Columnist Terry Mattingly

United Methodists steer left in a sea of red ink

By Terry Mattingly


Posted 6/12/24

While the “Kingsfold” hymn melody was traditional, the modern text of “Creator of the Intertwined” captured the progressive course steered by the recent General Conference of …

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Columnist Terry Mattingly

United Methodists steer left in a sea of red ink


While the “Kingsfold” hymn melody was traditional, the modern text of “Creator of the Intertwined” captured the progressive course steered by the recent General Conference of the embattled United Methodist Church.

“Creator of the intertwined, you made us all unique: / each one with ears to hear faith’s call, / each one with voice to speak. / Each worships where the call is heard, / in forest, temple, dome, / on mountain top, in upper room — / each one must find a home,” sang the delegates on April 30. The final line added: “From different sources comfort comes, / each seeks for the divine: / your voice speaks many languages, / just one of them is mine.”

While insiders grasped the symbolism of this interfaith affirmation, the news at this pandemic-delayed gathering focused, as expected, on biblical authority and sexuality. This General Conference urgently moved to modernize many UMC doctrines and laws after the exit of 7,659 congregations in America’s biggest church split since the Civil War.

With a 523-161 vote, these words vanished from the Book of Discipline: “The practice of homosexuality ... is incompatible with Christian teaching.” This had long banned “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from ordination. Another revision instructed regional leaders to start training churches to accept pastors and all people whatever their sexual and gender identities.

“It’s about damn time!” said John Pavlovitz, a pastor, author and activist popular with UMC progressives. “Either you believe LGBTQ are made by God and fully indwelled with beauty and dignity as-is — or you don’t. ... Either you declare their worth by inviting them fully into your community — or you refuse to. Either you believe gender identity and sexuality aren’t moral flaws — or you believe they are,” he wrote at his “The Beautiful Mess” newsletter.

The General Conference also approved a “regionalization” constitutional amendment allowing U.S. churches to modernize church law and doctrine while Global South conservatives, especially growing churches in Africa, could retain old traditions.

Nevertheless, on May 28, the largest overseas UMC jurisdiction — the 1.2 million-member United Methodist Church in the Ivory Coast — voted to exit.

The Ivory Coast Conference statement said the General Conference voted to “sacrifice its honorability and integrity to honor the” LGBTQ+ cause, thus distancing itself from “Holy scripture,” the “supreme authority in matters of faith and life.”

While embracing the ordination of openly LGBTQ+ clergy, the General Conference made these related changes:

  • The Book of Discipline’s list of chargeable offenses for clergy was edited to remove “immorality including but not limited to, not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage” and “conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies.”
  • This statement was removed: “Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”
  • “Sexual orientation” became a mandatory diversity category for church commissions and in agencies, alongside race and gender.
  • The denomination’s archives commission announced a “Center for LGBTQ+ United Methodist Heritage,” a decision hailed by the UMC’s Queer Clergy Caucus.
  • After Jan. 1, 2025, national UMC agencies and regional conferences will no longer be prohibited from using church funds to promote acceptance of LGBTQ+ causes.

Preparing for this moment has been sobering for the denomination’s establishment. The official UM News recently announced a $346.7 million budget for 2025-2028, a 43% cut from the previous 4-year period.

In 1967, total United Methodist membership was 11 million, and it is now estimated to be 4.9 million, noted Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University, a nationally known expert on trends in American religion. After decades of consistent decline, statistical models had predicted that UMC membership would not fall to 4.9 million until 2038, he noted, in his Graphs About Religion newsletter. And at the local level, conflicts continue.

“It remains to be seen,” he added, “if those who didn’t leave are now even more committed to the cause of the United Methodist Church, or if there will continue to be fallout from this denominational split.”