Less Than United: the People of the United Methodist Church

The United Methodist Church has never been united on the politics of identity. Its story could just as easily be read as the saga of cultural division.

Methodist General Conference
Supporters of full inclusion for LGBTQ persons in the life of The United Methodist Church hold a timeline in the observer's area at the 2019 United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis. (Photo: Mike DuBose, UM News)

Every four years, elected lay and clergy delegates of the United Methodist Church (UMC) gather in a business meeting known as the General Conference. At the 2016 General Conference, a commission from the nearly 1000-person body requested the denomination’s guiding episcopal leadership, the Council of Bishops, to call an additional emergency meeting to directly address denominational disagreement over human sexuality. The bishops answered with the convening of the Special Session of the General Conference on February 23-26, 2019.

To put this in perspective, the only other time a non-quadrennial session of the General Conference took place was in 1970, two years after the forming of the UMC. Its charge was to finalize the 1968 merger of its antecedent denominations, the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren, a monumental moment in the UMC’s history Yet, whereas that meeting in 1970 pointed toward unity, the events of the 2019 session have pointed toward schism.

More Than a Vote

The UMC has debated its stance on human sexuality since the denomination’s beginnings. Since 1972, the denomination’s constitutional document, known as The Book of Discipline, has noted that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Discipline furthermore states that a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” person cannot hold the position of clergy or ministry candidate, nor can a UMC clergy officiate over a same-sex wedding.

While the letter of The Discipline appears clear, the UMC has since read and applied The Discipline with a more generous spirit. Those more inclined toward inclusion note that a section in The Discipline called the “Social Principles” affirms that the UMC is “committed to supporting those rights and liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation.” But in practice, this section is more advisory than legally binding in status, as demonstrated in the punitive charging and defrocking of UMC pastors who have acted in defiance of the denomination’s prohibitions.

However, the diffuse representational structure of the denomination has led to uneven efforts at policing sexuality. Although the denomination has a designated high court called the Judicial Council to weigh the constitutionality of church actions, problems regarding adjudication are usually meant to be addressed locally first. In geographic areas where church leaders may have little to no reservation over full LGBTQ inclusion, one would not suspect much local energy placed in investigating violations related to this particular statute. Thus, some gay ordinands, pastors, and bishops have served in the denomination relatively undeterred.

As public opinion and U.S. law have increasingly favored the institution of same-sex marriage and the full enfranchisement of LGBTQ persons, members of the UMC have struggled to speak with one voice on the matter. Para-church factions, each with their own political agendas, strive to orient the denomination’s “holy conferencing” and craft the church’s official legislative positions.

The institution has struggled to hold in tension an ethic of social inclusion with the assumption of heteronormative integrity. The Special Session of 2019 acted as a final call for United Methodists to metaphorically bet on the denomination’s much advertised slogan for the 21st century: “open hearts, open minds, open doors.” Upping the ante of rhetoric and influence, delegates voted on four proposed futures:

  • The Simple Plan — presented by United Methodists For the Way Forward (UM Forward). This plan advocated for the removal of all language restrictive of LGBTQ persons and allies from The Book of Discipline. The rationale was to solidify a Discipline whose prescriptions would “do no harm,” a phrase excerpted from John Wesley’s 1743 “General Rules,” one of the founding documents of Methodist societies.
  • The Traditional Plan — heralded by the Reform and Renewal Coalition, a conglomeration of groups seeking to renew the denomination’s commitment to its Wesleyan piety and historical Christian positions regarding heterosexuality. This plan doubled down on the current dictates of The Discipline and added policing measures to assure uniform enforcement. It also provided a window for dissenting United Methodists to leave the denomination.
  • The One Church Plan affirmed by the majority of the Council of Bishops. This plan emphasized unity over all else, eliminating restrictive language and allowing for members — including laity and clergy — to differ in convictions around human sexuality. It offered to formalize the status quo reality of a church with multiple inclinations by providing protections in The Discipline to allow all parties to appeal to conscience.
  • The Connectional Conference Plan — This plan was similar in ethos to The One Church Plan but called for local churches to organize in three connectional conferences, each based upon their position —”Progressive,” “Unity,” and “Traditional.” Each would have its own leadership and own tailor-made version of The Discipline to conduct ministry as they deem appropriate, while remaining under the umbrella of the UMC. While enjoying support by Methodists of differing perspectives, many deemed it logistically and constitutionally cumbersome.

