No Choice But Talking About Breaking Up

Protestors lie on the floor of the 2016 General Conference, their hands and feet bound to protest the denomination’s policies on human sexuality. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

Protestors lie on the floor of the 2016 General Conference, their hands and feet bound to protest the denomination’s policies on human sexuality. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

By Jack Jackson –

Despite pleading from the Council of Bishops and the constant refrain from the platform for unity, The United Methodist Church is anything but unified on the primary issue that divides us — human sexuality.

A significant minority of the denomination clearly believes that human sexuality expressed in LGBTQ relationships is integral to a person’s being and an expression of God’s creation, which are neither sinful nor in need of transformation. Another significant minority believes that God blesses only heterosexual and monogamous expressions of sexuality within the covenant of marriage and sees anything outside these expressions as a sin. A final group, and probably a minority at this point, believes there is a middle way that can live between the two extremes. The middle has held us together the past few decades, but increasingly people are concerned that calls to unity no longer actually keep us unified. We need a plan that somehow either gives those who have disparate visions of human sexuality a way to live together, or which frees the church to divide. We cannot continue with the current structure.

Now bishops have been asked to lead. Will they? Bishop Bruce Ough called us to unity, but we need their leadership, not their acknowledgment of divisions within their own ranks, something the rest of the church has known for years. We need them to help us come up with a plan that acknowledges that the church faces fundamental divisions for which unity, as we currently understand it, is no longer possible.

What the future holds is clear. Without a new structure that either gives freedom to both progressives and traditionalists to determine their own path on this issue or that facilitates an organized split of the church, the current divide will grow. Progressives will continue to abandon any pretense of obeying a church law they deem oppressive and unjust. The Western Jurisdiction codified this view a few years ago when they voted not to abide by any legislation that discriminates against LGBTQ persons, arguing for “Biblical disobedience” to any General Conference legislation they disapprove of. Some bishops endorsed this. Other annual conferences and jurisdictions have and will continue to make similar moves in the coming months if prohibitions of LGBTQ inclusion are retained.

Furthermore, traditionalists who seek to retain current prohibitions of LGBTQ inclusion will continue to solidify their support. By the next General Conference, since the UM Church is growing only in areas with a more traditionalist viewpoint on LGBTQ inclusion, the church’s position as a whole is almost guaranteed to become more conservative, not less in the coming years. Some progressives I talk to acknowledge that bringing about a change in the current rules will now take at least 16 years, with some predicting a 30-year struggle. Are we willing to live with our current divide for another generation? In light of our denomination’s plunging membership, does the church even have time to wait 16 years, much less 30 or more?

General Conference delegates would be wise to develop a framework through which we can have a true conversation about restructuring or splitting. A called General Conference, or some other mechanism, is necessary at this point in order to formally engage in talks that after several days of conferencing we’ve yet to fully engage upon.

In some ways, a special called General Conference or some other mechanism will open the door for schism. But the reality is we’re already experiencing a schism, with thousands of people on all sides of the human sexuality debate, abandoning the church in the United States each week.

But perhaps viewing this as a potential schism is not the best way to look at it. If there is no solution to our divide then we would be better off blessing each other, despite our difference, and releasing each other to be in ministry to a broken world, even as we are a broken church. For if we cannot find a way to live together then we need, to be honest, and acknowledge, as painful as it would be to do so, that despite our past together we have no future together.

The best thing we can do, in light of our divide, is start a real conversation that seeks to discern if we can actually live together any longer as the denomination we’ve come to love, for our church is no longer united. Pleas for unity from bishops and others only encourage us to sidestep the conversations we must have. Much of the legislation we’ve already dealt with and will continue to deal with will prove meaningless if we don’t deal with the chasm before us. Continuing to ignore our essential disunity is destroying the very movement we hope to save. After two weeks in Portland, one thing remains evident to all: we are anything but united.

Jack Jackson is the E. Stanley Jones Associate Professor of Mission, Evangelism, and Global Methodism at the Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California. Reprinted by permission of The United Methodist Reporter.  


  1. Sonja LeVan says

    I would say the majority of UM members are NOT a minority……We will not back down on what the Bible says about homosexuality and same sex marriage and ordination of any member of the LGBTQ…..So lets talking how we will go our separate ways and let the UM church be no more because it is so far from Wesley envisioned….So many Pastor, Bishops don’t follow the Book of Discipline…..There will be no compromise so let us be Free Methodists!!!!!!..Keep our churches, and Pastors keep all their retirements….etc. etc!

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