What the Methodist split tells us about America

— A separation of church and church.

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Last week, hundreds of United Methodist Church (UMC) delegates from around the world sat down to vote on whether or not to reverse a longstanding ban on the ordination of LGBTQ clergy. The decision would also determine whether or not to strike a rule that prohibited clergy from presiding over “homosexual unions.”

The room was uncharacteristically hushed as delegates logged their votes. They’d gathered to participate in a quadrennial General Conference, where an elected group of clergy and laypeople review and edit the rules and social stances of the church on a variety of subjects. When the results were announced, the room erupted in loud sobs and cheering. With this vote — and several others — over 50 years of church law, doctrine, and social stances aimed at restricting the full inclusion of LGBTQ methodists were reversed.

In a dramatic deviation from the staid (remarkably congressional) proceedings, the Methodists began to sing.

Church historian Ashley Boggan told Today, Explained’s Noel King that the UMC’s schism should matter to Methodists and non-Methodists alike. “If you look at Methodist history within the United States, it’s a great lens for looking at American history,” she said.

How did we get here?

For the last five years, the United Methodist Church has been fighting over its stance on LGBTQ members.

In a one-off special session in 2019, the UMC had voted to tighten its prohibitions on LGBTQ members — a decision that nearly half of all UMC congregations across the country went on to publicly reject in the following years. So, in 2022, a splinter denomination was born: the Global Methodist Church. Traditionalist congregations had seen the writing on the wall: Change was coming, and they didn’t want to be part of it.

Conservative churches began leaving the denomination in droves, and by the time the General Conference convened this year, a quarter of US congregations had jumped ship. It was this newly slimmed-down UMC that voted to reverse the church’s anti-LGBTQ positions earlier this month.

What Methodists say about America

The Methodist church developed in tandem with the United States. Both are 18th-century experiments in democracy, and each has weathered the great challenges of the last two centuries — war, reunion, and an ever-expanding understanding of personhood — in distinct but parallel lanes.

Throughout the 19th century, as the United States grappled with the notion of Black personhood and the reality of chattel slavery, so too did the Methodists. In 1844, 40 percent of Methodist congregations split off to form a pro-slavery splinter congregation.

That was the last time this many Methodists split off from the main denomination. Fifteen years later, the Confederacy seceded as well, and a bloody civil war shortly followed. This parallel has not gone unnoticed.

According to Boggan, in the decades that followed, this pattern repeated itself. As the post-war US reconstructed itself, the Methodist church followed suit. In a 1939 merger, the Southern and Northern Methodists were once again united. As states enacted Jim Crow laws across the country, the Methodists created a segregated system of their own.

The Methodist church became a sort of bellwether for larger national sentiment, and this extended beyond racial politics, The church granted full ordination rights to women in 1956, and seven years later, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique mainstreamed “the problem with no name.”

While this all might lead us to fear that the current breakup in the Methodist church is yet again a harbinger of violence, it is helpful to remember this caveat: the Civil War-era United States was extremely Methodist. According to church historian Nathan Hatch, in the runup to the Civil War, the Methodist church was “the most extensive national institution other than the Federal government.” The sheer size of the denomination meant that the political reality of the church would eventually become the political reality of the country.

Today, church membership is in decline, and the institutional influence of mainline protestant churches is much diminished (although to exactly what effect is debatable). The church is not, as it was in the 19th century, a small-scale model of the country. Today, according to Boggan, the church acts more like a lens: a way to see broader national tensions work themselves out on a smaller scale.

What next?

At the General Conference, several traditionalists told me that their local congregations were still actively considering leaving the denomination. Dixie Brewster, a conservative delegate from Kansas, told me she feels like the UMC is no longer a big-tent denomination, and “it seems like there’s no place at the table for the conservative view of traditional marriage and family.”

I’m not sure these anxieties are warranted. On paper, the church is an objectively bigger tent today than it was last year. Queer people can pursue ordination, and clergy now have the right to perform same-sex weddings.

Notably, a clear majority of delegates also voted to pass a statement that formally enshrined the rights of traditional clergy to refuse to officiate a same-sex marriage. In a 479–203 vote, the UMC decided that “all clergy have the right to exercise and preserve their conscience when requested to perform any marriage, union, or blessing of any couple.”

It appears that this now “more progressive” UMC is walking a sort of quasi-libertarian road toward progress. By “removing restrictions on paper,” Boggan said, the conversations about how best to love one’s neighbor must change venues. No longer enshrined in the black-and-white text of doctrine, debate is forced back inside the four walls of the church.

While the Methodist church was once a reliable indicator of national sentiment, it lifted its prohibition on gay marriage nearly a decade after Obergefell v. Hodges did the same for the rest of the country. This is not to say that LGBTQ rights in the United States are set in stone. In Florida, legislators have decided that while you can say gay, you have to say it carefully. Most Republican-run states have restricted or outright banned gender-affirming care for minors, and in states where restrictions on LGBTQ people have gotten tighter, reported hate crimes against LGBTQ elementary and high school students have quadrupled.

It is unclear whether or not the United Methodist Church will continue to embody these tensions. The mass exodus of conservative congregations was orchestrated by what Boggan called the “evangelical wing” of the UMC. The wing of the church most actively engaging in conservative culture wars has taken itself out of the conversation.

Whether the Methodists pull back together or splinter further is still an open question.

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