To the shock of many inside and outside of the UMC, the Special Session endorsed The Traditional Plan. The biggest change was the addition of details on specific penalties for transgressing prohibitions related to human sexuality listed in TheDisciplineEffective January 2020, candidates for ordained ministry are barred from the process if they identify as an LGBTQ person. Pastors who officiate ceremonies at all evocative of matrimony between same-sex couples will be suspended for a year.

“The UMC has never been quite united on the politics of identity. Its story could just as easily be read as the saga of cultural division.”

Ironically, while member groups of the Reform and Renewal Coalition have championed some form of an “amicable separation” for 15 years and were arguably the most ready to leave the denomination, they now have the onus and responsibility of managing a massive institutional endeavor. Meanwhile, those dissatisfied with the Special Session’s decision will occupy the role of resistance and determine whether to protest from within or to develop a new denomination.

Righteous indignation holds an evocative place in Methodist mythology as Wesley’s Methodist movement spun off  from the Church of England and American Methodism off of it in the late 1700s. But for those surprised by the latest episode in the U.S.’s largest mainline Protestant body, the turn of events is in line with the denomination’s history regarding other readings of social difference, especially race. The UMC has never been quite united on the politics of identity. Its story could just as easily be read as the saga of cultural division.

Racist Fits and Starts

For starters, part of John Wesley’s initial interest in bringing Methodism from England to the American colonies involved his fetishizing of their indigenous population. In his Journal, Wesley details not only his desire to midwife their salvation, but also his characterizations of their so-called “heathens.” The severity of his language may have had to do with the utter failure of his two-year mission to Georgia as much as the supremacist mindset of the British imperial project. But there can be no denying that Wesley sometimes saw Native Americans as wholly other in the worst ways.

Furthermore, modern American Methodism has been segregated longer than it has been not. From 1844 to 1939, the denomination’s largest predecessor was divided into the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church-South because of the latter’s views of slavery. And this is to say nothing of the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, and Christian Methodist Episcopal churches whose formations were premised at least in part on the anti-Black realities of Methodist Episcopal witness. Respectively, Black Methodists separated from White Methodists in the Colonial, Antebellum, and Reconstruction eras.

American Methodism has had a tendency to use segregationist means to unify divergent political ends. In the 1939 reunification of the Methodist Episcopal Church (along with the short lived Methodist Protestant Church that had leftover objections to the episcopacy), Black Methodists were relegated to an all-encompassing “Central Jurisdiction” for governance and representation instead of the geographic jurisdictions where their congregations were actually located. This mandatory separation presumably allowed for the wholeness of the church while keeping the color line intact. Integration did not officially come until the 1968 formation of the United Methodist Church and the establishment of its General Commission on Religion and Race, an office committed to facilitating inclusion throughout the work of the denomination.

Separate But Equal in the Mission Field

While the work of the General Commission on Religion and Race has helped to eliminate de jure segregationist structures, the church has had a harder time wrestling with the de facto discrimination in its best intentions for racial inclusion. As much as diversity is a popular talking point in today’s UMC, the presumption that a common culture can make for cohesive ministry has justified irregular conference groupings based explicitly on cultural as well as geographic affinity.

Three of these have the designation of “missionary conferences,” signifying their history in the expansionist work of the UMC’s predecessors as well as the denomination’s administrative and financial support of these regions. These include the Red Bird Missionary Conference (focused largely in Appalachia), the Alaska United Methodist Conference, and the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. Though these conferences are quite diverse, they are similar in that their raison d’être can be traced to the divisive exploits of American manifest destiny.

While American Methodists generally identify missionary conferences as philosophically different than the central jurisdiction, the border lines are not necessarily clear. In 2014, the Native American leaders in the UMC wrote an open letter to the denomination’s five U.S. jurisdictions to address the contentious origins, practical failures, and recommendations for Native American ministries in the UMC.

The Struggle with Colonialism

Though a global church, the UMC has had no easy time unlocking the shackles of global empire. American Methodism among predominantly Spanish-speaking populations underscores a tradition of inequality. Coinciding with 19th century territorial campaigns in the contemporary U.S. Southwest, Methodist missionaries organized churches serving members of Mexican descent into separate districts and conferences overseen by White leaders. In the 1939 Methodist reunification, the groupings were consolidated into a multi-state body eventually called the Rio Grande Conference. Over the decades, it slowly became more self-governed in a manner similar to traditional conferences. Not until 2014 did the Rio Grande Conference and the largely overlapping, primarily White, Southwest Texas Conference dissolve and merge into the RioTexas conference.

The question of human sexuality has only magnified the UMC’s twisted colonial heritage. Some UMC leaders in “the Global South” concur with American UMC traditionalists in the claim that congregations will leave the denomination before accepting policies inclusive of LGBTQ persons. Some Progressives have even gone so far as to blame the results of the recent Special Session on the conservatism of African delegates in particular.

