A bunch of North Carolina congregations just left (disaffiliated from) the United Methodist Church, the second-largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. As a child sitting through fierce anti-gay sermons in the American South, agonizing because I knew the preacher was ranting about me, I could never have imagined the events that are shaking the United Methodist Church today.
Headlines this week are misleading if you don’t understand what’s going on, so let’s dive in and talk about why fewer children will have to live through what I did.
Fox News is crowing today, but they’re getting it wrong
With a sort of “Take that, libs!” bravado, right-wing talking heads are spinning events to read like Christianity is striking back. The forces of decency are giving hell to unhinged UMC leaders who allow (gasp!) gay and transgender pastors and bishops, who (gasp!) officiate same-sex weddings in (gasp!) CHURCH.
Except, striking back is not what’s happening. The story of how the strike turned into a mere whimper is very interesting.
What’s actually going down is that proponents/practitioners of progressive Christianity are finally wresting control of the UMC from a small minority of traditionalists. Pressure has been building for decades, so let’s talk about what the N.C. disaffiliation means for LGBTQ+ Christians and liberal/progressive Americans in general.
For background, 2019 was traumatizing for most U.S. United Methodists
Over decades, the denomination had gradually become quite progressive, both in the pews and in leadership. UMC ministers, many of them women, were increasingly coming out as gay or trans. Social justice had begun to center in Methodist worship as a feature of the faith rather than a sideline. Methodists were increasingly practicing a religion centered more on Christ-like action than on enforcing theologies or mandatory beliefs.
In other words, UMC congregations were aligning themselves with Progressive Christianity, something quite different from traditional Protestant Christianity but often existing inside Protestant institutions.
I don’t mean Christians who are small-p progressive. I’m writing about a movement Andrew Springer and others call “the next major development of Christian thought,” post-Protestantism if you will. If you don’t know what that means, Andrew’s article might be an important read for you.
But back to 2019’s trauma.
Progressive Christians in the UMC had grown weary of the official Book of Discipline forbidding LGBTQ+ clergy and same-sex marriage. Practice had evolved to work around or ignore those provisions, but that made a minority of traditionalists steaming mad. So UMC leaders proposed a “One Church”compromise at the 2019 General Conference. The compromise would have left traditionalist congregations free to enforce the Book of Discipline on LGBTQ+ matters. Progressives would be free not to enforce it. Each congregation would democratically decide what to do.
In theory, that should have left everyone happy. Nobody’s practices had to change.
But beliefs matter more than practice to traditionalist Protestants, so the compromise outraged them. Their 2019 delegates offered an alternative called the “Traditional Plan,” which called for stricter anti-LGBTQ+ enforcement of the Book of Discipline, and which (effectively if not explicitly) asked Progressive Christians to leave the UMC.
Long traumatizing story short, the One Church compromise failed and the Traditional Plan passed, despite strong majority opposition by Methodists at the conference. Lay people and clergy voted strongly against it, but bishops, whose assent was required, voted by a slim minority to approve it, bolstered by contingents from developing nations outside the U.S. with strong homophobic sentiment.
So, the UMC in the U.S. found itself in a bizarre position.
Its overwhelming majority of LGBTQ+ affirming Christians were expected to purge LGBTQ+ clergy and stop same-sex weddings. No such thing occurred, of course. More ministers and bishops came out as gay or trans, more of them married same-sex partners, and many announced that would practice Progressive Christianity no matter what. Many congregations rebelled, behaving as if the One Church plan had passed by exercising their right to individual conscience.
The center, of course, could not hold
By January of 2020, U.S. leadership announced that a great negotiation had just concluded. Traditionalists were free to leave the UMC, not the other way around. Terms were largely cordial, with property rights of all parties respected, but there was no way a small minority of Methodists were kicking the majority out of the denomination. Traditionalists began planning a small alternative denomination or denominations.
The 2020 General Conference was supposed to ratify the negotiation, but then Covid postponed the conference and nothing got done. A conference planned for this summer didn’t happen either, for the same reason. Now, it looks like a Great Disaffiliation will unroll region by region, and North Carolina is getting the ball rolling with a whimper.
