Almost 300 Texas congregations of the United Methodist Church (UMC), representing about half of the Houston region’s 600 UMC churches, officially disaffiliated from the UMC after congregational voting in early December. Most of these churches will now affiliate with the newly formed Global Methodist Church, a more conservative conference of local churches, while a few will start operating independently. This move represents a significant and precipitous decline in UMC membership, both in Texas and across the country.
The reason, according to some church leaders, relates to a long-standing internal disagreement about whether the church should ordain openly LGBTQ clergy and perform same-sex wedding ceremonies.
“Essentially, the UMC, since 1972, has been infighting about ordination and marriage equality for LGBTQ+ folks,” says Rev. Emily Chapman, 39, who is the senior pastor at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in the Heights. “Certainly in the time I have been a United Methodist pastor, it has been the primary conversation in the denomination.”
According to the UMC website, homosexuality was first discussed during the church’s General Conference in 1972, four years after the formation of the denomination through a merger with the Ecumenical United Brethren Church. This resulted in the addition of the UMC’s first official statement on homosexuality that reads, “Persons of homosexual orientation are persons of sacred worth who need the ministry and guidance of the church,” but then adds that the Methodist Church “does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Since 1972, several subsequent General Conferences (which happen every four years) have tried to resolve the highly contentious issue—a conversation that happens globally, thanks to a significant UMC presence in ultra-conservative African countries. During the 2016 General Conference, 100 pieces of legislation were considered by the 864 elected delegates who grappled with questions about fully including LGBTQ people in every aspect of church life and worship, including whether queer people can be ordained and whether same-sex weddings can be performed. Also discussed was whether a pastor’s defiance of these church laws could lead to a church trial where a pastor could be stripped of their UMC ordination. Although these issues had strong supporters on both sides, the discriminatory UMC position was maintained.
In 2019, during a special session, that anti-LGBTQ stance was even strengthened in regards to clergy ordinations and mandatory minimum sentences for a guilty finding in a church trial. This led to a growing resistance among progressive delegates who opposed what they felt were punitive and discriminatory church laws.
In 2020, the issue became so heated that the splinters among progressive, centrist, and traditionalist factions started to split the church apart. An agreement to hold in abeyance complaints related to homosexuality was put in place while the church figured out a way forward. However, the pandemic postponed that General Conference to 2024 while tensions grew. In May 2022, the conservative Global Methodist Church was created. Although it is unknown how many of the disaffiliated UMC churches have joined that new denomination, the assumption is that a large number of them have made that decision.
“We don’t totally know [what the end result will be] yet,” says Rev. Chapman, whose inclusive Heights congregation is typical of the remaining UMC parishes. “It changes the landscape for United Methodism in the United States and all over the world. We don’t know what it will mean for a while. [For Texas United Methodists], it means we are a smaller operation. A personal hope is that [the current Book of Discipline] language will change and we will be free to do weddings for whoever God calls. I hope it means change for the Church. It doesn’t automatically mean that. Church law takes time to change. The only time United Methodist Church law can be changed is every four years at the General Conference, and there isn’t another one until 2024. Had the one in 2020 not been canceled, things might have been different. This is part of why it feels so messy and chaotic.”
Although this UMC debate has been ongoing for 50 years, it is no coincidence that the conservatives’ push to separate from the UMC rather than find a compromise comes at a time of deep political divide in the wake of the pandemic. This created a space ripe for conservative groups to add fuel to the fire on the debate, expediting the split.
Sadly, the UMC split is not unique. Other Protestant denominations have experienced similar splits over sexuality issues—and in doing so, create a bubble for their entrenched followers to live in. On one hand, the UMC could pave the way for a more progressive and inclusive Methodist Church in the US. But for now, both the UMC and GMC flocks will operate in insular bubbles that they will be less likely to break out of any time soon.