Today's Dividing Issues

posted on February 01

by Rev. Fred Jordan

This article was first published in the February 2023 issue of the First UMC (Salisbury) newsletter, Ecclesia. It is offered here, as will follow up articles, for the edification of others across the Uwharrie District. Rev. Jordan is a retired Elder, former District Superintendent, and adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary.

During the long history of institutional Methodism, our denomination has experienced many disagreements and divisions. Methodists split over slavery, lay leadership, bishops, and racism. Occasionally, after an extended period of separation, splintered denominations reunited. This happened in 1939 with the reunion of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church. Today’s dividing issues are homosexuality and church polity.

The seed of discontent traces to the 1960s. Charles Keysor, an Illinois Methodist pastor, launched a movement to reverse what he considered Methodism’s rising tide of liberalism. He was a fundamentalist, believed in the inerrancy of the Bible, and used his training as a journalist to launch a new publication called GOOD NEWS. By the early 1980s, Good News had its own publishing house in competition with the Methodist Publishing House.

Other caucus groups espousing both traditional and/or progressive theologies soon appeared. What had once been a diversified denomination with a big theological umbrella became a deeply divided collection of special interest groups. Over the last 50 years, extreme positions on both ends of this theological spectrum hardened. Reconciliation has become increasingly difficult.

The spark that ignited the current demand for division came in 2016. The UMC’s Western Jurisdiction ignored church law and consecrated Karen Oliveto, an avowed practicing homosexual, as a bishop. The Book of Discipline did not change, but enforcement of its homosexual prohibitions proved impossible.

That west coast act of disobedience motivated conservatives to unite under a new organization called The Wesley Covenant Association or WCA. It first met in 2016 and laid the groundwork for a new denomination. They called their new church The Global Methodist Church or GMC. It officially launched on March 1, 2022.

A divorce is never pretty. Angry words have been exchanged. Feelings have been hurt. Congregations are divided. Truth is usually the first victim of any legal separation. That is the case with Methodism’s current splintering.

Covid-19 has exasperated the separation. The General Conference has final authority over all UMC legislation. It has not met since 2019 due to the pandemic and will not meet until 2024. It alone has the authority to speak for the whole church. That administrative silence has created a leadership vacuum.

The 2019 General Conference did approve a process for disaffiliation for any church that wants to leave the denomination. This process requires a two third affirmative vote of an individual congregation’s entire membership and the payment of all connectional related financial obligations. This obligation includes 100% apportionment payment for the current conference year and the next year, payment of any unfunded pension liabilities, and payment of all legal expenses involved in the disaffiliation. The full details of this separation document appear in a Book of Discipline insert as ¶2553. Full compliance with this paragraph will allow a congregation to leave the UMC and retain property ownership. This exit process must be completed before December 31, 2023.

Some disaffiliating churches have already indicated their intention to join the GMC. A few exiting churches intend to join a yet to be named progressive Methodist Church. Many, however, are uncertain about their future and will continue as independent churches. It now appears that most congregations will remain part of the UMC. One thing is certain. In the future, The United Methodist Church will be weaker in both its mission and outreach after even one local church departs.