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The “United” in “United Methodist Church” (UMC) has always been aspirational. The UMC was founded in 1968, when the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren Churches joined forces, marking the apex of denominational mergers in the twentieth century. But ever since, the UMC has been in numerical decline and in turmoil over human sexuality. And last week, it finally came apart. At the UMC’s General Conference (GC)—the meeting of the denomination’s highest legislative body every four years—the denomination officially voted to end its fifty-year ban on same-sex weddings and on the ordination of LGBTQ clergy. All prohibitions regarding LGBTQ ordination and marriage were removed.

Casual observers over the past two weeks will be forgiven for thinking this change in the church’s position represents a profound about-face for most of the United Methodists in the United States. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth.

In 2016, Karen Oliveto, a married lesbian, was elected bishop by clergy in the western region of the UMC, in clear defiance of the church’s democratically determined rules of order. The denomination’s “Supreme Court,” the Judicial Council, ruled her election was a violation of church law and ordered a review. To the dismay of Methodist conservatives, who rightly view church law as the true bind of their denomination, that review never took place and Oliveto remains a bishop to this day.

A special meeting of the GC was called in 2019 to deal with the controversy. Progressives hoped finally to persuade conservative delegates, especially from Africa, to give up their convictions regarding human sexuality. But when it came to a vote, conservatives took the majority. Progressives were now irate, with one bishop calling on the African delegates to “grow up” and embrace progressive wisdom. With conservatives in firm control, the GC created a process whereby progressive congregations could leave the UMC, if they so desired, with their assets and property. Everything was then ready for the regularly scheduled GC of 2020 when, it was assumed, progressives would leave and form their own new Methodist denomination.

But then something happened which nobody foresaw, and which changed the conversation and the denomination’s direction: the Covid pandemic.

By the spring of 2020, the increasingly progressive United Methodist hierarchy decided to postpone the regularly scheduled 2020 GC three times, even as other Methodist denominations were meeting virtually. Instead of following our democratically determined rules, leadership refused to honor the conservative majority, kept Bishop Oliveto in leadership, and kicked the ball of accountability down the road once again. At this point conservatives threw up their hands in disgust and used the very rule they created for progressives to depart from the denomination themselves. Over the past three years, 25 percent of UMC congregations in the U.S. have left for either a new denomination called the Global Methodist Church, joined other Methodist denominations like the Free Methodist or Wesleyan Church, formed smaller groupings of churches, or become independent. Unfortunately, UMC bishops disenfranchised and further “colonized” United Methodists outside the United States by not allowing them to disaffiliate under the same rule.

With all these departures, as well as a larger-than-usual number of African delegates unable to attend the GC this year—some due to a failure to apply for passports on time, and some due to mismanagement by those in charge of GC—it is unsurprising that the UMC was finally able to vote to change its position last week.

Going forward a few things are noteworthy. First, the UMC is fast lurching to the left. Second, progressives didn’t take over the denomination by presenting a compelling vision so much as by simply ignoring the denomination’s democratic form of church law to such a degree that the denomination itself became ungovernable, leading to a mass exit of conservatives. Third, this “new” direction for the UMC came about not through “the work of God,” as many progressives argue, but rather because the pandemic allowed the UMC bureaucracy to strike a final blow against the democratic majority. Finally, Methodist/Wesleyan denominations around the world remain remarkably unified in defending traditional Christian teaching on human sexuality. Only the British Methodist Church (one of the few Wesleyan denominations declining more quickly than the UMC) has also significantly altered its church law regarding human sexuality.

All that said, conservative ex-United Methodists and the new progressive UMC certainly have their work cut out for them going forward, for mainline Protestantism is in free fall when it comes to both membership and attendance. Conservatives can try to tap into the millions of ex-United Methodists that left the denomination in recent decades. They can also reach out to the hundreds of thousands of individual United Methodists who hoped and prayed the UMC would not actually move so far left, and who will now exit the UMC. Furthermore, conservatives will have the strong support of the world Methodist family.

The road forward for the “new” UMC is also daunting. The UMC has been a leader of the Methodist/Wesleyan global family for decades, if only because it was the denomination with the money. But that leadership will certainly now wane due to decreased funding and the shift on sexuality. Furthermore, all evidence suggests that the decline in denominational attendance and membership of the last fifty years will continue. There is no indication that hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ people will join the UMC now that it is fully inclusive. Finally, while the season of congregational disaffiliation is now over, a new wave of individual, family, small group, and Sunday School disaffiliation has begun, the size of which is unknown. Indeed, the progressive excitement of the last week may prove to be the high-water mark of the “new” UMC. After all, the 1968 merger also started out with great fanfare, only to be followed by decades of continuous decline.

One thing, however, is clear: the “United” in United Methodism is no longer a misnomer. For the UMC, having maneuvered the conservatives out, is now more united than ever. 

Rev. Jack Jackson is Visiting Professor of Evangelism and World Methodism at United Theological Seminary.

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Image by Kenneth C. Zirkel via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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