The End of (United) Methodism
They came to St. Louis hoping to win hearts and minds as liberals always do: through love, prayer, empathy, compassion, witness, dialogue, building relationships, scriptural principles, appealing to the better angels of humanity. And as is almost always the case, they lost to cold-hearted power mongering. Liberals wave the banner of hope; conservatives count votes and bargain away principles to consolidate and preserve power. It's how Donald Trump was elected president, how Mitch McConnell is stacking the Supreme Court, how Benjamin Netanyahu is staying in office, how Brexit passed and is still the law of the land, and on and on. Time and again, conservatives have demonstrated through their actions that principles are a commodity.
That's how it was in St. Louis, as United Methodists from around the world gathered to decide, once and for all, if one of the world's largest Christian denominations would live up to its slogan of "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" by eliminating regulatory language that relegates sexual minorities to inferior status. The answer, by a narrower margin than I expected, was no: the rules stay in place, with added punitive language directed at pastors and administrators who conduct same-gender marriages or ordain gay and lesbian ministers. My email box and news feed have been filled with expressions of grief and frustration.
I will admit to being disappointed, too, but I was not surprised at the result--though I am surprisingly cheered by what the breakdown of that vote portends for whatever form American Methodism takes going forward.
I left the ministry in 2000 for reasons that had little to do with the denomination's policy toward the LGBTQI community. Oh, I was fully on board with the most radical proposals coming out of what was then called the Reconciling Congregations Program (it has since been renamed "Reconciling Ministries Network"), having been a pastor of one a Reconciling Congregation and an ally of LGBTQI Methodists, both lay and ordained, for a decade; but I really left ministry because I wasn't cut out for the day-to-day social aspects of the job. In the years after my exit from the work, I came to believe that rather than open itself to my gay and lesbian friends, the denomination was being dragged deeper into intolerance. I had dear friends who attended quadrennial General Conferences for the sole purpose of advocacy, and whose increasingly strident protests finally resulted in their being jailed. Finally one of them told me he was done with this work. From now on, he'd focus on building community close to home, and let the denomination continue to legislate itself out of existence.
In the years since, I've seen that happen as, every four years, the conservative majority at General Conference plugged loopholes and blocked off workarounds progressive Bishops had turned a blind eye to. Since the disbanding of the Metanoia Peace Community, my church home for the decade after I left ministry, I've only rarely attended Methodist services or meetings. Every time I have, I've noticed how gray Methodism is becoming, as fewer and fewer young adults appear to be in attendance. Some of that is the trend across all mainline Protestant denominations: young adults, when choosing a church home (and far fewer of them do than was the case for previous generations), seek more vibrant, less structured, worship experiences than mainline churches have to offer. They're also far less likely to look the other way when they encounter a doctrine that seems unjust or hypocritical to them, and there is no getting around how much the traditional Protestant attitude toward sexual diversity fails on both those counts.
The trend in this century has been toward an opening of American hearts and minds toward diversity, especially in the white middle class that constitutes the majority of mainline Protestant membership. This has even been true in the South, traditionally a stronghold of social conservatism and home to the majority of United Methodists. In fact, if Tuesday's vote had been taken solely by American Methodists, it would have gone the other way: there are no longer enough homophobes in Southern Methodist circles to sustain the exclusionary dogmas of the past.
But just like their congressional conservative coreligionists (don't forget that Jeff Sessions is a Southern Methodist), the right wing floor bosses in St. Louis knew how to count votes and make backroom alliances. As with the Trump campaign, they sought help overseas, and found it in the fastest growing part of the denomination: Africa and the Philippines, places where homosexuality is still a crime. Even with the preponderance of votes coming from these regions, the conservative faction only managed to put its traditionalist plan through with a 53-47 percent majority.
What lies ahead? It doesn't look good to me. To a conservative, even the narrowest of margins is a mandate. Look at how many outrageous policies the Trump regime and its congressional minions have attempted to foist on the nation after Trump lost the popular vote by a significant margin, but managed to eke out a victory in the electoral college. Even stolen elections have consequences. I fully expect conservative Methodists in the Western and Northeastern Jurisdictions, which constitute the most progressive wings of the denomination, to become empowered by this decision and to ruthlessly argue for the full prosecution of any pastor found either to be gay, or to be performing same-gender weddings. I know there are many courageous pastors who will continue to defy this unjust, unscriptural dogma, but I'm not confident that courage will translate to administrators continue to look the other way, let alone putting their own jobs at risk by committing their own acts of ecclesial disobedience. Bishops preach and pray a good game, but I have yet to know one who would openly violate church law, however unjust he or she believed it to be.
This will put Bishops in the increasingly uncomfortable business of having to prosecute pastors for doing the work they have been called to: ministering to all their parishioners. Worse still, it will force them to root out gay and lesbian pastors, and to refuse to ordain new pastors they believe to be gay or lesbian. The life of the church will become bogged down in newsworthy trials, broadcasting to the world that Methodism is a bigoted, vindictive faith that is prosecuting itself out of existence. Churches across the West and Northeast will go the route of so many rural congregations, turning grayer by the year, their pews empty of young adults and children, their remaining members dying off until their doors close forever.
That fate almost certainly awaits churches in the Southern, Central, and South Central Jurisdictions, regions where it is far less likely that pastors, let alone administrators, will balk at the more draconian disciplinary language coming out of St. Louis. But it is not necessarily the case for the rest of American Methodism.
There is an alternative for the Methodists I grew up with: finally abandoning the empty concept of unity at all costs, breaking away from the global denomination, and, as happened in the mid-1800s over the issue of slavery, becoming regional denominations. Then, as now, there were irreconcilable differences over a key social principle. The status quo in the Northwest has been "don't ask, don't tell," which, far from full inclusion, still relegates gay and gay-friendly clergy to second class status, barred from testifying to the good works they do, and the redemption they find, with their LGBTQI parishioners or partners. What these Methodists have been craving for decades now is the approach taken by the United Church of Christ, where rather than hide the sexual identity of clergy or perform same-sex weddings in secret, these things are celebrated as essential to the identity of people and their community. I've known a number of former Methodists who jumped ship and became UCC clergy or members for this simple reason, and during my work as a UCC church musician, I couldn't help noticing how much younger that congregation was than any Methodist church I'd been to in a very long time.
Getting to that separate, open, affirming regional denomination will take an enormous effort. There's a huge amount of inertia in place. The official statement of the Western Jurisdictional delegation to St. Louis expressed disappointment and, as I expected, a resolve to stay within the denomination. It remains to be seen if the Jurisdictional Conference, coming in a few weeks, votes to continue down the same frustrating road of staying United Methodist, however great the cost to the soul of the church, however dismal the future will be under this even more restrictive regime.
I'm hopeful, though, that sometime soon, the denomination will have to let go of the word "United." Fifty years after taking it on, it's more clear than ever that the only thing uniting Methodism is our codependent desire not to split. If this were a marriage, it would be long past time to hire a divorce lawyer. So let's get it over with, while we are yet alive, and see if it's still possible for Methodism to be relevant in the 21st century.