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The Coming Methodist Split?

Thomas Hawk

Mark Tooley - published on 06/16/14

The logistics are nearly insurmountable. Two thirds of the General Conference delegates, who next meet in 2016, would have to approve a division, and that vote would need to be ratified by two thirds of the voting members of local annual conferences (similar to dioceses), around the world. A subsequent General Conference would then have to implement. Reaching such a level of consensus on such a controversial issue is very unusual in United Methodism. So far, almost no moderates or liberals have endorsed the idea, which would compare to the formal division between northern and southern U.S. Methodism over slavery before the Civil War.

Instead, a group of liberal clergy, in their own manifesto, have suggested a local option for sex issues. Each annual conference, which often follows state lines in the U.S., could decide for itself whether to ordain persons who are homosexually active. Local churches would decide whether to receive homosexual clergy or host same sex rites. Such a congregationalist arrangement would be alien to Methodism’s traditionally connectional ecclesiology. And most liberals still could not be happy until the whole church fully embraced their view that sex should not be limited to natural marriage.

This proposal from some liberals probably would not require the high hurdle of a two thirds vote but is still very unlikely to gain passage at the General Conference, where Africans and evangelicals now comprise a near majority. Such a local option resembles the initial liberalizing steps of other mainline Protestant denominations, which led to a conservative exodus and creation of new denominations by traditional Anglicans, Presbyterians and Lutherans.

So for the foreseeable future conservative and liberal United Methodists are stuck together unhappily in the same denomination, with little that unites them except property and pensions. But under current membership trends, as the liberal parts of the U.S. church shrink and African churches grow, the Africans are set to become a majority of the United Methodist Church in ten years or less. How U.S. liberals will function in a church where conservative Africans have the power will be fascinating to watch.

Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church and Methodism And Politics in the Twentieth Century.

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