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Opinion: A Look Back at 2023’s Historic United Methodist Church Schism

By Mark Tooley
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A congregation affiliated with the United Methodist Church. (Photo via Wesleyan Covenant Assoc.)

The mass exodus of U.S. congregations leaving United Methodism, allowed by temporary church law Paragraph 2553, is now concluded. At least 7,660 churches, more than 25 percent of the denomination’s churches nationwide, have left — numerically, the largest church schism in U.S. history.

There is now no denomination-wide official way for churches in United Methodism to exit with their property. Four local conferences claim they will allow exits next year: Rio Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina, and South Georgia. West Virginia claims they will allow their opaque exit process to continue. Alabama-West Florida had adopted a post-2023 disaffiliation policy but more recently has been blocking exits, prompting a lawsuit before the state supreme court.

The number of United Methodist exits exceeds all expectations and is newsworthy for secular media, including The New York Times. Religion reporter Ruth Graham wrote: “The exodus marks a calamitous decline for the broader tradition of mainline Protestantism, which once dominated the American religious, social and cultural landscape.”

United Methodist Council of Bishops President Thomas Bickerton is quoted saying the exits are slightly more than expected, and claiming: “This is about power, control, and money.” The latter seems to be about projection, as bishops and other denominational officials try to maintain the structures of the fast-shrinking denomination.

Graham’s story spotlights White’s Chapel Church in Dallas, which was United Methodism’s second largest congregation until it left. Among reasons for its exit was the $600,000 it paid in annual apportionments to the denomination, without any seeming benefit. “We wanted to see, where was that money going,” a White’s Chapel spokesman said. “We weren’t happy with what we saw.” They and many other exiting former United Methodist churches, too.

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United Methodist Council of Bishops President Thomas Bickerton (Courtesy Photo)

Christianity Today also has comprehensive coverage of the 2023 exit conclusion. It noted United Methodism’s schism is more than 10 times larger than other recent Mainline Protestant splits among Presbyterians and Lutherans, which did not exceed 600-700 churches. About 400 churches quit The Episcopal Church.

CT also noted United Methodism’s overseas membership, almost entirely in Africa, now far outnumbers U.S. membership. It quoted Scott Field of the Wesleyan Covenant Association predicting an upcoming “African wave,” with “conservative bishops” leading mass departures.

There are seven million United Methodists in Africa. U.S. church membership, officially pegged at 5.7 million in 2021, is now likely close to four million after exits and preexisting attrition. U.S. progressives hope to keep Africans in United Methodism with a “regionalization plan” allowing the U.S. church to determine its own rules apart from the global church. Many Africans rightly see this proposal as marginalizing them.

The CT article quotes African church leaders saying they reject “the progressive views of the largely white, relatively rich, and declining church in the US.” They now want their own path for formal disaffiliation from United Methodism.

Associated Press offered its own wrap-up of United Methodist exits. 

Traditional Methodists whose congregations have successfully exited can be grateful for their own liberation and having 7,660+ fellow churches to help them replant Methodism in America. Other traditional Methodists whose churches could not exit hopefully can find nearby exited churches for worship or help found new churches. Some traditionalists will stay with their old congregations in United Methodism as a faithful witness.

Next April-May, when the United Methodist General Conference liberalizes the church’s marriage teachings, many more traditionalists will leave. Some will wonder why their congregations did not leave in 2023 while they still could.

The break-up of United Methodism represents the demise of once paramount Mainline Protestantism in America. Now Methodists and other traditional Protestants will need to rebuild new institutions to transmit the faith that avoid the mistakes that sank the old Mainline.

This commentary, which was originally appeared at Juicy Ecumenism and has been reprinted with permission, does not necessarily reflect the views of The Roys Report.

Mark Tooley is president of The Institute on Religion & Democracy. 

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  1. “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to stand for that which is true.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a message in Selma, Alabama 03/08/1965

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