconsider the constitutionality of a disaffiliation plan approved at the recent global gathering – a plan it previously ruled unconstitutional.

United Methodists in Norway and Denmark are considering responses that might include leaving the denomination as a last resort. The executive committee of Germany's United Methodists unanimously approved a statement calling the traditional plan's stipulations "not acceptable for our church."

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David Reed, a traditionalist lay leader with the Methodists' Memphis Conference who chaired its delegation to the general conference's special session, said leaders on both sides are saying "we've got to find a way not to continue to work in conflict with each other."

Some clergy have pledged to disobey church teaching despite increased penalties, while others advise only following the letter of the law.

Bishop Kenneth Carter of Florida, who had backed the proposed One Church Plan to allow local changes to church practice on ordination and marriage, is discouraging pastors from witnessing vows or signing marriage licenses for same-sex couples, the Washington Post said. At the same time, he is encouraging pastors to give premarital counseling or take part in those ceremonies by reading Scripture, giving communion or delivering the sermon.

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