Methodist bishops anticipate some Texas churches will move to new conservative offshoot
When Houston-based Bishop Scott J. Jones sees division or disagreements among his fellow parishioners, he often reflects on the words of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement in England.
“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?” said Jones, a fourth-generation preacher, quoting the 18th century clergyman.
Jones is likely reflecting on Wesley’s famous musing more this month after a historic split within the United Methodist Church, a Protestant denomination with more than 6 million members in the United States.
Following years-long disputes within the United Methodist Church over same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy, a breakaway sect called the Global Methodist Church launched on May 1. Jones, the resident bishop of the UMC’s Texas Annual Conference, said he now expects a major migration to the more conservative Global Methodist Church.
“I think we will undergo significant split throughout Texas, with traditional churches affiliating with the Global Methodist Church,” said Jones, whose conference includes more than 600 congregations and nearly 300,000 members. “It will take several years for it to all shake out, but we're going to see a major split.”
Jones said the church officially prohibits same-sex marriages and members of the LGBTQ community from being in the ministry, but several bishops and conferences have deliberately disobeyed those rules for some time.
“So, the traditionalists in the church decided it was time to leave rather than wait for the next general conference,” he told The Texas Newsroom.
That general conference has been postponed until 2024 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. On its website, the Global Methodist Church said it decided to establish itself beforehand.
“United Methodist Church leaders have failed to make timely arrangements for holding a General Conference in 2022, and so have postponed it for a third time,” the statement reads. “The Transitional Leadership Council determined it must launch the Global Methodist Church this year so local churches, annual conferences, and central conferences wanting to join it could do so as soon as possible.”
The statement adds that for the next 12 to 18 months, the GMC will be a “church in transition” as it prepares for its convening conference.
Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, who was named the president of the Council of Bishops of the UMC last month, said the United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council decided Tuesday that an entire conference can’t disaffiliate itself from the UMC. But current rules allow for individual churches to decide to leave over time, which makes it difficult to predict how many churches will ultimately join the GMC.
“That's a regional answer, really. It depends on where you are,” he told The Texas Newsroom. “We think the majority of the departures are going to take place in the South and South-Central parts of the United States, where a large concentration of conservative folks dwell.”
He posits Texas will likely see a higher number of disaffiliations for that reason.
“We do anticipate the Texas conference to be one of those where the percentages will be significantly higher,” he said.
Before the UMC’s Judicial Council decision, the Lubbock-based Northwest Texas Conference was scheduled to decide whether to leave the UMC at its annual conference this summer. The conference had approved a nonbinding resolution last summer announcing plans to join a conservative church, Religion News Services reported.
Churches in the Rio Texas Annual Conference, which includes Austin to the Rio Grande Valley and parts of West and South Texas, “have expressed interest in knowing more about the disaffiliation process” spokesperson Mary Catherine Phillips said.
“The process is lengthy and includes a time of discernment, education and prayer. We would not be able to speculate on a total at this time,” she said.
Even though the process will take time, the Global Methodist Church believes many congregations will migrate to the more conservative and traditional faction.
“Many United Methodists have grown impatient with a denomination clearly struggling to function effectively at the general church level,” Rev. Keith Boyette, the chairman of the Transitional Leadership Council and president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, said in a statement on the GMC website.
“Theologically conservative local churches and annual conferences want to be free of divisive and destructive debates, and to have the freedom to move forward together,” Boyette added. “We are confident many existing congregations will join the new Global Methodist Church in waves over the next few years, and new church plants will sprout up as faithful members exit the UM Church and coalesce into new congregations.”
A “big tent” philosophy
Bickerton said to label the United Methodist Church as the liberal counterpart to the Global Methodist Church is too simple, as the UMC counts itself as a “big tent” organization.
“United Methodism is made up of conservatives, centrists and liberals. It's a very diverse denomination of age, of ethnicity, of theology. It's not a liberal church. It's not a conservative church. It's not a centrist church. In fact, it's all of those,” he said. But he conceded that over time, the issue of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy were just two factors.
“They have taken issue with our polity and our approach and our administration and have created their own set of rubrics and protocols, if you will. So, it goes much more beyond the human sexuality issue,” he said. “And while we wish them no ill will, there is a sense of disappointment that they've decided to leave.”
For Bishop Jones from the Texas Annual Conference, the best way to move forward is to respect and listen to the concerns from each church in the conference.
“I am trying to bless all of the churches in my conference —where they're progressive or traditional or in the middle — and help them find their best ways to serve Christ and pursue their mission,” he said.
But, he added, it won’t come without some sorrow. When asked whether he laments the split, Jones didn’t hesitate.
“It is breaking my heart. I'm a fourth-generation Methodist preacher, and I've worked for the last 18 years to prevent this. But it's going to happen now,” he said.
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