The Rev. Robert Barnes has watched in dismay over the years as the Christian denomination he loves has, in his view, drifted ever further into left-leaning politics and away from values rooted in Scripture.
First came a movement to make traditional hymns gender-neutral. Then a bishop stated in an online message to her flock that Jesus “had to overcome prejudices.” More recently, many in the United Methodist Church are pressing to allow the ordination of LGBTQ+ individuals as clergy and solemnizing of same-sex marriages, both in contravention of the Book of Discipline, the set of rules by which UMC members worldwide agree to govern themselves.
“Methodists do believe the Gospel is for everyone, but when I try to agree with progressives these days, I realize I can’t,” said Barnes, the pastor of Mount Oak United Methodist Church in Mitchellville in Prince George’s County. “We can’t redefine marriage. The LGBTQ+ issues are symptomatic of what’s happening and, for me, a straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Now Barnes’ small congregation is poised to split from the United Methodist Church. It’s one of 23 houses of worship in the Baltimore-Washington Conference — a jurisdiction that includes 603 churches in Washington, in most of Maryland and in the panhandle of West Virginia — that have applied for disaffiliation, or official separation, from the worldwide church.
When the conference holds its annual meeting this week in Baltimore, some 1,200 delegates will pray together, ordain leaders, and volunteer at four schools and a homeless shelter.
But the highest-profile agenda item is slated for Thursday, when they’ll vote on whether to approve a battery of 23 resolutions that would grant the congregations permission to leave.
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, the episcopal leader of the district as well as of the neighboring Peninsula-Delaware Conference, conceded the prospect is seminal, even if it’s not necessarily in a way she’d like.
“The congregations that want to disaffiliate break my heart,” she said. “Scripture calls us to keep the unity of the body, to love one another even through our differences. We’ve lived through such questions as whether people of color, or women, can be ordained in our denomination, and we’ve resolved those. But I fully respect that there are those who believe they cannot remain.”
The separations would mark the latest development in an ongoing, often bitter dispute between progressive and conservative camps of the UMC church, much of it over the question of how to handle LGBTQ+ issues.
More than 3,900 congregations have disaffiliated from the denomination in the United States over the matters since 2019, 13% of the national total. The losses only add to a steady decline in membership that began in the 1960s, when it peaked at about 11 million; it’s slid to about 7 million today.
They mirror similar declines in other mainline denominations, such as the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, over similar spans of time.
To some in the Methodist church, including Easterling, the words of the Book of Discipline should be seen as less binding than what modern Methodists interpret Scripture as saying about love.
To others, it’s more important to follow what they call 2,000 years of Christian tradition that considers homosexual behaviors sinful, even as the faith professes love for those who experience same-sex attraction.
“I hate to use this old adage, but it’s about loving the sinner while hating the sin,” says Matt Sichel, vice president of the Baltimore-Washington chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a group that supports the letter of the Book of Discipline on the matter.
Wrangling over issues around LGBTQ+ acceptance dates back decades in the United Methodist Church, a denomination with roots in England in the 1730s but that was officially formed when two of its strains came together in 1968.
Four years later, the church added language to the Book of Discipline stipulating that while “homosexual persons” are individuals of “sacred worth,” the faith “does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” In 1984, it added the statement that “no self-avowed, practicing homosexual shall be ordained or appointed in the United Methodist Church.”
It was in 2019 that the church scheduled a national gathering to address disagreements over the issues. Largely on the strength of its broadly conservative African delegates, the denomination voted 438 to 384 to pass a so-called Traditionalist Plan that kept the rules intact.
Hundreds of congregations, viewing the restrictions as antithetical to Christian teachings on love, effectively ignore those rules. About 1,300, including 35 in Maryland, have become part of the Reconciling Ministries Network. That group openly promotes “the full participation of all LGBTQ+ people throughout the life and leadership” of the United Methodist Church. An affiliated group, the Baltimore-Washington Area Reconciling United Methodists, or B-WARM, boasts more than a dozen member churches.
Conservative-leaning Methodists such as Barnes say the pending disaffiliations have less to do with same-sex marriage or LGBTQ+ clergy than the larger questions of how faithfully the church follows the letter of Scripture as they perceive it.
Barnes said he always planned to remain a United Methodist ― “I view the church as a family,” he said — in large part because it has had room both for those who view the faith from a more traditional standpoint and those who interpret it more as the surrounding culture might. Until recently, he hoped even the most conservative congregations would remain in the fold.
But growing disagreements over what he considers fundamentals have changed his mind over the past few months, and his church — a congregation that draws about 100 worshippers every Sunday — lived up to one of the conference’s mandated steps when it held a congregational vote on the matter.
Members easily eclipsed the minimum of two-thirds in support, and he said feelings hardened when they learned of another condition the conference imposed: each disaffiliating church must pay 50% of the market value of its property to retain it, an amount that in Mount Oak’s case totals more than $1.5 million.
The Baltimore-Washington Conference is one of only a handful to impose such a fee.
Easterling cited an element of church doctrine that dates to the days of denomination’s founder, John Wesley, who in the 18th century crafted what is known as the trust clause. This provision asserts that all church buildings and property “are held in trust, for the benefit of the entire denomination,” rather than belonging to an individual congregation.
A group of 38 churches that also would like to disaffiliate has filed a joint lawsuit in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court against the Baltimore-Washington Conference that challenges the trust clause, arguing it amounts to “holding their [own] church buildings and property hostage.” The civil action remains in progress.
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Easterling would not comment on the litigation, but said the trust clause means the denomination would be within its rights to claim the full market value of the properties.
“Because typically one would have to look at the full value of the property, that 50% is still, if you will, a discount,” she said. “It’s less than what has ever been required in the past.”
Barnes and Sichel said they expect the conference to vote to disaffiliate all 23 applicants, if only because they’ll be voting on the group as a block and they believe each of the congregations has followed the mandated procedures. The churches would then have to fulfill all conditions the conference stipulates by the end of the year.
Many, including Mount Oak, plan to apply for membership in the Global Methodist Church, a more theologically conservative alternative that was founded last May and claims about 2,000 churches.
Easterling said she only hopes that if the split does happen, “we will not part ways in acrimony, but will still be able to say we love one another.”
Barnes, too, said he wants any separation to take place within a context of love. But it doesn’t mean he or his flock are happy at the prospect of leaving the United Methodist Church they have loved, in many cases, for decades.
“We all want everyone to come to Christ,” he said. “I’m afraid it’s not always pretty what that looks like.”