Conservative United Methodists say divide over sexuality is ‘irreconcilable’

by Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Protestors advocating for full inclusion of GLBT persons in the life of the UMC serve communion on the floor of the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, FL.  UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey

Protestors advocating for full inclusion of GLBT persons in the life of the UMC serve communion on the floor of the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, FL. UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey

(RNS) Will the United Methodist Church soon have to drop the “United” part of its name?

A group of 80 pastors is suggesting that the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination is facing an imminent split because of an inability to resolve long-standing theological disputes about sexuality and church doctrine.

But more than lamenting the current divisions, the pastors indicated there is little reason to think reconciliation _ or even peaceful coexistence _ could be found. Like a couple heading to divorce court, the pastors cited “irreconcilable differences” that can’t be mended.

“We can no longer talk about schism as something that might happen in the future. Schism has already taken place in our connection,” said the Rev. Maxie Dunnam, a retired president of evangelical Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, who joined the statement.

It’s a marked shift in tone from 10 years ago, when conservatives rejected a proposal for an “amicable separation” as premature. “I don’t want us to talk about separation,” Dunnam said after the church’s 2004 assembly, before the same-sex marriage issue swept the nation. “That’s not a game where our energy needs to be focused.”

As 19 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex civil marriage, the debate has consumed America’s mainline denominations, with the outcome ranging from bitter divisions to agree-to-disagree compromises.

The issue is especially heightened within Methodism, where holiness _ the beliefs and practices toward Christian purity _ is foundational in its theology. And as Methodist membership plateaus at home and grows in parts of Africa, overseas delegates have helped hold the line against growing pressure to liberalize church policy on gay clergy and same-sex marriage.

Amid a wave of open defiance over rules that prevent pastors from presiding at same-sex marriages, and a host of high-profile church trials that have largely upheld church policy, some UMC pastors say the 11.8 million-member church has reached an impasse. Many feel that the sexuality debates simply touch on larger issues of how Methodists understand Scripture and how leaders uphold church teaching.

Frank Schaefer, a former Pennsylvania pastor, was found guilty of violating church law when he officiated at his son’s 2007 wedding, though his appeal will be heard on June 20. Schaefer was told he could keep his clergy credentials if he recanted his support of gay marriage, but he refused.

The tipping point for many conservatives came, however, after Bishop Martin D. McLee of New York announced in March he would drop a case against a retired seminary dean who officiated at his gay son’s 2012 wedding and called for an end to church trials for clergy who violate the denomination’s law on ministering to gays.

The pastors saw McLee’s move as failing to uphold agreed-upon church teaching. He should have gone through proper means of changing the church’s stance on sexuality, they say, rather than declining to uphold the church’s Book of Discipline, or constitution.

“Tensions are reaching a point where it’s become a destructive scenario,” the Rev. Larry Baird, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Grand Island, N.Y., said in an interview. He noted that leaving the denomination is not the group’s first option. “We’re hoping there’s a win-win way out for those in profound disagreement.”

Hailing from the UMC’s five jurisdictions, the group of 80 pastors and theologians released a statement Thursday (May 22) outlining the crisis they see emerging within the UMC. They pointed to pastors who violated the Book of Discipline, a lack of subsequent punishment, a crisis over the authority of Scripture and differences in how leaders are teaching the practice of holiness.

Traditionalists believe the Scriptures are clear in prohibiting same-sex relations, while progressives see full inclusion as a matter of God’s love and justice, they note in the release.

Most recently, the UMC decided to expand benefits of its agencies’ employees to include same-sex spouses who live in states that allow same-sex marriage, even though same-sex partners can’t get married within the UMC.

“Talk of a `middle-way’ or of  ‘agreeing to disagree’ is comforting and sounds Christ-like,” the statement states. “However, such language only denies the reality we need to admit. Neither side will find ‘agreeing to disagree’ acceptable.”

