Leaders within the United Methodist Church have officially announced a proposal to split the denomination citing “fundamental differences” over the issue of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy.
While this is one of many proposals to solve the current tensions amidst the denomination, and the church has made no official decision, it comes after years of contention between the more progressive-leaning members of the church and its more conservative members.
The potential schism arrives during a time of heightened anxiety for the church which, like many mainline denominations in the U.S., has lost many younger members over issues of social justice.
Phil Jones served as a Methodist campus minister for Cameron University for 34 years. During that time dealing with not only college-aged students but also faculty, Jones recognized that the church needed to reform its language and practices when it came to LGBTQ peoples.
“This is an issue for us if we want to reach younger generations,” Jones said. “Our church’s motto for a few years has been ‘open hearts, open minds, open doors,’ and we haven’t fully lived up to that.”
A split in the UMC has been seen as likely since a general conference last February, when the church voted by a slim margin to tighten its ban on same-sex marriage in what is known as the Traditional Plan. The Traditional Plan declared the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible” with the church’s beliefs.
The UMC is not the first denomination in the U.S. to face a split over the issue of LGBTQ rights, Jones said. Similar denominational splinters have happened within the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches.
“This has been a conversation for the last several years,” Jones said. “As our culture and society are trying to overcome its sexism, racism and homophobia that conversation is happening in the church as well.”
On Jan. 1 the Traditional Plan rules officially took effect. Punitive stipulations were created to punish any clergy member or church that chose to stand against the ruling, increasing the strain on an already fractured denomination.
A movement within the church soon arose to resist these changes, the #ResistHarm movement. Focused on eliminating “harmful and discriminatory language,” this coalition is made up of hundreds of laypeople, clergy members and churches across the country united in their stand against the Traditional Plan.
The Rev. Jack Terrell-Wilkes of Lawton Heights United Methodist Church has been pushing back against discrimination in the church since 2002. Joining the #ResistHarm movement was second nature for him.
On Jan. 5, Terrell-Wilkes led a “Resistance Service,” at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. It was one of three such services held throughout Oklahoma, with the other two taking place in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
“It was a worship service of holy resistance,” Terrell-Wilkes said. “This was a statement against what the United Methodist Church has been doing under the Traditional Plan.”
While the “Resistance Service” had been planned before any announcement of the new proposal to split the church was released, the two ended up nearly coinciding.
“We as a denomination have come to a place where we have faithful people with theological disagreements and neither side is going to change their opinion,” Terrell-Wilkes said. “It has gotten to the point where both sides are starting to realize that it is hindering everyone from being who we are called to be.”
Pat Luna, another member of the #ResistHarm movement who has worked with the coalition throughout Southwest Oklahoma, said that the movement was specifically focused on removing the harmful language and not directly engaged in the proposal to split the church. In fact, according to Luna, members of the movement itself are split on whether or not it is the best route to take to resolve the issue.
“All that we are asking people to do is be faithful. We believe that we are being faithful to the gospel and we believe we are making a difference. Maybe this proposal will pass, maybe not. What #ResistHarm is able to do is provide witness,” Luna said.
Were the proposal to be passed as it is currently written it would create at least one new denomination in the form of the “traditionalist Methodists.” It could potentially produce several new denominations. However, “United Methodist” would be the default denomination and churches would need to “opt-out” by a vote to leave the post-split UMC.
According to the Rev. Dr. Sonja Tobey, of Lawton’s St. Paul’s Methodist Church, the proposal will likely undergo rewrites before it is presented at the church’s global conference in May of this year.
“(The proposal) had buy-ins from progressives, centrists and traditionalists, in my mind that says it has a better chance, but there are others who don’t agree,” Tobey said.
Several steps still need to be taken before the proposal can be officially considered, Tobey said. Tobey had opened up her church to Terrell-Wilkes and the recent “Resistance Service,” though she said she did not take an active role in the service.
For Tobey, and her congregation, the proposal is not causing too much anxiety at the moment.
“Ministry stops when you are focused on something you can’t control,” Tobey said. “If we focused all of our efforts, energy and resources on what we can’t control we will be burned out.”
As for St. Paul’s, Tobey said her church’s doors are open to everyone. In particular, to those who have been made to feel unwelcome elsewhere.
“Those who have been made to feel unwelcome elsewhere does include the LGBT community, but it also includes those who have been wounded by a church for whatever reason,” Tobey said. “It is so much more than simply sexual orientation or identity, it is about being the church as the body of Christ in the world following Jesus who welcomed the outcast, ate with sinners, empowered the powerless, and healed body, mind, and spirit.”
The proposal to split the church is one of many that will be debated during the church’s General Conference 2020, which is set to take place in May.