March 3, 2019

United Methodists Embrace Bigotry

Methodist hymnal

Protestant denominations of Christianity seem to vary in terms of how conservative or liberal they are, both in terms of their preferred approach to biblical interpretation and their social values. Some have been more progressive in areas such as allowing female clergy, promoting social justice, defending reproductive rights, and accepting LGBTQ congregants. Others have defined themselves largely by fighting against all of these things, as well as seeking to abolish the separation of church and state (e.g., many evangelical fundamentalist Christian denominations). Christianity, even if we limit ourselves to the Protestant denominations, has many faces.

The United Methodist denomination recently voted to reaffirm their policies prohibiting LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriages. In passing the so-called Traditional Plan, the United Methodist Church General Conference selected the most conservative option before them and sparked what many some observers are saying will be a deep divide within the church. I was surprised by this development because I had never thought of the United Methodists as being one of the more conservative denominations and because it seems like many other Protestant denominations have been slowly moving in the direction of becoming more rather than less accepting.

I suppose I have another reason for being interested in this story. The church my parents forced me to attend until they finally decided that the increasingly intense fights this prompted every week were not worth it was a United Methodist church. And so, this was the denomination in which I was raised. As much as I detested almost everything about it back then, I have to admit that it never struck me as overly conservative, bigoted, or being opposed to equality.

Of course, I think there is at least one good reason for that: one can expect to find massive within-denomination variability based on location. The church I was forced to attend in my youth was located in the Pacific Northwest. Granted, it happened to be in a rather conservative small town in the Pacific Northwest, but it was still in a fairly liberal region of the country. When we would visit my grandparents in the South and I'd be forced to attend their Methodist church, it had an entirely different vibe. It was far more formal, stuffy, and rigid. I'd have little difficulty imagining that most of that congregation would applaud this recent vote.

So which United Methodist church was more typical of United Methodist churches in general? I'd guess it would be the church my grandparents attended, but I expect that we'd still see great variability today. Churches located in the South are almost certain to be far more conservative than those located in more liberal regions of the country.

As for the divide within the church, I expect it has always been there. Even within the congregation of any particular church, one should expect to find some who have more progressive values and some who have more conservative values. I recall how the church I was forced to attend in my youth nearly split in half when the senior minister left and was replaced with a far more liberal minister. Long before the new liberal minister started sleeping with many of the married women in the church, many of the more conservative members left the church because they did not like his take on their "holy" book.

With this recent vote, I expect some of the more liberal United Methodists may leave or at least seriously consider leaving. Many others will stick around though. Some of them will not be happy about the vote, but they'll stick with their church in much the same way many Catholics continue to stick with theirs no matter how badly it behaves.