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Navigating schism over LGBTQ+ rights: UMC at a crossroads during General Conference

Navigating schism over LGBTQ+ rights: UMC at a crossroads during General Conference

Analysis by Christopher H. Evans | Professor of the History of Christianity, Boston University

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church began Tuesday in Charlotte, North Carolina, and runs through May 4. Originally scheduled for 2020 and postponed three times due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this meeting of the Church’s legislative body comes at a crucial time for the United States’ second-largest Protestant denomination.

In 2022, conservative Methodists announced a split with the UMC and formed the Global Methodist Church. These leaders believed that the UMC had become too liberal and had strayed from orthodoxy. However, the issue underlying the split revolves around the UMC’s long-standing battle over LGBTQ+ rights.

This denominational split can be compared to that of 1844, when the Methodists were divided over slavery. As a researcher of American religious history and Methodist studies, I see parallels but also major differences between the current schism and that of 1844.

Both schisms focus on the predominant social issues of their time. However, the current schism comes at a time when United Methodists, like other American churches, are navigating a changing religious landscape — one in which church membership is declining, especially among younger Americans.

Methodist roots

The UMC has its origins in the 18th century Anglican minister John Wesley, who wanted to revive the Anglicans’ sense of personal faith.

Wesley’s followers emphasized piety and social commitment and spread Methodism throughout the British Isles and North America. As the movement grew, its followers seceded from the Anglican Church and formed various Methodist denominations.

A statue of John Wesley, sculpted by Paul Raphael Montford, in Melbourne, Australia. / Photo by Adam Carr (Wikimedia Commons)

The first Methodist church in the US, the Methodist Episcopal Church, was founded in 1784. This church and smaller Methodist churches grew rapidly. In 1850, about 1 in 3 church-affiliated Americans was a Methodist.

Today there are 80 Methodist and Wesleyan denominations around the world, of which the UMC is the largest.

The break of 1844

Like other Protestant churches before the Civil War, the Methodists were divided over slavery.

Wesley viewed slavery as a great social evil that deprived enslaved people of God-given human rights. However, American Methodists—including one of the founders of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Francis Asbury—feared that enforcing the church’s bans against slavery would alienate members in the South. For much of the early 19th century, Northern and Southern Methodists followed Asbury’s example, attempting to prevent a formal schism.

At the same time, Methodism broke. African Americans in the Methodist Episcopal Church were not allowed to be ordained as ministers, and church members often worshiped in segregated congregations. This led to the formation of many independent African American Methodist churches, the largest of which was the African Methodist Episcopal Church founded by Richard Allen in 1816.

During the General Conference of 1844, the slavery issue became a major schism. Delegates voted to fire a bishop, James Osgood Andrew, for owning slaves. Andrew’s removal angered Southern delegates, who claimed that slavery was sanctioned in the Bible. In 1845, Southern Methodist leaders withdrew from the denomination and formed the Methodist Episcopal Church South.

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A 1901 map showing parts of the country with congregations in the Methodist Episcopal Church. / Image from the Fifteenth Annual Report of the Woman’s Home Mission Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1939 these northern and southern churches were reunited. Together with another Protestant denomination with historical ties to Methodism, the Evangelical United Brethren, they then united to form the UMC in 1968.

Discussing homosexuality

In 1972, the General Conference adopted a formal declaration asserting that homosexuality was “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Subsequent conferences have tightened these restrictions, most notably in 1984, when the Church banned the ordination of what it called “self-declared practicing homosexuals.”

Since the 1970s, groups on both sides of this issue have been mobilized. An organization called the Reconciling Ministries Network has been working to bring together UMC congregations that support the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people. Conservative groups, such as the Good News Movement, meanwhile, have campaigned to maintain existing LGBTQ+ bans.

In 1996, the General Conference added legislation banning clergy from conducting same-sex weddings — although the number who did so increased significantly.

Bishop Karen Oliveto has the distinction of being the first openly lesbian bishop in the United Methodist Church. She and her wife, Robin Ridenour, a United Methodist nurse anesthetist and deacon, met at Junior High Church Camp and have been together for 24 years. They married in 2014.

In recent decades, members of many American churches, including United Methodists, have shown greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ people. The election of Karen Oliveto in 2016 as the first openly gay bishop of any gender in the UMC marked this changing attitude.

Conservatives continue to resist reform, including a growing number of United Methodists from outside the U.S. — an increasingly large part of the church. For example, many African United Methodists come from countries with strict laws banning homosexuality. Of the 862 delegates attending the upcoming General Conference, 380 will be from outside the US. Nearly 300 of these delegates will come from Africa.

At an impasse

Conflicts between conservatives and progressives came to a head in 2019, when bishops convened a special conference in hopes of averting a schism.

Their council supported what was called the One Church Plan, which would have given United Methodists in several countries more autonomy. Specifically, they could determine how to approach questions about sexuality.

However, the delegates voted overwhelmingly in favor of what was called the Traditional Plan. This left in place the church’s restrictions against LGBTQ+ people, while calling for more punitive measures against pastors who officiated same-sex weddings.

The 2019 conference subsequently adopted a resolution allowing local congregations to leave the UMC over issues related to sexuality. Municipalities were given until the end of 2023 to withdraw, although the consequences would be finalized at the 2020 General Conference.

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Leaders of the Global Methodist Church gather for worship. / Image courtesy of Global Methodist Church

However, this session was repeatedly postponed due to COVID-19. Doubting that U.S.-based leaders would enforce the Traditional Plan’s bans, a group of conservatives formed the Global Methodist Church in March 2022, triggering an exodus of several local churches. As of early 2024, more than 7,600 churches have withdrawn, representing about a quarter of United Methodist congregations.

Uncertain future

Ahead of the 2024 General Conference, conservatives have indicated they plan to lobby to extend the withdrawal deadline. Some progressive United Methodists, frustrated by the UMC’s continued refusal to expand LGBTQ+ rights, have considered forming a third Methodist denomination.

Regardless of what happens in Charlotte, Methodist churches will face a challenging future.

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Worshipers gathered at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church in Washington, DC / Courtesy of Mount Vernon UMC website

Unlike 1844, when many churches grew rapidly, the current schism comes at a time when American Protestantism is shrinking. This includes not only the mainline Protestant denominations, but also more conservative churches. In 1968, United Methodist membership in the US was 10.3 million; at the end of 2018 there were 6.7 million.

Another serious challenge is the rising percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation, commonly referred to as “religious nones” – many of whom are disillusioned with anti-LGBTQ+ policies.

Regardless of the outcome of the General Conference, Methodists face a religious landscape unknown to their 19th century predecessors.