Other mainline denominations have already gone through many variations on same-sex ordination and marriage, moving more quickly on the issue than the UMC, which has a global, more conservative membership; about one-third of the church’s members are found in Africa, Asia or Europe.

“Can we not learn from the pain that other mainline denominations have experienced and find a way forward that honors (Methodism founder John) Wesley’s rule that we do no harm?” the statement says. “A way where there are no winners and losers, but simply brothers and sisters who part ways amicably, able to wish each other well?”

The UMC declined to provide an official response.

One of the biggest challenges will be whether the UMC can find a way to remain the same home to people who hold radically different views. Delegates to the Methodists’ quadrennial General Conferences have resisted one option embraced by the Presbyterian Church (USA) that essentially allows regional bodies to set their own ordination standards.

For at least two decades, the UMC has strived to find ways to maintain the status quo without alienating either traditionalists or liberals. Despite its insistence on unified rules and standards, the church is nonetheless a diverse theological tent that counts everyone from former President George W. Bush to Hillary Clinton as members.

“The UMC is a pluralistic church with radically different points of views,” said William Abraham, a professor of Wesley studies at Southern Methodist University. “It shows how you can live with differences until it begins to bite into the practices of the local church.”

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23 Comments on "Conservative United Methodists say divide over sexuality is ‘irreconcilable’"

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Ralph Barlow

I finally agree with conservatives on something: it’s time for a split. It worked to eventually end the debate over racial injustice, and it’ll work for this. We don’t need more “holy conferencing.” Like little children arguing with each other, we simply need some time apart.

Dave Dillon
In 1784 at the Christmas Conference, the soon to be Methodist Episcopal church split from England over American Independence. Each side thought they were right, each side could quote scripture, each side thought God was on their side. In the 1840’s, the Methodist church split again into North and South over the issue of slavery. Each side knew they were right, each side had scripture to back them up and each side thought God was on their side. Ten years later, the church split again – this time over race – because blacks got tired of sitting in the balcony… Read more »

And don’t forget the biggest split of all when that malcontent Martin Luther had the audacity to think that money could not substitute for the remission of sin.

Kevin Welsh

Not going to change a word. There is nothing wrong with the wording.

Wordsmith it all you want or throw it out entirely.

I will send a copy to Marty Nicholas and explain the untied methodist reporter refused to post this comment.

Kevin Welsh
Bottom line, let’s put numbers in the equation to focus the issue. Who pays the bills? Who builds the churches? I have been a lifelong Methodist, but I have never been so ashamed of a bunch of people than I was for the Florida Conference last year. A group protested and held up the conference because they became offended their views were not heard. Well let me explain how this plays to the people who pay the bills for those attending the conference. Enough already. Bottom line, I am not sending my minister to represent my congregation to waste time… Read more »
Sandy Wylie

This issue centers on our understanding of sexual orientation. Behavioral scientists should play a major role here; they should be enlisted in the discussion. We need to look at the issue in the broad light of day and keep emotions and bias out of it. Science has taught us a great deal about us and our world in the last 400 years, and at every step we’ve learned to adjust our interpretation of the Bible. Why should this be any different?


As a person with a doctoral level of training in a scientific discipline I can tell you that scientific findings are most often provisional. The research on sexuality, due to inherent subjectivity, unknown variables and personal agendas (yes, science does not do itself, it is done by humans who have their own biases!) are particularly provisional. Additionally, science can only describe what is, not necessarily what should be; it cannot speak to the issue of morality.

