Revisions on sexual ethics intensifying United Methodist schism?

In what is the largest church schism since the U.S. Civil War, the split in the United Methodist Church (UMC) may have exacerbated divisions between progressives and conservatives to a greater degree than other mainline churches. This may be because the culture wars have intensified [see last month’s RW interview with James Davison Hunter], but until a few years ago the UMC was not considered the most likely church body to experience a major schism, writes Richard Johnson in the Forum Letter, an independent Lutheran newsletter (June). Johnson, formerly a United Methodist pastor, adds that the UMC’s global membership and its upholding of the ban on LGBTQ ordination as recently as 2016 seemed to suggest a different course than open schism, such as progressives quietly leaving the denomination. The early-May General Conference, where delegates overwhelmingly voted to eliminate the language in the denomination’s Social Principles prohibiting the ordination of LGBTQ clergy and to change the definition of marriage, confirmed the UMC’s leftward drift, but by then a sizeable segment of conservatives had already left, with most forming the Global Methodist Church (GMC).

This new church body has reported some 4,500 member churches, which is much larger than the UMC’s Presbyterian, Anglican, and Lutheran split-off bodies (and also larger than the United Church of Christ, while being about the same size as the Episcopal Church). Johnson adds that the GMC “will have an easier time becoming established than has been the case with [these other denominations]…It will automatically become a player of some consequence on the American church scene.” He notes that a close reading of the General Conference’s recent actions “reveals a revisionism that goes beyond just LGBTQ issues.” The older language about “celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage” was jettisoned for a statement calling for “social responsibility and faithful sexual intimacy expressed through fidelity, monogamy, commitment, mutual affection and respect, careful and honest communication, mutual consent and growth in grace and in the knowledge and love of God”—without mentioning marriage. Where the church’s Social Principles previously taught that “sexual relations are affirmed only within the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage,” they now only affirm the “rights of all people to exercise personal consent in sexual relationships, to make their decisions about their own bodies and be supported in these decisions.”

In his online newsletter Rational Sheep (June 7), journalist Terry Mattingly writes that the changes in the UMC will energize “new debates about how to handle…other issues linked to the Sexual Revolution. The key: What is the status of sexual activity outside of the vows of gay or heterosexual marriage?” He adds that the mainstream press apparently did not catch this complicated doctrinal and legal issue, nor that of adultery. “Efforts to retain language requiring ordinands to be ‘celibate in singleness’ or ‘faithful in a marriage’ failed,” he writes, “leaving detailed definitions of ‘immorality’ to regional conferences…The national church instructed leaders at the regional level to begin training local-church laity to prepare to accept future pastors—whatever their sexual and gender identities. While thousands of churches have left the denomination, many others face divisions in their pews—since UMC rules required a two-thirds majority for congregations to exit while retaining their buildings, endowments, etc. No one believes that the UMC’s struggles are over at the local level, a fact that should matter to local print and broadcast newsrooms.” Mattingly also asks how the sweeping changes will affect United Methodist seminaries, agencies, publishers and affiliated colleges. “The denomination’s official news agency has already announced a $346.7 million budget for 2025–2028, a stunning 43% cut from the previous 4-year period.”

(Forum Letter, P.O. Box 327, Delhi, NY 13753; Rational Sheep,