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The Methodist Church split over same-sex marriage, explained

The church’s proposed splintering is one of the most drastic responses to marriage equality.

An LGBTQ flag flies over Union United Methodist Church in the South End of Boston on January 5, 2020.
Jessica Rinaldi/Boston Globe/Getty Images

There are big changes coming to the spiritual home of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Hillary Clinton, and Elizabeth Warren.

The United Methodist Church, the second-largest Protestant denomination in the US, announced Friday a proposal to split after years of dispute over LGBTQ issues and marriage equality.

Church leaders revealed a plan that would divide its roughly 13 million members worldwide by creating a new “traditionalist Methodist” denomination that maintains a strict ban on ordaining LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage.

The proposal is the latest and perhaps most drastic development as religions have grappled with the increasing social acceptance of marriage equality and LGBTQ rights over the past several decades. The number of Americans who regularly attend church is sitting at its lowest point in decades, and millennials in the US are particularly turned off by anti-LGBTQ church doctrine.

According to Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, an author and disillusioned former Methodist, tensions over queer issues have been increasing for decades, but really hit a key point at the church’s 2016 general conference. “There was a lot of hope then that the restricted anti-LGBTQ language would be removed from the Book of Discipline, which they’d been debating every four years since 1972, but instead of making a decision, they decided to form a special commission,” he told Vox. It was at that point that Graves-Fitzsimmons decided to leave the Methodist Church after having been a member of the denomination since childhood.

That special commission concluded with 53 percent of church leaders and lay people voting to tighten language on its same-sex marriage ban at a general conference last February, in a measure saying “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” It was a decision that made the plan to split all but inevitable.

“We tried to look for ways that we could gracefully live together with all our differences,” Louisiana-based Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey told the New York Times. After last year’s conference, “it just didn’t look like that was even possible anymore,” she said.

Each congregation will now hold a vote over whether to remain in the United Methodist Church or join the anti-LGBTQ splinter group. It’s expected that the majority of American congregations will choose to remain in the more liberal denomination, but Graves-Fitzsimmons is worried about how those congregation votes will affect LGBTQ parishioners.

“The sad part to me is that people will have to vote on a local level, which I think is incredibly harmful for LGBTQ people,” he said, pointing out that queer Methodists will essentially have their validity voted on by their neighbors. “This is in a local church. It’s much different when it’s at a global meeting.”

Religious leaders have struggled to adapt to changing social mores

To survive, churches must maintain a steady membership. The percentage of Americans who said they belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque hit a high of 76 percent in 1948 and has been in steady decline ever since, according to data from Gallup. In 2018, that number had declined to just 50 percent.

Methodist membership numbers, specifically, have declined every year since 1964. For example, average weekly church attendance in the US fell 3.3 percent in 2016 from the previous year. Unsettled questions over the church’s stance on LGBTQ people have only exacerbated the situation.

There are many reasons why Americans aren’t as religious as they used to be, but for many young people, the way their LGBTQ friends are treated by hard-line Christians and Catholics is often a motivator for leaving the church.

While the cultural approval of LGBTQ people had been slowly moving in a progressive direction for decades, the first civil unions for same-sex couples were allowed in Vermont in 2000, then marriage equality became state law in Massachusetts in 2004. From there, a steady drumbeat of court rulings and legislation expanded the right throughout much of the US before a Supreme Court required the remaining states to legalize marriage equality in 2015.

Church leaders have been forced to reconcile their own deeply held beliefs with a more accepting social environment, and the Methodist split is just the latest in a long series of church adaptations on queer issues.

The United Church of Christ was the first major Protestant denomination to take affirming action for LGBTQ people, allowing same-sex couples to get married in 2005, while the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America opened its doors to queer marriage in 2009, though it leaves the final decision up to each local minister.

In 2015, the Presbyterian Church USA voted to change its definition of marriage by amending its Book of Orders to say marriage is “between two people.” Seventy-one percent of church leaders voted in a general assembly to approve the change. Episcopalians followed suit in 2018, expanding the right of gay congregants to get married in all congregations.

While some Protestant denominations have taken steps to open their doors to their LGBTQ neighbors, more conservative strains of Christianity aren’t having much of those discussions. Pope Francis has drawn acclaim for saying “Who am I to judge gay people?,” but the Catholic Church has shown no sign of changing its strict anti-LGBTQ doctrine. In fact, the Vatican has rejected the entire notion of transgender people.

Similarly, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the US, continues to marginalize LGBTQ congregants, with messages that have become culture-war talking points against queer rights — like homosexuality is not a “valid alternative lifestyle” and “gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception.”

“The Southern Baptists and the Catholics are a long way off,” said Graves-Fitzsimmons of their LGBTQ acceptance. The Methodist split, he said, “will move us past this long, tumultuous period where there will be churches that welcome, affirm, celebrate the gifts of LGBTQ people. And there will be churches that don’t.” Ultimately, it will make clearer where people may find they belong.

Before coming to an agreement about separating, church leaders from the US, Europe, Africa, and the Philippines gathered in Washington, DC, for bargaining sessions last week. Negotiations also focused on ironing out financial differences, like how pensions and funding will be allocated to those congregations that will be leaving. The church’s worldwide conference, scheduled for May, still needs to approve the restructuring.

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