No sanctuary for secular conflicts in United Methodist Church

June 7, 2023 8:00 am

(Photo illustration via Canva)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.The newest occupant making its home on Main Street in a former car dealership is the Global Methodist Church.

No doubt you read or heard the recent news about the schism afflicting the United Methodist Church. It came to a head in 2016, with the crux of the conflict being the issue of performing same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay UMC pastors. The denomination has been gradually fraying at the seams as some ministers refused to adhere to the traditional Book of Discipline regarding these issues.

In 2019, a process was set in place for disassociation, but the 2020 worldwide decision-making General Conference was stalled because of COVID-19. The conservative movement in the U.S. to break away has been reinforced by a growing number of churches in African countries, where homosexuality is a crime.

Disassociation has been accelerating at a rapid pace in the South, and now totals approximately 2,400 congregations nationwide. Preceding this week’s Iowa Annual Conference in Des Moines, the Iowa UMC announced that 83 churches have left the denomination.

As a United Methodist, I tried to downplay the whispered rumors last year that members of the UMC church in my neighboring town would proceed with a vote to break away. Then, in autumn, I heard that the conservatives had lost the vote. This left the building in the hands of those who wanted to stay with the UMC, but their minister moved (or was reassigned).

The breakaway faction began meeting in a community building, and hired a retired minister to lead them as part of the Global Methodist Church. Formed in May 2022, it is committed to upholding bans on same-sex marriage and ordination of openly LGBTQ clergy.

The focus of this column isn’t specifically on the schism of the second-largest mainline Protestant church. Nor is it on the building where they meet. After all, “The church is a people,” according to a favorite UMC hymn. My concern is how this schism fits into the broader context of our shared rural communities, and our state.

Church  buildings grow like Topsy

Last summer, I glanced at the Worship Guide in the local newspaper, and was so surprised that I stopped to count. I came up with eight churches in this town of 2,001, plus one church in the nearby countryside.

Down the street from the new Global Methodist congregation, toward the end of Main Street is the former locally owned hardware store. It closed over a decade ago, and for the past several years, it has been a non-denominational, Biblically based meeting place. It promotes a menu of nontraditional worship and contemporary music, anchored by a coffee shop ministry, plus its Holy Cow Creamery. (There’s no longer a coffee shop or Dairy Queen in town.)

Across Main Street, to the west, is a Church of Christ. Its Facebook page proclaims, “No creed but Christ, no law but love, no book but the Bible.” It doesn’t seem to be affiliated with the United Church of Christ, but it came to town several years ago, and remodeled a blacksmith shop for its place of worship.

The Global Methodist Church will be the third storefront church on Main Street. And the town already has a full complement of mainline churches: two Lutheran, one United Methodist, one Baptist, and one Catholic.

But, if Main Street continues to fill up with even more places of worship, it's only a few short blocks south to set up shop on Division Street.

When I was a kid, most small towns in rural Iowa had a Lutheran church or two, a Methodist, along with a Catholic church. We knew a few families who drove 20 miles to Sioux City to attend the Billy Sunday Tabernacle on the east edge of the city.

Are people in this part of Boone County more religious? If not, what is going on?

The proliferation of churches seems more of a reflection of our fractured society than it does a genuine religiosity. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus told his disciples. But today, a growing number of churches no longer make any effort to stay above the fray.

The Methodists are hardly the first to encounter turmoil stemming from LGBTQ issues. The Episcopalians went through a schism in 2009, followed by the Presbyterians in 2012. The Lutherans also had a split. One Lutheran friend described it this way: “We took a vote and when it was over, those of us who favored LGBTQ were able to keep our church building. The rest left, and then we discovered, they were the ones with the money.”

There goes the neighborhood

Who are these people who feel that someone else’s sexuality is justification for tearing apart their church and their church family? No doubt we all know many of them. Don’t they have loved ones who are LGBTQ? Of course!

At one time many years ago, I thought civil unions would be the way to go for same-sex couples. But I kept an open mind. As I wrote previously, my much-loved cousin committed suicide four decades ago because of the stigma and lack of acceptance in society. Since his death, I’ve been blessed by a younger generation of family members who today are in same-sex marriages.

What is the Biblical basis for all this angst? Apparently, the Old Testament was very harsh about homosexuality (if translations are accurate). Many other aspects of human behavior also are condemned as sinful in the Old Testament. Why is this one type of “sin” leading people to disassociate from their church family? Why should it end our good work on InGathering or Midwest Missions, community gardens, or other local causes?

(Stock photo via Canva)

What did Jesus have to say? Is there anything about LGBTQ issues in the 10 Commandments? How about the Beatitudes, or the Lord’s Prayer? No? I’m no theologian. But I do know the Second Commandment: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It’s a recurring theme you’ll find throughout the New Testament. Being LGBTQ is not a lifestyle choice; if you believe God made all human beings, then how do you explain LGBTQ human beings?

The UMC has been a big tent denomination for decades. A survey shows that 60% of United Methodists believe homosexuality should be accepted. Somehow, this issue is uniquely divisive, compared to abortion, the environment, and other political divides. Is it simply a coincidence that this schism began to intensify in 2016?

Witnessing a spiritual pandemic

I’m also curious about the Sunday attendance at each of these eight churches in a town of 2,001. Every survey I’ve seen shows that the share of the religiously unaffiliated is growing. This is especially true for members of the younger generation who are more likely to advocate for sexual/gender diversity.

I do know that COVID-19 almost killed our church, and many others as well. Among Protestant churches, it’s estimated that attendance still is only 85% of the pre-pandemic numbers. Now, we must contend with a man-made viral disease further eroding our struggling congregations?

More churches will have the option to leave the UMC prior to the end of 2023. The General Conference will convene in 2024, and then we may learn more about what will happen to the United Methodist catchphrase, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.”

In the decades prior to the Civil War, the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches all splintered over slavery. So, it’s not the first time that issues of the secular world have intervened within the faith community. But I hope that it doesn’t portend another civil war.

Healing brokenness with shared humanity

How many places of Christian worship can survive in a town of 2001? Do more churches of different denominations (or nondenominations) make a community a better place to live? Our Methodist church and the Lutheran church in a different neighboring town have held an ecumenical Vacation Bible School for years. How will this new subset of churches work together? The website of the contemporary, nondenominational church in town explicitly states in its doctrinal beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Finally, what about the growing number of presidential candidates who schedule campaign stops at churches? That can’t bode well for the healthy diversity within our congregations. Ron DeSantis spoke at Eternity Church in Clive earlier this week. I hope his platform doesn’t include a rural development plank that promotes filling all our empty rural town storefronts with churches — as if it would be the salvation of rural America’s economy!

But, if Main Street continues to fill up with even more places of worship, it’s only a few short blocks south to set up shop on Division Street. I think most of us already know the way there.

This column first appeared on Cheryl Tevis’ blog Unfinished Business, and it is republished here via the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Cheryl Tevis
Cheryl Tevis

As farm management editor at Successful Farming magazine at Meredith Corp. in Des Moines, Cheryl was the first woman editor in the magazine's history to write about business. Her monthly column elevated the role of women in agriculture. She also wrote the longest-running farm magazine's health and safety page. She retired in 2015, after 36 years. Cheryl served on the board of Farm Safety For Just Kids, and is a founding member of Iowa Women in Agriculture. She farms and is a longtime 4-H leader and community volunteer in Boone County, Iowa. Her column, Unfinished Business, is on Substack and she is a member of the Iowa Writers' Collaborative.