The Methodist Church Split: What Led to the Division?

In 1844, dozens of Northern congregations representing some 6,000 members had broken with their parent church due to its tolerance of slavery and formed the Wesleyan Methodist Church.

The Methodist Church Split: What Led to the Division?

In 1844, the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church convened in New York for its annual meeting.

A year prior, a number of Northern congregations with around 6,000 members had broken away from their parent church due to its acceptance of slavery and formed the Wesleyan Methodist Church

, which took to the streets. As Christmas Sunday marked the end of Christianity's waiting season for Advent, the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) and the entire denomination were in their own waiting period. The UMC operates a centralized system, in which the church owns all properties and uses an itinerant system that moves bishops and pastors from one place to another.

This system, combined with the fear that the church's Book of Discipline could one day affirm openly gay clergy and same-sex weddings, caused some more conservative churches to worry about the potential arrival of a more liberal pastor or bishop. At a meeting held in early December of the North Alabama Conference, 31% of its 638 churches were approved to leave. In Texas, nearly half of the churches left. In general, with numerous conferences yet to meet, this year more than 1500 churches have been approved to disaffiliate.

Jones said that while he personally thinks the Holston Conference will cause 20% or less of his churches to leave, that could still mean an exit of 150 or more. He joined the UMC after serving in another denomination, in part because of what he described as a long-standing open attitude among United Methodists. That conference ended with a new paragraph in the denomination's Book of Discipline, which essentially serves as a constitution for the church. Paragraph 2553 establishes specific measures for the “disaffiliation” of local churches for issues related to human sexuality.

Churches that followed the detailed process and voted two-thirds to leave the UMC could keep their properties and even continue to sponsor voluntary work benefit plans through the UMC program, under certain conditions. The process was set in motion this year, when conferences specified their basic rules. At the Holston Conference, that included what Jones called a 90-day “spiritual discernment process” for churches that wanted to move toward a vote. He said that process is not narrowly defined.

Churches that vote with more than two-thirds in favor of leaving begin a process that involves paperwork. Some members of the Holston Conference have already reached that stage, but Jones said that the conference refuses to give specific details, but he realizes that some churches could still overturn their decisions, something that has happened at other conferences. Sometime before the April meeting, Jones said, the conference will publish a list of churches that will be put to vote. Most conferences have approved all or most of the proposed outputs.

He said conference staff are discussing what they will do with existing interchurch projects and partnerships if one church defies and another stays. Paragraph 2553 itself states that unless a disaffiliated church “expressly decides otherwise” it will continue to share “common religious ties and convictions with the UMC” based on shared Wesleyan theology and tradition and Methodist roots. Partly as a response to this situation, Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett has instituted an “invitation team” which meets monthly to help churches understand there is a path to continuous unity and includes openness to different perspectives on difficult issues. The team's work includes looking back at why people would want to leave and what has been done wrong so it can be corrected.

Jones said Wallace-Padgett is pushing for churches to help people believe that regardless of their theological or political leanings, the Holston Conference wants them involved and needs dialogue - including from those who are most conservatively minded among those who remain in UMC fold - so they can have a more traditional Methodist church in their own town or city. It's sure to be an emotional experience for Jones who wishes it hadn't come to this.

Chasity Flom
Chasity Flom

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