As United Methodists talk of splitting over gay equality, top bishop pleads for unity

Amid reports that United Methodist leaders are considering dividing over LGBT equality disputes, the denomination’s top bishop on Tuesday asked members to recommit to remaining together, even though he described their community as having a “broken heart” and in the views of many being “out of time.”

Bishop Bruce Ough spoke during an unscheduled appearance at the major, once-every-four-years meeting of the global denomination, which is being held in Portland, Ore. Ough, the incoming president of the Council of Bishops, said he was responding to a flood of social media leaks about secret meetings top church leaders were having in the last week about the possibility of separating. The meeting is called a General Conference.

United Methodists, the third-largest faith group in the United States, have been talking for years about splitting as conservative wings from Africa and Asia become far more numerous than the relatively liberal American church. Pressure has grown since same-sex marriage started to become legal, meaning more pastors are performing such weddings for congregants — or coming out themselves — and traditional members are pushing for more accountability to United Methodist law and even for trials of pastors who violate it.

Ough sought to push back on the accounts about splitting, showing that the lead administrative official in the church wants to keep people together, but he offered no specifics about what would happen with those meetings nor what new plan he or other bishops had to try to resolve the ongoing tensions. He acknowledged that Methodists are divided, as are their leaders.

“I have a broken heart, and collectively we have a broken heart. Our hearts break over pain, anger, disunity we observe and experience in our beloved United Methodist Church, and frankly, within our council,” Ough said of the Council of Bishops he heads. The council is “not advancing any call” for the disbanding of the denomination, though “at the same time we remain open to new and innovative ways to remain in unity … perhaps new structures for our United Methodist Church.” So much of the church is working, he said, “and yet so much needs to adapt to new realities. Many voices believe we are out of time.”

Late Tuesday, members voted 428-364 for the bishops to meet immediately and make a recommendation to the Conference about how the church can move forward on the issue of human sexuality.

“We have a very difficult and painful situation..we would like you all to lead us, which is why you’ve been elected,” the Rev. Tom Berlin, a pastor from Northern Virginia who is a delegate, told the leadership Tuesday night in arguing in favor of the measure. “If you could bring us some concrete proposal…it would be a blessing to the body and to the church.”

The group of leaders who had been meeting privately reportedly discussed breaking into conservative, moderate and progressive communities.

In an interview later with The Post, Ough confirmed he was one of five bishops in the private meetings. He said the possibility of separating was only one of several topics discussed and that in the United Methodist Church it’s “not the role” of bishops to propose legislation. He noted that there are various pending proposals at the General Conference that deal with possible structure changes or mechanisms for congregations to leave the denomination. These are things that have been discussed for years, he noted.

“What’s different is, there is a certain level of candor and urgency that is evident,” he said. Typically debates about how to remain together focus on structures or definitions of who is United Methodist. Council members are “wondering whether God doesn’t have a bigger list of options.”

Mark Tooley, of the orthodox group Institute on Religion and Democracy, said demographics will end the debate soon.

“The whole United States will be a minority and the liberal parts of the United States will be a minority within a minority,” Tooley said, noting that the General Conference is slated to leave the United States for the first time in 2024, and be held in the Philippines, and in Zimbabwe in 2028.

The rumors of division began spreading on social media Monday night.

It wasn’t clear how widespread bishop support was overall for the possibility of reorganizing and separating. Multiple reports said the meetings were attended by representatives of groups across the ideological spectrum, pastors of major United Methodist churches and other leaders.

A key group of traditional, evangelical United Methodists, the Good News Group, put out a statement Tuesday saying the meetings were attended by Warner Brown, the outgoing head of the Council of Bishops, and were aimed at “seeking a way to be able to live together within our church.”

The conversations had been moving forward, and included the council, the Good News statement said, but didn’t clarify whether that meant it was in a direction of more unity or more division. While the participants were waiting for the bishops’ formal decision on their involvement, the Good News group said, progressive groups released information Monday on something “that had not been formally proposed.”

The question of how and whether to stay together has been constant, and more than 100 proposals are under consideration this month at the denomination’s quadrennial global meeting, called the General Conference.

The Rev. Douglas Damron, a pastor at Epworth United Methodist in Toledo, posted on Facebook late Monday from Portland that the Ohio delegation had been updated that night by the Rev. Mike Slaughter, a prominent centrist from Ohio.

Describing what Slaughter had told the group, Damron posted that a group of bishops, leading pastors and advocacy groups has been meeting to ask “the question of can the United Methodist Church move forward in regard to the question of gay and lesbian inclusion.” He continued:

Short answer was no. The far right and far left are entrenched in their theological understandings. The group also faced a reality that by 2020 and beyond our African United Methodist sisters and brothers would control the church so what this would mean practically is that the United Methodist Church would be on a trajectory to become ever more conservative on a whole host of issues. Our leaders believe the hour has arrived for a loving separation. The Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops [is] meeting tonight in Portland to consider a prepared plan that will be presented to the General Conference tomorrow. The plan would call for the creation of a commission to guide the separation of the United Methodist Church.

Slaughter couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday. Damron said he was praying for a middle way.

He said he’s among those who “who really love living in a church with healthy right- and left-wing,” he said. “The far edges of our church are unable or unwilling to compromise.”

Many prominent Methodists said their bishops were not showing leadership.

Damron wrote in his post that his feelings were mixed. “I was shocked, never thinking that our bishops would consider such a plan,” he wrote. “My heart is pained, but there is also a sense of relief. For the last two years I have spent a significant amount of time in helping to organize the United Methodist Centrist Movement to keep our church united.”

Chris Ritter, who is a pastor at First Methodist in Geneseo, Ill., and a blogger, wrote Monday night that all sides were to blame. A split would be “more of a divorce than a funeral,” he said.

To frame what is happening as either a conservative takeover or a progressive temper-tantrum would be to both miss the point and indulge in the sort of self-indulgent blame-shifting that is so common in any divorce. We should refuse to soothe our suffering by skipping over the hard-searching questions that can and should accompany such tragedies. We leaders allowed the church to arrive at this place both by sins of commission and omission. In spite of some notable successes, we have poorly represented Jesus together. Our apathy for each other allowed us to grow apart. Our distrust of each other was built into our polity in 1939 and 1968. Were we ever married or just living together?