This is what just happened in the Tar Heel State
A small percentage of N.C. congregations have voted to leave, and their departure was approved on Saturday in a Conference vote. A much smaller percentage of traditionalists will soon leave the UMC in another part of the state.
North Carolina has two UMC conferences, dividing near the middle of the state. The N.C. Conference had about 779 churches with about 214,000 members before Saturday’s vote. 249 congregations, meaning 22% of Conference members and 32% of churches, will leave.
Earlier this year, the larger Western North Carolina Conference reported that only 41 of 990 congregations had voted to disaffiliate, just a hair over 4%. That disaffiliation has yet to come up for a Conference vote.
This is what the vote means for LGBTQ+ and progressive people: The good guys won!
That’s overly simplistic, but if you’re queer or oppose the moral judgmentalism reactionary Christians often stand for, this is a big win. One of America’s largest Christian denominations is taking a stand for LGBTQ+ equality, based on Progressive Christian principles, and that’s intoxicating stuff. The reality that the Progressives stood firm in one the nation’s most conservative states is heady indeed.
You don’t get more Bible Belt than North Carolina, but more than 88% of North Carolina Methodists have chosen to affirm LGBTQ+ people in practice. I say more than 88%, because in many congregations that voted to leave the UMC, the votes were close. Conference leaders expect a significant percentage of members in outgoing congregations will change membership to churches that are staying.
The opposite could happen too, but insiders say they don’t expect high numbers. Few traditionalists worship in LGBTQ+ affirming congregations to begin with.
Insiders say that in Texas, numbers are shaping up about the same. Some congregations will vote to leave the UMC over LGBTQ+ issues, but percentages look to be pretty small, maybe even smaller than in North Carolina.
The fight to define Christianity by judgmentalism is losing ground
If you follow LGBTQ+ news, you’ve probably noticed how strident conservative Christians often are as they morally denounce trans and gay people. You’ll see repeated refrains of “Homosexuality is plainly wrong,” “The Bible is clear on the matter,” or “No real Christian can tolerate sin.”
You’ll notice them defining Christianity more by adherence to sexual morality teachings than adherence to the teachings of Jesus. You’ll notice how angry they become when progressives disagree. It feels like they’re saying, “This is MY Christianity and you can’t have it!”
But while they weren’t watching, Progressive Christians slowly took over the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Episcopal Church, and more. Today, the UMC is also shaking out solidly for the Progressives.
By the end of 2023, I predict it will be a done deal, even without a national General Conference. Anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment will continue to embroil the global UMC, but Progressives will run the U.S. Church as they see fit, meaning modeling the teachings of Jesus as they understand them.
It’s interesting, by the way, that traditionalist UMC pastors in North Carolina have been saying recently that leaving was more about the right to interpret the Bible as the literal word of God than about homosexuality. This may have been a legalistic tactic, but the point doesn’t resonate much with Progressive Christians, since they are mostly not literalists, even loosely defined.
Besides, nobody was trying to force any traditionalist pastor or congregation to believe or practice anything. No pastor had to conduct same-sex weddings, and no UMC member had to affirm any belief about LGBTQ+ equality.
Still, the traditionalists insisted they would only stay if anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs were enforced conference-wide. Since forcing belief is as antithetical to Progressive Christianity as Biblical literalism is, the traditionalists found themselves with no choice but to take their ball and go home, and with a whimper rather than a roar.
It’s true that North Carolina and Texas boast a lot more Baptists than United Methodists, so general celebration is premature. Baptists and other Evangelicals absolutely define Christianity by anti-LGBTQ+ orthodoxy.
But here’s the real victory.
The next time somebody tells you being Christian means you must morally judge LGBTQ+ people, you tell them this: About 90% of UMC Christians, members of one of the oldest and largest Christian denominations in North America, say you’re wrong.
Tell them the ranks of Progressive Christianity are swelling, and that moral judgment is a toxic choice you can simply walk away from.
Former Air Force intelligence analyst, longtime LGBTQ activist and alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, James Finn is an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, an “agented” novelist and a runner, Marine, Airman, polyglot and self-proclaimed “middle-aged, uppity faggot.” He blogs at Medium.