One of the largest religious organizations in the history of the United States has found itself in turmoil. The United Methodist Church (UMC) may not continue to be as united as its title suggests due to infighting between the denomination’s parties and nations it is found in.
As the United Methodist Church grows in Africa without ceasing, political tensions are growing and very few have hope that it will stay undivided; these tensions can be diffused with a split between the African and the American church.
The United Methodist Church has been known historically to take a middle road stance in almost all issues. This allows for each member to form their own beliefs in the faith and allows for wildly diverse congregations. Yet in the diversity, all are united by a love for Christ and by a denominational code of conduct called The Book of Discipline. To become an Elder of the church, one must take an oath promising to uphold the Book of Discipline whether or not one agrees with all laws and by-laws made by the book. One issue of recent is the fact that individuals and whole churches have begun to nullify this covenant by choosing to completely disregard statements made that they do not theologically agree with. Written in an article of the United Methodist’s Good News Magazine, last year a large church voted to withhold their apportionments, tithes to the greater organization, because they disagree with how the United Methodist Church has handled upsets within itself (Goodstein “UMC to Reassess”). This is not the first protest from within the walls of the church, which have taken many forms over the past few years.
A large amount of these protests are due to one common discrepancy; homosexuality and religion. Today the Book of Discipline describes homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teachings” (304). The UMC does not allow for their ordained clergy to officiate weddings between same sex couples nor does it allow for clergy to be in a same sex relationship themselves. The UMC is one of the last mainline denominations to keep their code on this matter unchanged (Fenton “Mt. Bethel”). This has caused much infighting within the denomination and so much tension that it has brought about the question; can the United Methodist Church as it is today survive the cultural revolution that has brought much freedom to the queer community in the United States? At the moment, many fear the answer to this question is no. The next question to be asked is; what will happen next? At the moment, many accept that the answer to this question is an unknown future division in the church.
If this division is truly up and coming, it brings many questions to the table as well. The greatest of these asking how exactly the church would be split. Examining the last jurisdictional meeting of the church as a whole gives insight. The United Methodist Church meets as a worldwide body every four years at General Conference which was last held this year in Portland Oregon. Each conference is met with protestors advocating many issues, but this year the LGBT community pushed hard to show their presence and many bills were brought to the table addressing issues on human sexuality and how the denomination chooses to deal with it. This year 33% of delegates at General Conference were from overseas, articulating the rapid growth of the denomination and the belief that the American church will soon be a minority (Boorstein “With Talk of Schism”). This minority status is problematic because the church as a whole votes on legislation that effects congregations worldwide, not just in certain countries. This way of governing complicates the homosexuality issue. As the American church is behind in cultural aspects such as this, the acceptance of homosexuality as a norm is unimaginable to others which is why the UMC has not found an acceptable way of handling this situation. If the American sect of the UMC and other western countries split from the more conservative and faster growing division of the church, it may allow for all parties to be able to keep the values they find most important.
One of the greatest factors in this issue is the growth of the United Methodist Church in Africa. Culturally Africa is very different from that of North America. The western church grows more liberal each day if for no other reason than the culture around it is more liberal than ever. Yet the African church stays consistent to what they believe is biblical teaching; often aligning with conservatives in the Western hemisphere.
The African Church does have reason to resist falling in line with the American cultural change. Homosexuality is a crime in 38 out of 54 African nations (Gilbert “GC2016”). Christians are already persecuted for their faith, with Nigeria killing more Christians in 2015 than the rest of the world combined with the intent of eradicating the Christian faith from the continent (Harriet “Christians Flee”). After taking this fact into consideration, it is quite understandable as to why delegates from Africa almost wholly vote along the same lines as their American conservative counterparts (Hutchinson “The Hopefully United Methodists”). Why would Bishops and other guardians of the church bring more persecution to their flocks in regards to an issue that impacts almost solely the American church when “Pastors have been beaten and killed, and members of their congregations forced to convert to Hinduism in an increasing number of attacks across the country. On average a church is burned down or a pastor beaten three times a week,” (Hutchinson “The Hopefully United Methodists”). No matter the reason, the African church still gives the conservative party in the American church an advantage during voting at General Conference and liberals have begun looking for ways around this. Both parties in this situation would benefit from what a split between the two cultures would bring.
Not all agree with this idea, and have come up with other solutions to this problem. One other solution is to allow each individual congregation to choose their own standing on homosexuality. This proposal has been named “A Way Forward” yet “talk of a ‘middle-way’ or of ‘agreeing to disagree’ is comforting and sounds Christ-like. However, such language only denies the reality we need to admit. Neither side will find ‘agreeing to disagree’ acceptable” (Boorstein “With Talk of Schism”). Not only this, but what will happen when homosexuality is no longer the issue, and the church must face the next cultural crisis? Questions also arise with the other popular idea for splitting the church; splitting it into three new denominations consisting of a liberal, moderate and conservative church. Would geographic location decide which church enters each new denomination, or would each congregation or local pastor decide? Not only this, but the allocations of the large amount of money the UMC holds would be fought over quite mercilessly between the three newly born denominations.
The proposed split on cultural lines is the most clean and simple way to do what must be done to allow each individual congregation to flourish in the community it finds itself in. Both sides believe they are doing God’s will, with the African church praying “for the return of our denomination to biblical teachings, the unity of the church” (Gilbert ”GC2016”) while many Americans call out for complete inclusivity in the body of Christ with the Love Your Neighbor Coalition stating “We must insist that peace is not going to come through ignoring the demands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians for full inclusion in the church” (Gilbert “GC2016”). Unfortunately, the only true way to know which side is God’s will is to ask him personally.
The United Methodist Church is full of politics, unanswered questions and differences in opinions yet we have lasted 48 years as a denomination, have found ourselves in almost every city in the country and have brought Jesus Christ to places in the world where he was unknown. Everything once born must also die, and the United Methodist Church may be on it’s deathbed. This is something that can be met with fear, or it can be met with logic and understanding. One must remember that no matter the title on the front of a church, its main goal should always be creating more disciples of Jesus Christ. If the church forgets this, it should not even be in existence.