Splitting a church, maintaining a prejudice: the sad case of the (un)United Methodist Church

A new church was formed this month. The so-called Global Methodist Church (GNC) was launched as a new denomination—in effect, a sectarian schismatic movement, splitting from the United Methodist Church (UMC)—on the basis of, you guessed it, sexuality.

The GMC has placed to the fore a belief that marriage is between one man and one woman, and clergy must adhere to this in their ministry. This has been a point of persistent debate, dissension, and division in the UMC for decades. Many efforts have been made to hold the different points of view together under the one umbrella of the UMC. That fragile union cracked with a decision last year, and now the moment has been seized by the breakaway group, acting unilaterally, to set up its own structures.

Rev. Keith Boyette, chairman of the new denomination’s Transitional Leadership Council and until now a United Methodist minister in Virginia, complained that “some bishops are intentionally blocking churches from using certain processes for exiting the denomination”—a reference to the fact that the UMC’s Council of Bishops has twice delayed holding a General Conference that would enable a friendly parting of the church.

The COVID pandemic had been the reason for delaying the General Conference first set for 2020, and then for 2021; this year, the delay has been credited to the delays being experienced in the US of the processing of visa applications. The United Methodist Church currently claims 6.3 million members in the U.S. and 6.5 million overseas, so half the representatives would have been travelling into the US and would have needed visas.

Bishop Thomas Bickerton, who recently became the President of the UMC Council of Bishops, said that the continuing United Methodist Church was “not interested in continuing sexism, racism, homophobia, irrelevancy and decline … what we are interested in is a discovery of what God has in mind for us on the horizon as the next expression of who we are as United Methodists.”

I have taken this information from an article at https://www.columbian.com/news/2022/apr/30/united-methodist-church-split-official-as-of-today/. It’s important to note that the trigger words used here—sexism, racism, homophobia—are Bishop Bickerton’s words; I am simply quoting him.

Sadly, it seems to me that this is just another instance of people within a Christian church perpetuating actions that will impinge in negative ways on people in society—and, indeed, within the church. The discriminatory actions of the new schismatic denomination will have a negative impact on a small, but significant, minority group within society.

It’s simply a fact that the majority of the population identify as heterosexual (experiencing sexual attraction to people of the opposite gender) and cis-gender (the gender assigned to them at birth correlates with their sense of personal identity and gender). LGBTIQA+ people do not identify as either cis-gender, or as heterosexual, or as both. So whilst it is true that they are a minority in society, that should not affect the way that they are treated in society, and by churches.

However, the key plank in the formation of the GMC is a perpetuation of a discriminatory attitude towards same-gender attracted people who are seeking to be married in a service of Christian marriage. The GMC will not allow its ministers to marry such people. There are many denominations around the world who, sadly, share that attitude.

Up until 2018, my own denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia was one. All of this changed with a decision taken by the National Assembly in 2018, which meant that ministers now do have discretion to marry people of the same gender. That is part of a continuing trajectory within the Uniting Church, affirming and valuing the place of LGBTIQA+ people within the life of the church, and, indeed, within society.

See https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/31/a-diversity-of-religious-beliefs-and-ethical-understandings/ and the various links included in that blogpost.

For the various affirmations that the Assembly has made that have led the church to this latest decision, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/20/seven-affirmations/

It’s my hope that we can continue along that trajectory, continue to marry people regardless of their gender identity, and hopefully in due course issue an Apology to LGBTIQA+ people for how the church has treated such people in past years.

See also

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For an exploration of the forces that worked for so long against this, and earlier, enlightened moves relating to sexuality within the UCA, see my series of posts that are linked below.

For my series of blogs on the failed strategy of conservatives in the Uniting Church over the decades, see

Challenged and transformed: with thanks for rainbow people, this Lent

The following reflection was written by John Squires and Elizabeth Raine, and shared with the Rainbow Christian Alliance at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 13 March 2022.

In many churches, including the Uniting Church, today is called the Second Sunday in Lent. Our church follows the calendar of seasons that is held by many churches around the world; instead of spring, summer, autumn, winter, we have Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.

The season of Lent lasts for just six weeks, and it leads into the three day celebration of Easter. It’s called Lent, incidentally, not because it is tilted or skew-whiff, but because in the northern hemisphere, where such seasons were first given their names, the days are starting to lengthen (the name was Lencten in Old English).

In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, Lent is a period of fasting. The day before, Mardi Gras, which is French for Fat Tuesday, was a day to use up all the fatty goods in the kitchen — eggs, flour, milk — so they were out of the way for Lent. The day is also known as Pancake Tuesday. In South America, in countries where Roman Catholicism was the dominant religion, Mardi Gras became a public festival, a day not only to feast, but a day for street parades, for big banquets to celebrate, with colourful costumes and extravagant public exhibitions of joy.

And that has surely been the inspiration for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, both in recent years with colourful and extravagant floats, and in the decades before, with lots of rainbow groups marching, and even in the early days of protest and attempting to “claim the streets” and “go public” about gays and lesbians and more.

