Disagreements in the United Methodist Church have been going on for years. For some, it is reminiscent of a long, messy divorce. That separation nearing its finality with feuds over land, money and 12.7 million children (or congregants).
In 2019, the second-largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. voted to keep and strengthen its ban on same-sex marriage and forbid members of the LGBTQ community from serving as clergy. Fifty-four votes tipped the scales at the UMC’s national conference in St. Louis that year and set off a division between conservative and more affirming congregations.
For Beckie McCall, it was a heartbreaking decision. “I cannot be a member of a church where my son doesn’t have the same rights as I do,” she says. “I would never be a member of a country club where my son wasn’t allowed in the dining room, and that’s basically what you’re telling me about my son.”
It wasn’t an easy fight though. Her openly gay son wanted the family to make a stand, to leave the church. “That wasn’t the choice that I made. I had to stay and fight,” she recalls.
And they did for the time being, at their home church in Davidson, N.C. She started her journey by forming the Davidson United Methodist LGBTQIA Family & Friends group which meets once a month to “provide leadership for further understanding of human sexuality and affirmation of all people.”
But after launching the group, McCall learned that their pastor was not on their side in the argument over LGBTQ acceptance. She and her husband decided that it was time to leave.
In July 2021, Davidson United Methodist Church got a new Senior Pastor – one that provided a space where McCall’s family decided they could return. David Hockett previously served as the District Superintendent of the Charlotte Metro area for the Church and has been a pastor in Greensboro, Salisbury, Concord and Boone. Hockett brought a more welcoming atmosphere, one where the McCalls and others found a church that included them.
One example of that inclusion was evident in a recent letter to the church where Hockett states a commitment to “radical hospitality – cultivating a culture in which no one is turned away and all have a seat at the table and are included in the life and mission of the Church.”
Separating Us and Them
Last month the UMC postponed its General Conference for the third time, this time until 2024. The General Conference is the top policy-making body of the church and is a gathering of Methodists from over 40 countries. It typically meets every four years to consider revisions to church law and policy, adopt resolutions on current issues and approve plans and budgets for church-wide programs and ministries. This year’s conference would have also included a vote on the creation of a new denomination, the more conservative Global Methodist Church.
With news of another postponement, the Global Methodist Church announced its plans to officially launch in May. “Theologically conservative local churches and annual conferences want to be free of divisive and destructive debates, and to have the freedom to move forward together,” the Rev. Keith Boyette, chair of the GMC’s transitional leadership council, said in a statement.
The launch was part of an agreed upon plan called the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation,” or Protocol. Key elements have not been decided, including a stipulation for the UMC to pay the new denomination $25 million or how to handle church property and assets.
“I think the separation between United Methodist and Global Methodist, while it is a sad thing in some ways, it is the right thing and it is the just thing,” says Pastor Julia Webb-Bowden of Elizabeth Street United Methodist Church, an affirming church in Durham. “I believe it is where we have been divinely guided at this point.”
Bowden says the split is much in line with society as a whole today. It is not the first time that denominations have faced internal struggles. In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church split over slavery. A resolution from North Carolina delegates at the time stated, “unwarranted interference of the Northern portion of the Church with the subject of slavery alone, a sufficient cause for a division of our Church.”
North Carolina is made up of two conferences, or geographical areas organized under the leadership of a bishop. The North Carolina Conference includes 56 counties in eastern North Carolina, from Elon to the coast and the Western North Carolina Conference includes the 44 counties west to the Tennessee border.
While there is no exact number of churches in North Carolina that will disaffiliate over LGBTQ inclusion, some say that approximately ten percent may leave for the Global Methodist Church. “There is a process a congregation must follow if they wish to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church,” explained Derek Leek, director of communications for the North Carolina Conference of the UMC. “Our Church Transformation Ministries Office holds consultations with churches that are considering disaffiliation. A few churches are asking about disaffiliation, but some aren’t definite.” Leek says that any figures would be speculation at this point.
According to Dr. Eli Branscome, the separation is also a reflection of society. He recently led an open conversation on human sexuality with the Davidson United Methodist LGBTQIA Family & Friends group. “In my opinion, in my encounter with Methodists, they know the Bible fairly well, but they’re less likely to weaponize it,” says Dr. Branscome. “With the politics of the last five years, the split in the country, I think we are in our second civil war and it’s showing up on all kinds of turf, especially churches.”
Bowden agrees. “It is not just homosexuality. It’s reproductive choice as well and there are some issues around church governance as well that are conflict points,” she says. “I think we’re hitting a point within American Christianity and mainland denominations where we’re just going to see a lot of churches have lived out their life cycles, and I think especially in rural communities and small towns, churches that disaffiliate – they will no longer have the mothership of a major denomination that helps keep them afloat.”
A Path Forward
Pastor Val Rosenquist leads the First United Methodist Church in Charlotte, a congregation that has been in the public eye over LGBTQ equality before. She faced a potential church trial in 2016 after officiating the wedding of John Romano and Jim Wilborne, who became the first same-sex couple in North Carolina to wed publicly.
“For my church here in Charlotte, it is such old news – being open and inclusive,” she says. Often called the “gay church,” Rosenquist prefers to say its an “everything church.” One look at its website and you will see what she means. First United Methodist was the first reconciling church in Charlotte, and it has been thriving ever since.
While she admits it brings up a lot of old wounds for some, she is hopeful that the split will allow the Church to focus on other important things, like affordable housing, homelessness or the refugee crisis in Ukraine.
“When the dust settles, I do think it gives us the opportunity to be who so many have been wanting to be and have been quietly doing it undercover,” she says. “I think there will be a sense of relief there. There’s so much other work to be done.”
For Beckie McCall, that also means a space for peace and education. When asked about her decision to stay and fight in 2019, she says “Looking back, I’m glad I made the decision I did because many people have come to me and said, we didn’t have a church family to go to and now we feel like this is a good place for us to be.”
She believes Davidson (UMC) and the United Methodist Church will become a place of affirmation. There is an opportunity for the UMC to show other denominations what that looks like.
“I think that we are understanding that rather than being so dogmatic and not being willing to take a new look at scripture, we are at the point where we are ready to see religion more as Jesus wanted religion to be, or Jesus wanted spirituality to be,” says McCall.
“A higher power wants a personal relationship with each of us,” says Dr. Branscome. “I don’t think there is one dogma or one set of practices that make anybody more spiritual or healthy or well…It’s like baking a cake from scratch versus a Betty Crocker. You are still baking a cake if you dump a box and add an egg. Yeah, you baked a cake, but I think that’s what most religions are – it’s a cake mix and I don’t think that works for a lot of folks. If everybody is homogenous, that prefab religion works, but as soon as we start seeing people as individuals it all falls apart. We end up in feuds and we divide churches, and we start slinging names, and fists, and rules and regulations and separating churches, but that is when we are being less Christ-like. These problems would never exist if Christians acted like Christ.”