Britain’s Methodist Church announced Wednesday that same-sex couples will be allowed to get married on church premises. Meanwhile, the Methodist Church based in the U.S. anticipates a denominational split over the same issues.
After debates on the topic at the Methodist Conference in the U.K., proposals to allow same-sex marriages were passed with 254 votes in favor and 46 against.
Dignity & Worth, a campaign group among Britain’s Methodists said the vote was a “momentous step on the road to justice and inclusion” after many years of sometimes painful conversations. Rev. Sam McBratney, who chairs the group, praised the “courageous step” taken by the church.
However, Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), a U.S.-based ecumenical group that seeks to uphold historic Christian creeds, countered that this change departs from 230 years of teaching in the denomination begun by John Wesley.
“Historic Methodism stresses conversion, transformation, sanctification, and holiness,” stated Tooley via e-mail. “The Methodist Church of Great Britain is abandoning those themes in favor of affirmation and self-celebration.”
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Tooley added, “Male-female marriage is central to social order and justice especially for protection of children,” he said. “Overturning it only leads to harmed lives and fractured societies.”
While the Protestant Christian denomination operates autonomously, the Methodist Church in Britain is regarded as the “mother church” to all Methodists. As a movement, Methodism has its roots in the “Holy Club” started by brothers John and Charles Wesley and evangelist George Whitefield at Oxford University in Britain in the 1720’s.
The church has a current membership of 164,000, making it the fourth-largest Christian denomination in the U.K. In 1980, Methodists in Britain had an estimated membership of 606,000 people—a steep decline over the past 40 years.
Britain’s Methodist Church said ministers who oppose the changes will not be forced to carry out same-sex marriages. Same-sex marriage is not allowed in the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, though smaller religious groups like the Quakers in Britain back the practice.
US Methodists prepare to split over marriage and sexuality
Today, the much larger U.S.-based United Methodist Church, which includes churches from over 130 countries, faces a split over these same issues of marriage and sexuality.
In August 2022, the church’s governing General Conference plans to meet to divide the church into at least three separate denominations: progressive, traditionalist, and radical, the IRD reports. (The church’s 2021 meeting was cancelled due to COVID.)
At the last United Methodist General Conference in February 2019, which Tooley and his team attended, delegates passed the so-called Traditional Plan by a close vote of 438 to 384.
The plan reaffirmed historic Christian teachings on marriage and sexuality. It also ended the denomination’s affiliation with pro-abortion lobby group Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
A key factor in the defense of traditional views was a contingent of United Methodist leaders based in African nations. About half of the denomination’s membership of 13 million worship in churches across Africa, and their votes at the General Conference turned the tide.
“We are committed to traditional biblical beliefs because that is what we know as the unchanging, infallible Word of God since the birth of the Christian Church in Africa,” stated Dr. Jerry Kulah, dean of the United Methodist seminary in Monrovia, Liberia. “Despite numerous cultural beliefs and practices across Africa, the Bible remains our primary authority for faith and practice.”
Reflecting these realities, the traditional Methodist denomination will likely be named the Global Methodist Church. Tooley says he believes this traditional denomination may initially have a small footprint in America. “The United Methodist Church is . . . now preparing to split, and two-thirds of United Methodists in the U.S. likely will go with the liberal branch.”
In December 2020, the most progressive factions within Methodism announced the formation of Liberation Methodist Connexion.
Reporting from the Associated Press contributed to this article.