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Immediately after Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, comes Ash Wednesday — a solemn day of penitence; and the fasting continued right through Lent, until Easter Sunday. We don’t actually do full-on fasting in the Uniting Church, but in recent times it has become customary to decide to “give up something for Lent” — chocolate and alcohol being the most common, but also more significant things like not driving your car and catching public transport; or not eating meat. In this way, Lent becomes a time of challenge, as we try to remind ourselves each day of the importance of being faithful to God. We “give up” so that we can focus in more clearly on God, if you like.

So there is already a connection between the season of Lent and rainbow people; because Lent starts immediately after Mardi Gras. And the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, now an institution in our annual public events; the extravagantly colourful celebrations of that event mark, if you like, the climax of joy as rainbow people celebrate that they are each made exactly as they are, and they can be happy about that.

We both enjoyed watching (on TV) the parade of organisations and people that were out and proud, out and loud, a week ago, walking unhindered around the SCG — a striking contrast to the first Mardi Gras, when police barricaded the road and people were arrested. It is truly wonderful to see that the rainbow colours can be flown in society, that people can acknowledge and declare who they are, and not be under threat of arrest.

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So in the cycle of seasons for Christians, after Mardi Gras comes Lent. And Lent is about giving up; or, at least, focussing intently on Jesus, the one in whom we see most clearly see God. How else might Lent relate to the experience of rainbow people?

There are a collection of stories that the church retells each year, in association with Lent. In preparation for Lent, the story is told of the day that Jesus was baptised: in the river Jordan, to the east of Jerusalem, fully submerged into the water by his crazy cousin John, baptising people as they repented of their sins.

John was crying out to the people who came to him, to repent; to change their way of being and living; to be transformed, completely, by being baptised. That’s what is meant by the single Greek word that John used, calling people to metanoia—to a complete transformation of who they are and how they love. Jesus came to that moment, willing to submit to that call, willing to experience metanoia in his own life.

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And yet for Jesus, this baptism became more than just the moment of call, or the moment of change; it was the moment when God publicly acknowledged him, when God declared, “this is my son, my beloved child; listen to him”. In that voice, booming from the clouds, a central affirmation is made: look at him, this is who he is; can you see that this is really who he is? And from that moment, Jesus began his mission of challenging people and transforming society.

The story of the baptism of Jesus tells us that, when God looks at us, God sees us exactly as we are; and we may well also hear God saying to use, and to those around us, “this is my child, my beloved one; I can see exactly who they are, and I am well pleased that this is who they are”. God sees me, a straight white male, and is well pleased; God sees a lesbian woman, and is equally well pleased; a trans man, and God is pleased; an intersex person, and is well pleased; an enbie, a gay, a pan sexual—God is just well pleased with each of us, as we are, and declares us to be beloved. And that means that we can get on with the kind of life that we each want to live, and are called to live.

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There’s another story about Jesus that is associated with Lent. It’s a story that, from our rather privileged, straight, perspective, sounds a great challenge to us. It’s a story about being changed; about being transformed. It’s a story that shows that being transformed means you are able to stand and challenge others to be transformed. It’s the story of when Jesus took his three closest friends to a mountain, and they had a shared experience of seeing Jesus standing between two of the greats of their people: Moses, to whom God had given the Law to govern the people of Israel, and Elijah, through whom God had established a long line of prophets in Israel.

The Gospel writers say that Jesus was transformed at that moment. But in this story, also, there is the indication that the friends of Jesus were transformed. That moment on the mountain was a challenge to each of them; the response that Peter wanted to make was seen to be inadequate. Jesus challenged him to respond differently. It was another moment when metanoia, complete transformation, took place. And these disciples did change; yes, it took some time, but these friends of Jesus ultimately became leaders amongst the followers of Jesus, and spearheaded the movement that became the church.

The change, the metanoia, that occurred within Peter, James, and John, spread widely. They faced the challenge head on, and responded with their own metanoia. That is mirrored, today, in changes that are taking place in society. As we watched the Mardi Gras last weekend, it soon became evident that this was no longer a side carnival, an event that was important to a minority group in society, and that’s all.

For the Mardi Gras—commercialised, mainstreamed, headlined and noticed—now reflects the way that society has been challenged—by you, by rainbow people—and how it has responded in metanoia, by being transformed. Banks, unions, police, sports teams, churches, golfing clubs, and more—all marched in the Mardi Gras, all affirming that there is a place in their ranks for rainbow people, no matter what letter an individual identifies with. And that reflects a very significant change in society, in which public acknowledgement and public discussion of gender and sexuality can take place.

Sure, there is still work to be done—much work to be done; many changes still to occur, deeper acceptance still to take place. But the changes are clear and evident; and it has been because those who themselves have been able to meet challenges by holding firm and calling for change, have then effected transformation, thoroughgoing change, in society. Rainbow people are changing our society. Last week’s Mardi Gras demonstrated that.

And for that, we are grateful, and say: thanks be to God.