Paul W.
To add to Mark’s comment, the majority of behavioral scientists also tell us that there are no valid moral or ethical reasons for discouraging any form of consensual casual sex other than out-dated social mores. Should we then abandon Christ’s teachings in favor of the opinions of non-Christian researchers? Do we no longer believe that “the carnal mind is enmity against God” (Rom 8:7)? Also, you claim that science over the last 400 years has driven changes to our interpretation of the Bible, but, honestly, I’m at a loss to identify even a single discovery that has changed in any… Read more »
D Clark
um… flat earth, sun rises and sets, moon might just smite you by night, Leviathan, spitting on the ground to make mud and putting it in an eye as a cure for blindness, Cretans, some must be slaves and other masters because of God’s ordering, [that’s just off the top of my head]… But this is the real problem: Some worship at the altar of Modernity (or post modernity — post modernists capitalize less often!) AND others worship at the altar of Bibliolatry: claiming to be literalists, but in fact are spiritualists (example: “born again” John 3 Nicodemus is corrected,… Read more »

Some of the things you mention were thought “progressive” for their day (e.g., the flat earth was considered advanced as compared to ancient Buddhist cosmology which held that the Earth is a disc consisting of four continents grouped around a central mountain (Mount Meru) like the petals of a flower).


Sarah Bailey’s article says “The UMC declined to provide an official response.” I’m wondering who she asked. “The UMC” is not an entity that can speak. The General Conference is the only body that can speak on behalf of “The UMC”. They spoke in 2012 and will speak again in 2016. Hopefully Ms. Bailey will take “United Methodism 101” to learn a little more about our denomination. The rest of the article caught the gist of the debate quite well. That statement was just plain out of place.

P Miller
If we United Methodists spend a lot of time and energy for the next couple of years consumed with the legal and practical legislation of separation, what prospective Christians or members will want to be part of a denomination that’s publically viewed as being embroiled in conflict or the technicalities of dissolution? If the Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians have lessons to teach us, it would be that we will be better off by learning to get along in our differences…even if it’s in our differing understandings of Scripture or the meaning of holiness. Just imagine if the next few years… Read more »

Spare us? What have we already been experiencing due to covenant-breakers and sensationalist activists? If you are concerned about bad PR then talk to those who cannot seem to keep their promise to uphold the Discipline and the Scripture on which is rests.

“Agree to disagree”….humm….what’s next? Might we agree to disagree on original sin? The triune God? The divinity of Christ? Pretty soon there will be nothing left to agree or disagree about.

Rev. Gregory Rowe
I cannot understand this kind of reporting that tries to create sensationalism and rift among the members of the church. How can you speak for each individual mind, and who delegated a sole spokesperson for every member of the denomination. I think it is time to defrock anyone who claims to be self-proclaiming themselves as a leader of any group of United Methodists. We all can think and react on our own. We don’t need someone dividing the church over something that is going to create a modern day “Witch” hunt and create havoc when we ought to seek peace.… Read more »

The irreconcialiable differences are not primarily over sexuality, they are primarily over authority. Does Scripture, historical understandings and natural law have authority over contemporary cultural mores? In view of the capricious nature of so many cultural trends I think the answer is an unequivocal yes.

Gary Bebop

Mark (above) is right. Scripture speaks with God-breathed authority, while culture blindly gropes its way forward like the “accidental tourist.” The loud mouth “thought managers” on the left bank substitute their own strident hectoring for scripture and wonder why we aren’t listening anymore! Are you? I’m not.


Right. God-breathed, not God written. God works through the Holy Spirit, which works through people. To deny that authority is to force God into a stagnated box. I read the bible, but I worship God- the God of the Old Testament; the God of the New Testament; and the God of today.


The Holy Spirit moves but will not contradict the written word It inspired nor the natural law It created….else we have no real foundation for our faith, and the faith morphs into something else….and then something else and then something else again….we become rudderless, and eventually clueless….John Wesley was very clear about the primacy of Scripture.

Greg Buchnert
This has been a great side-track since 1972 for some folks. Instead of focusing on their local congregation and building up the UMC from the grassroots as others of us are trying to do, they go far from home, spiritually-mentally-physically, and claim that separation is the only answer. It’s not. Congregations like the one I currently serve, and the ones I have served, have learned to make room for a variety of opinions on a variety of topics. We have agreed and continue to live together, and all we ask is that you are a disciple of Jesus Christ whose… Read more »
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