The two major splits in the Methodist Church in the United States, the first prior to the Civil War and the second one occurring now, have both been over the issues of whom should be fully included in the life and ministry of the church and whether all persons ought to be treated with equal rights and dignity. The first split was over white supremacy and slavery that divided the Methodist Episcopal Church into northern and southern denominations, though they reunited in 1939. The current split is over whether persons who are LBGTQ2S+ will be fully affirmed in the life and ministry of the church, with those who argue for denying ordination and marriage to persons who are LGBTQ2S+ leaving to form the Global Methodist Church.
Conservative clergy and congregations leaving the United Methodist Church over LGBTQ2S+ inclusion are now saying they are also leaving over deeper theological disagreements concerning the Trinity and the physical resurrection of Jesus, but there have been differences of views among United Methodist clergy and laity on how to understand the Trinity and the resurrection for decades and that never led to mass numbers of persons and congregations disaffiliating from the United Methodist Church. It was only when it became clear that the traditionalists could not force entire jurisdictions to exclude persons who are LGBTQ2S+ from the full life and ministry of the church that they started to leave en masse.
Traditionalists in the United Methodist Church who are now leaving have often blamed the decline in membership in the UMC in the United States on liberal or what they call “non-orthodox” theology, but persons who identify as “nones” have not left Christian churches because some ministers don’t believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus or have different views about the Trinity. They have left or decided never to come in the first place because they don’t see Christian churches bringing resurrection to a broken world through healing, reconciliation, and transformation. And as David Campbell et al. have shown, there is also “evidence that religious disaffiliation is due at least in part to a backlash to the mixture of religion and conservative politics, especially the Religious Right.”*
In my own experience, I have found that often when a group argues that it is more theologically orthodox than another group, it has lost its missional way and is trying to hold on to purity rather than being a loving and just presence in the world. I think this is true of groups of persons who are currently arguing over who is more Wesleyan. The very real danger here is that the recognition of the dignity of persons who are different is often diminished in the pursuit of theological purity, and John Wesley’s wise admonition to “do no harm” is ignored. If our being Christians makes it more difficult for anyone to be fully respected as a person, then we are doing it wrong, and the hope for beloved community is lost.
As the United Methodist Church experiences this second Methodism schism, may we look forward with creativity and compassion and during this challenging time do all we can to follow the way of Jesus to be a loving and just presence for the transformation of the world in a way that respects the sacred dignity of all persons and the inherent worth of all creation.
*Campbell, David E., Geoffrey C. Layman, and John C. Green. 2021. Secular Surge: A New Fault Line in American Politics. Cambridge; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, p. 137.
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