With deadline looming, United Methodist Church dissolves


With 17,000 members, White's Chapel Methodist Church in Southlake, Texas, offers multiple worship services each weekend along with the kind of attractions only the largest houses of worship can boast: a cafeteria, an indoor courtyard, a Christmas festival with pony rides and fireworks and almost daily opportunities to volunteer and socialize. On Sunday mornings, a small white bulldog named Wesley, after the founder of Methodism, wanders around campus with a handler, greeting his admirers.

“They call this place the biggest little church,” said Linda Rutan, who was sitting with her husband near a long holiday train departing on a recent Sunday morning. The Rutans have attended White's Chapel since moving to Texas from California in 2022. “It's so friendly,” she said, “that it doesn't feel like a huge church.”

Until July, White's Chapel was the second-largest United Methodist congregation in the country. The conservative-leaning church lost its status this year not because it shrank (it is growing, leaders say) but because it left the denomination.

America's second-largest Protestant denomination is in the final stages of a slow breakup that has so far seen a quarter of the country's roughly 30,000 United Methodist churches leave, according to the denomination's news agency.

At stake for Methodists is the issue of ordaining and marrying LGBTQ people, an issue that has divided many other Protestant denominations and that Methodists have been debating for years.

In 2019, Methodist leaders opened a window for any congregation to leave for “reasons of conscience,” allowing them in most cases to take their property and assets in a clean break if they received approval to leave by December 31, 2023. Many conservative congregations have done just that.

“It's the biggest denominational schism ever,” said Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University. In 2020, there were eight million Methodists in the United States, according to the United States Religious Census. Between large-scale departures and the broader trend of decline, Dr. Burge said, that number could be cut in half within a decade.

The exodus marks a calamitous decline for the broader tradition of mainline Protestantism, which once dominated the American religious, social and cultural landscape.

Now, as the deadline approaches, remaining congregations and leaders are taking stock of their losses and looking toward a future in which the denomination's footprint in the United States may continue to shrink (even as it grows abroad , especially in Africa). In Texas, a historic stronghold of United Methodists, more than 40 percent of churches are gone.

“It is important and it has come at a high cost,” said Thomas Bickerton, a lifelong Methodist who is president of the denomination's Council of Bishops. More than 7,500 congregations have left since 2019, a figure he said was slightly higher than leaders expected when they extended the offer. Next year, Methodists plan to vote on what will likely be their lowest quarterly budget in 40 years.

Officially, the United Methodist Church still prohibits same-sex marriage and does not allow “practicing and avowed” homosexuals to serve as ministers. But in recent years, some leaders have begun to challenge official restrictions on these practices, and the church now has several openly gay clergy and two gay bishops. Many anticipate that church law could change (and lead to more departures) at the denomination's quadrennial meeting next spring in Charlotte, North Carolina.

That meeting was initially scheduled for 2020, but was delayed several times in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, conservatives launched a rival denomination, the Global Methodist Church, which says it will not ordain or marry gay people. As of this fall, the new denomination said more than 3,000 congregations had joined.

White's Chapel is helping to launch another new denomination, the Collegiate Methodist Church, of which it will serve as the inaugural “cathedral.” Many other outgoing churches have so far chosen to remain independent of any denomination.

The history of the Methodist movement dates back to 18th-century England, when preacher John Wesley proposed a “method” for fostering a deeper commitment to the Christian life, including small group meetings and an emphasis on holiness and service. In the United States, faith grew rapidly in the 19th century as cyclists crisscrossed the country preaching and establishing churches. Methodists have ordained women since the 1950s, an issue that has divided many Protestant traditions but remains uncontroversial within Methodism.

After a series of mergers and schisms, the current United Methodist Church, by far the largest expression of Methodism, was established in Dallas in 1968. As of 2020, only the Southern Baptist Convention was larger among Protestant denominations.

Historically, United Methodism has been a denomination marked by both geographic and ideological diversity. Justice Harry A. Blackmun, who wrote the Supreme Court opinion establishing the right to abortion in Roe v. Wade, was a Methodist; So is President George W. Bush, who signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act 30 years later. The list of 31 current members of Congress who are Methodists includes conservative Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and fellow progressive Democrat Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

But the era of big-tent Methodism may be coming to an end, as conservative congregations leave. Mr. Cotton's longtime congregation, now known as Dardanelle Methodist Church, left the denomination this year and joined the Global Methodists. An analysis this summer found that departing churches were disproportionately white, located in the South and more likely to be led by male pastors.

The United Methodist Church is part of the tradition of mainline Protestantism which now tends to be broadly progressive in its theology and traditional in its style of worship. In the middle of the 20th century, more than two-thirds of Americans identified as Protestant. Now, most polls show that less than 15 percent of the country identifies with the mainline, a group that also includes the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The split is the latest in decades of divisions in Christian denominations over issues of sexuality and theology. Most mainline denominations now support same-sex marriage, and most have seen a significant proportion of their churches split into new denominations that maintain their traditions and worship styles while restoring what they describe as theological orthodoxy. .

Mr. Bickerton, the bishop, said that many of the congregations that left the United Methodists appeared to be motivated as much by a desire for financial independence as by deep theological differences.

“We've learned that this doesn't have as much to do with human sexuality as we thought,” he said. “It's about power, control and money.”

That's not the language White's Chapel leaders use to describe their decision to leave. But they acknowledge that their congregation's dissatisfaction with United Methodism went beyond its approach to sexuality.

In Southlake, parishioners became increasingly distrustful of the direction of the national denomination's theology. But they were also dissatisfied with the Methodist policy of moving pastors to new locations every three years. Money was also a problem. Because of its extraordinary growth, White's Chapel paid the denomination about $600,000 a year and had lost confidence that its money was being well spent by a remote administrative bureaucracy, said the Rev. Larry Duggins, a longtime member the church hired to help manage the separation. process.

“We wanted to see where that money was going.” said Rev. Duggins, who is now chancellor of the new denomination of the Collegiate Methodist Church. “We weren't happy with what we saw.” The church felt that much of the money was going to administrative expenses rather than its core missions.

Last year, 93 percent of church members voted to leave, a decision that was formalized this summer.

For many of the members, the vote signaled that their theological and political values ​​were increasingly out of step with traditional Christianity.

“There has been a trend toward liberalization of many things in society, not just churches,” said Bruce Krieger, who has attended church since the 1990s. The issue of sexuality had become a political football game. , he said, where the denomination's liberals wanted to show their allegiance to a broader range of progressive causes that Krieger and his wife – “conservative people” – were increasingly uncomfortable with.

They voted to leave.

Sunday mornings haven't changed much since White's Chapel left the United Methodists, in Mr. Krieger's opinion. The Christmas season had begun and he was looking forward to the church-wide luncheon after a special service that would include a live nativity scene, a long-standing tradition.

Some people had left after the vote, but not many, he said, and new arrivals have already arrived to take their place.

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