What Does the Methodist Divide Mean?

Logo of the United Methodist Church

In the past couple of decades, American Protestant churches have suffered divisions on the question of homosexuality, and same-sex marriage in particular. Conservative congregations and dioceses have seceded from progressive national bodies, which has led, in some cases, to acrimonious, high-profile litigation over church finances and property. For lawyers and scholars who study law-and-religion, these disputes raise complicated and interesting legal questions. For the litigants, they are often emotional and painful conflicts–divorces, really–that leave everyone, winners and losers, worse off.

It seems that the United Methodist Church (UMC), America’s second-largest Protestant denomination, will not be able to avoid a split over LGBT issues. The Methodists may, however, avoid litigation. This week, a group of church leaders announced a plan for the dissolution of the worldwide church that would allow conservative congregations and conferences to leave the main body and join a new conservative denomination. Under the proposal, the UMC would give the new denomination $25 million and allow departing congregations to keep their property, and departing clergy, their pensions. The UMC seems likely to approve the plan at its next general conference in May.

Observers believe that most American Methodist congregations, which support same-sex marriage, will stick with the main body. But the UMC is a global entity, and, worldwide, the opposite may be the case. In a post at Juicy Ecumenism, Mark Tooley observes that the majority of Methodists today live in Africa, where the church is growing. African Methodists are quite conservative on LGBT and other issues. As a global matter, then, the large majority of Methodists may end up in the new, conservative denomination. If that is the case, Methodism will reflect the same dynamic that exists in Christianity worldwide: growth in conservative churches in the developing world, decline in progressive churches in the developed world. Another sign that Christianity’s center of gravity may be shifting from the global North to the global South.

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