In recent years, the deep division over sexuality in the United Methodist Church has led many in the church to use a word they hadn’t heard since their European history classes: “schism.”
A schism, the splitting of a church over irreconcilable differences, has sometimes seemed imminent. Yet in an extraordinary meeting of church leaders in St. Louis that begins Saturday, the 12 million-member denomination will try to reach a plan to hold their church together while also deciding the church’s stance on LGBT issues.
“It is very difficult to be the church in the same way in Monrovia, Liberia, and in San Francisco and in Austin, Texas, and in Peoria, Ill., and in Montgomery, Ala.,” said Bishop Kenneth Carter of Florida, one of the three moderators of the 32-member Commission on a Way Forward that has been preparing plans since 2016 for the denomination to consider. “From a political perspective, we are a church that has among its members Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush and James Comey and Jeff Sessions. … How much unity can we achieve? And how much separation do people need from each other?”
The United Methodist Church is, in the United States, the third-largest faith group in the nation and the largest mainstream Protestant group. Here, many Methodist pastors want to perform same-sex marriages and ordain gay men and women as clergy. They look to their counterparts in other mainstream churches that have long allowed gay weddings, like the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church, as far ahead of their own denomination. But the issue of sexuality remains deeply divisive among both clergy and believers across the nation.
Furthermore, the United Methodist Church is not just an American church but a global one. About a third of the denomination’s churches are in Africa, where the church is rapidly growing and where leaders tend to deeply oppose the idea of being part of a church that sanctions homosexuality.
How to hold all this together? In St. Louis from Saturday through Tuesday, more than 800 clergy and lay leaders will vote on several options — including, perhaps, ending the unity in the 50-year-old denomination’s name.
“When I’m realistic, I realize our denomination probably will break apart. We will most likely split,” said the Rev. Frank Schaefer, one of the highest-profile ministers involved in this debate. Schaefer, a father of three gay children, was put on church trial for officiating the wedding of his son and was defrocked by United Methodist officials in Pennsylvania, then hired again as a pastor at a United Methodist church in Santa Barbara, Calif., under a different bishop. “We’re spending resources debating and fighting each other. It’s like a bad marriage. Sometimes it’s better to break up and move on.”
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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Julie Zauzmer and Sarah Pulliam Bailey