Too late to patch things up? How to cover a schism, United Methodist Church edition

Church splits are endemic with Protestantism, and in coming years a really messy example is almost certain to afflict the large (6,951,278 members, $6.3 billion annual  income) U.S. sector of the United Methodist Church.

At issue is biblical teaching and authority, especially regarding openly gay clergy and same-sex marriage, Protestants’ most divisive issues since slavery.

As reporters and other religion-watchers will know, the UMC’s highest tribunal ruled on April 26  that church law allows much of the “Traditional Plan” that global church delegates passed in February to reinforce existing moral prohibitions. The tribunal also approved a measure that allows dissenting congregations to leave the UMC and keep their buildings and assets (text here).               

Approval of this special “exit plan” is a huge local, regional and national story. This exit plan apparently lasts until New Year’s Eve 2023 and sidesteps the “trust clause” by which the denomination claims ownership of local church properties.

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Withdrawal plans must be approved by two-thirds of a congregation’s professing members, but also by a simple majority of delegates to area meetings called “annual conferences.” Judging from past struggles in other denominations, one can imagine mischief with that second requirement.

Methodists who want to loosen church discipline and give congregations local option on gay policies will mount  a last-chance effort at next year’s General Conference (mark your calendars: May 5–15, Minneapolis Convention Center), but the traditionalists should be able to continue their unbroken 48-year winning streak.

Herewith a few pointers for covering future developments. 

* Journalism 101: Any dispute involves two or more sides. This maxim will prove unusually challenging.

Let’s be candid. The American media and high culture are increasingly hostile toward the sexual morality that has characterized Christianity the past 2,000 years and still does in much of the world. Traditionalists are wary, so reporters will need to carefully cultivate sources with their  Confessing Movement, Good News magazine and Wesleyan Covenant Association.

It will be easier for mainstream journalists to reach voices on the liberal side. In addition to many Methodist academics there are the activists in 14 caucuses that form the Love Your Neighbor Coalition, the most prominent  being the Reconciling Ministries Network. This is where the impending schism will be born.

One plus for the media is that the official United Methodist News Service is of course knowledgeable but also keeps on top of the news and is reasonably non-partisan. 

* Yes, there’s such a thing as a liberal breakaway. Until now,  the U.S. Protestant gay conflict has produced new conservative denominations that rejected liberal changes  in the Episcopal Church (its latest and largest split occurred in 2009), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (2001) and Presbyterian Church USA (1973, 1981, 2012), along with less formalized dropouts from e.g. the American Baptist Churches, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and United Church of Christ. For years, there’s been talk that UMC traditionalists would likewise get tired of the struggle and depart if they could pass a good exit plan. But tables are turned in 2019 and liberals are likely to quit instead.

Beat veterans will remember the 1976 formation of the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, which spurned the rightward march of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, and the same pattern when the Alliance of Baptists (1987) and larger Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (1991) broke with the Southern Baptist Convention’s rising conservative establishment. In both situations, congregations were allowed to leave with their assets, producing minimal legal tumult and far less news than with the recent Episcopal and Presbyterian walkouts.

* Every schism is the same, and each schism is different. In all the above feuds, the issues and the emotions  have been similar. But each denominational setting is distinct. What makes the UMC scenario so fascinating is that, unlike other “mainline” denominations, 45 percent of its members live outside the U.S. It's almost certain that if U.S. Methodists had a separate church, liberal delegates would have won the key votes on moral theology linked to sexuality. 

This will be a significant national story, but it will play out in every locality that the American media cover because the UMC is the most widely dispersed U.S. Protestant body, with 31,867  congregations in 54 annual conferences and five regional jurisdictions. Whatever legislation is enacted, the U.S. bishops and district superintendents, and a vast network of seminaries, colleges, and agencies, will generally favor the doctrinal left.

Untangling all of that will be a doozy.

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