Such scapegoating cannot be disconnected from the denomination’s imperial heritage.

All this to say, progressive voices are not intrinsically opposed to paternalistic politics.

As Valerie Bridgeman, academic dean of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, remarked: “Colonialism is a real thing. But I also want to point out, having talked to several of my friends in Africa, that not all Africans agree with this decision,” she says. “I think it’s unfair for Americans to blame Africa or South America or the Philippines

Thinking specifically in the context of Africa, Sarah K. Dreier, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Washington, agrees. In The Washington Post article “Not All Christian Leaders in Africa are Opposed to LGBTQ Inclusion,” Dreier frames Progressives’ blaming of Africa in terms of “‘homonationalism,’ when Western societies use their LGBTQ attitudes to portray themselves as superior to ‘backward’ societies.” African church leaders resist Western liberal Christians whose actions imply they believe their ways are best, with attitudes reminiscent of early imperialism and colonization.”

All this to say, progressive voices are not intrinsically opposed to paternalistic politics.

Will the “Real” United Methodists Please Stand Up?

The fissures and fractions cataloged here could be taken as evidence of a denomination already divided many times over issues of social difference. At the same time, I have not rehearsed the countless moments or features that have made the denomination appealing to an impressive diversity of people. The groups named above would have left the UMC were there not something they found redeeming or redeemable.

In addition to the dissolution of the Rio Grande Conference, the 2000 General Conference of the UMC incorporated into its proceedings an “Act of Repentance,” acknowledging the church’s active participation in anti-Black racism and seeking forgiveness from historical Black Methodist denominations. The 2004 General Conference continued this work with “A Service of Appreciation for those who stayed,” coming to terms with the complicated experiences of Black United Methodists. Further, the 2012 General Conference similarly enacted an “Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous Peoples.” These events, and more, point to the unifying impulse of United Methodists.

But unity is a narrative of retrospection, and those that spin its yarn must first recognize a past that revolves around disunity. These 21st century examples of reconciliation came not only after decades and centuries of strife, but also historical revisions that recast “others” as, in point of fact, also human. If this is indeed a socio-historical pattern, those grieving the current schism over human sexuality are seeing the end of a Methodist movement as much as they are seeing the start of one.

In pondering the denomination’s future in light of its history with race, I suspect that the UMC’s future will be as Wesleyan as it is American. Its factions will mobilize to create “a more perfect union” among the members of their respective constituencies, and they will seek to “go on to perfection” by acknowledging any missteps along the way. The questions for this moment are, Who will be counted? and Who will be heard? 

Methodist Futures

Judicial Council United Methodist Church
Photo of members of the Judicial Council of the UMC. (Photo: Mike DuBose, UM News)

Symbolically, the United Methodist Church understands itself as a Pentecost people, emboldened by the cross and enlivened by the Holy Spirit’s flame. Politically, it is Annual Conference season, and bishops are overseeing the election of delegates to the 2020 General Conference. As usual, groups are maneuvering to shape the coming conversation. 

The Reform and Renewal Coalition — an alliance of traditionalists who won the day at the Special Session — prepare to hold their gains while also enacting the changes and ramifications since codified in the Discipline.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the massive United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, gathered select leaders from each conference to discuss strategies for reclaiming or reviving the denomination in a vision that would include ways to enfranchise the LGBTQ community. The closed-door meeting took place on May 20-22, 2019, at a Kansas City suburb under the name “UMC Next.”

A few days prior, “UM Forward,” the assembly responsible for The Simple Plan, invited all interested in fathoming a future emphatically committed to the liberation and empowerment of “People of Color + Queer + Trans people in the United Methodist Church” to join them in Minneapolis, the site of the 2020 General Conference. Their movement rejects efforts that would undermine this cause, even if for the sake of unity.

For those thinking they are witnessing the fall of Methodism in America, they would do well to remember that nothing could be more Methodist. Division is their birthright and their inheritance. What can be expected are negotiations of social difference that will hardly please everyone.

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    Written by Richard Newton

    Richard Newton , PhD is an assistant professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Dr. Newton's areas of interest include theory and method in the study of religion, African-American history, the New Testament in Western imagination, American cultural politics, and pedagogy in religious studies. His work has been published in the Journal of Biblical Literature and Method & Theory in the Study of Religion. His forthcoming book is titled Identifying Roots: Alex Haley and the Anthropology of Scriptures. Follow him on Twitter @seedpods and learn more about his work at sowingtheseed.org.

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