How can a denomination based on reconciling differences split over its disagreements?


(RNS) — Several years ago, Joe and his family showed up at the Presbyterian church we attended and enthusiastically became involved. We forged an unlikely friendship and even started a Bible study together. Why unlikely? Joe serves in the U.S. Air Force in intelligence. I have spiritual roots in the Mennonite tradition and do not believe in using lethal force against our enemies.

Some time later, when that same church decided to deny baptism and membership to an openly gay individual, I felt like I had no choice but to leave. How could I belong to an organization that would not allow all of my family, friends and colleagues, LGBTQ or not, to participate as full members? Leaving was painful. It meant severing ties to my primary support community and to people I loved.

Two stories from the same church. In one, despite deep disagreements, a friendship sprouted; in the other, division led to the painful process of uprooting.

These issues are at the heart of a report recently released by The Religion and Social Change Lab at Duke University, an interdisciplinary team of researchers and practitioners that I lead. The report focuses on how the fracture of the United Methodist Church is playing out in North Carolina. But its challenges — and opportunities — are instructive for us all.

Cover of the report "Disaffiliation from the United Methodist Church in North Carolina." (Courtesy image)

Cover of the report “Disaffiliation from the United Methodist Church in North Carolina.” (Courtesy image)

The United Methodist Church was formed in 1968 by a union of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren. The single denomination came into being because people were willing to listen to each other across their differences and build something together.

But as the 2024 General Conference of the United Methodist Church prepares to meet in Charlotte, North Carolina, in a few weeks, the dream of a united Methodist church is crumbling. Driven by a December 2023 deadline for congregations to leave the denomination on favorable terms, many conservatives have already exited. In North Carolina, our report explains, a third of United Methodist congregations and one-fifth of clergy have left.

The irony of the split in the denomination is that those who are doing most of the leaving, the conservatives, not so long ago “won” a decades-long battle over the treatment of LGBTQ brethren. In 2019, the denomination had voted to uphold a ban on the ordination of openly gay clergy and another on same-sex marriages. The conservatives had even managed to increase the penalties for clergy who violated these rules.

Despite these victories, many conservatives still decided to leave. Why?

In her 2015 book “Virgin Nation,” Central Michigan University religion professor Sara Moslener argued that since the 19th century American conservative Protestants have asserted “a causal link between sexual deviance and national decline,” turning to passages like Jesus’ ominous warning found in the Gospel of Matthew, “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” 

This may help explain why conservative Protestant congregations allow for a diversity of opinion on many topics, but rarely on sexuality. Those leaving the UMC cannot accept that other Christians might hold different opinions on LGBTQ inclusion.

As my own experience shows, most churches don’t exclude people for their pacificist or pro-war beliefs, even though Jesus taught us to love our enemies (hard to do when you are sending drones to kill them in their hideouts). My Presbyterian church didn’t make this issue a litmus test of belonging, allowing my friendship with Joe to blossom. When it came to sexuality, however, a different logic prevailed, greatly limiting the possibility of gay and straight people finding community together.

Our search for a new church eventually led us to a United Methodist congregation in Durham that is actively committed to forging a Christian community out of gay, straight, cis- and transgender people. Every Sunday we affirm that we accept ​​those of every age, race, ethnic background, nationality, gender identity, sexual orientation, family or socioeconomic status, educational background, and physical or mental ability.

Yet, though I love my new congregation dearly, I worry that I’ve traded one form of exclusion for another. In my former church, openly gay people could not be members. In my new church, would someone who does not accept same-sex marriages feel equally excluded?

The findings in our report illustrate just how vexing that question is. We find that the median UMC congregation remains solidly purple — one-half Democrat and one-half Republican, which tracks support in the pews for the ordination of gay clergy. Even among clergy, who tend to be more liberal than their congregants, one-quarter of those clergy remaining with the denomination do not support LGBTQ ordination. The progressives have not “won” dominance of the remnant UMC. Deep disagreements have not disappeared.

So how can United Methodist churches — and congregations of other denominations and faiths — foster community in which inclusion crosses political and theological divides?

My friendship with Joe may hold some answers. The UMC that emerges from this rupture has to stop fracturing over sexuality and learn, instead, to live with our differences. The Williams Institute estimated the size of the LGBT population in the United States in 2020-2021 at 5.5% of adults. This number will grow, as the same survey revealed that 15.2% of people age 18-24 identify as LGBT. Concurrently, a third of Americans oppose same-sex marriage, and 60% say someone’s sex at birth determines if they are a man or a woman.

If our congregations want to shoulder both realities in hopeful ways, they must fully embrace gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people; they must also embrace those who do not support gay marriage or transgender rights.

David Eagle. (Courtesy photo)

David Eagle. (Courtesy photo)

I realize how impossible this dream sounds, but I know it’s possible. It was clear from the get-go that I disagreed with Joe on some pretty fundamental issues. But the church embraced us both and did not allow those differences to divide.

(David Eagle is an assistant research professor of global health and sociology at Duke University and co-author, with Joseph Roso, of a new report titled “Disaffiliation from the United Methodist Church in North Carolina: Challenges and Opportunities.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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