Will the United Methodist Church soon have to drop the “United” part of its name?
A group of 80 pastors, including at least two from North Carolina, says the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination faces a split because of an inability to resolve long-standing theological disputes about homosexuality and church doctrine.
But more than lamenting the divisions, the pastors indicated there is little reason to think reconciliation – or even coexistence – could be found. Like a couple heading to divorce court, the pastors cited irreconcilable differences that can’t be mended.
One of the pastors, the Rev. Talbot Davis of Charlotte’s Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, said it’s clear to him and the others in the group that a schism exists within the denomination.
“It’s really important to understand that this group is not calling for a break. It recognizes that there is already separation,” Talbot said. “So the question is whether a body so divided can live together or is it better to divide in two. We’re talking about the latter.”
It’s a marked shift in tone from 10 years ago, when conservatives rejected a proposal for an “amicable separation” as premature. “I don’t want us to talk about separation,” the Rev. Maxie Dunnam said after the church’s 2004 assembly, before the same-sex marriage issue swept the nation. “That’s not a game where our energy needs to be focused.”
But now Dunnam, a retired president of evangelical Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, has joined with the conservative pastors who are talking about officially splitting United Methodism.
Charlotte’s Talbot said the Rev. Charles Kyker pastor of Christ United Methodist in Hickory, is also among the 80 pastors. “And there are a couple from Columbia” who are in the group, Davis said, though they have not publicly disclosed their connection.
Meanwhile, the Rev. James Howell, pastor of Charlotte’s Myers Park United Methodist, has publicly called on the United Methodists to stay together.
In a blog this week, Howell compared the denomination to a family that has its disagreements, but would never let that lead to a breakup.
“In my family, we have pretty ferocious disagreements about a great many things,” Howell wrote. “But we love. We don’t divorce. We are a family.”
‘How did we get here?’
As 19 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex civil marriage, the debate has consumed America’s mainline denominations, with the outcome ranging from bitter divisions to agree-to-disagree compromises.
The issue is especially heightened within Methodism, where holiness – the beliefs and practices toward Christian purity – is foundational in its theology. As Methodist membership plateaus at home and grows in parts of Africa, overseas delegates have helped hold the line against growing pressure to liberalize church policy on gay clergy and same-sex marriage.
Amid a wave of defiance over rules that prevent pastors from presiding at same-sex marriages, and high-profile church trials that have largely upheld church policy, some pastors say the 11.8 million-member church has reached an impasse. Many feel the sexuality debates simply touch on larger issues of how Methodists understand Scripture and how leaders uphold church teaching.
The tipping point for many conservatives came after Bishop Martin McLee of New York announced in March he would drop a case against a retired seminary dean who officiated at his gay son’s 2012 wedding and called for an end to church trials for clergy who violate the denomination’s law on ministering to gays.
The pastors saw McLee’s move as failing to uphold agreed-upon church teaching. He should have gone through proper means of changing the church’s stance on sexuality, they say, rather than declining to uphold the church’s Book of Discipline, or constitution.
Charlotte’s Davis cited such cases in one of his blog, which he headlined “How Did We Ever Get Here?”
“People in the pews of the typical Methodist churches, in areas where Methodism has historically been the strongest (the South) are shaking their heads in bewilderment,” he wrote.
It’s past time to recognize this and act, the conservative pastors say.
Hailing from the UMC’s five jurisdictions, the group of 80 pastors and theologians released a statement May 22 outlining the crisis they see emerging within the UMC. They pointed to pastors who violated the Book of Discipline, a lack of subsequent punishment, a crisis over the authority of Scripture and differences in how leaders are teaching the practice of holiness.
Traditionalists believe the Scriptures are clear in prohibiting same-sex relations, while progressives see full inclusion as a matter of God’s love and justice, they note in the release.
In the denomination’s Western North Carolina conference, Green Street United Methodist in Winston-Salem and FaithWalk United Methodist near Greensboro are often listed in the progressive category.
Davis’ Charlotte church is in the traditionalist camp, though the labels can be confusing. Good Shepherd United Methodist, which has an average weekly attendance of about 2,000, “is anything but traditional” in worship style, Davis said. “We have a rock band and casual dress.”
Who does a split serve?
Other mainline denominations have already gone through many variations on same-sex ordination and marriage, moving more quickly on the issue than the UMC, which has a global, more conservative membership; about one-third of the church’s members are found in Africa, Asia or Europe.
One of the biggest challenges will be whether the UMC can find a way to remain the same home to people who hold radically different views. Delegates to the Methodists’ quadrennial General Conferences have resisted one option embraced by the Presbyterian Church (USA) that allows regional bodies to set their own ordination standards.
For at least two decades, the UMC has sought ways to maintain the status quo without alienating traditionalists or liberals. Despite its insistence on unified rules and standards, the church is a diverse theological tent that counts everyone from former President George W. Bush to Hillary Clinton as members.
“The UMC is a pluralistic church with radically different points of views,” said William Abraham, a professor of Wesley studies at Southern Methodist University. “It shows how you can live with differences until it begins to bite into the practices of the local church.”
Davis said the conservative pastors plan to offer more details in July about their vision of how a separation could end up being having what he called a “win-win” outcome. For now, he said, the group has tried “to define the forest before getting intro the trees,” his word for all the details that would have to be worked out.
Davis said the healthiest congregations are those, mostly evangelical, that have settled issues that are dividing many churches and can say, “we know who we are and where we stand.”
Howell, writing in his blog, said he admires the faithful on both sides, including Davis, who is his friend, and finds hope and strength in “our differences.”
Plus, he wondered, what would happen at individual churches like his, which has members who are traditionalist, progressive and those in between? “Let’s say the vote in my parish is 2,137 for one (side), 1,792 for the other, with hundreds more abstaining. What happens to the 1,792?” Howell wrote. “The split will not be win-win, but lose-lose.”
Religion News Service contributed
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