Updated Jan. 29
Earlier this month, Methodist leaders all over the world announced their intention to split the church in two because they can’t agree on whether to accept LGBTQ people into the faith.
Under the proposed agreement — which will be voted on in the United Methodist Church’s global conference in May — the onus would be on conservative churches to leave and form their own new denomination. They could keep their pensions intact and have roughly $25 million as a parting gift.
For Philadelphia’s 43 Methodist churches, the pending rift presents an uncertain future.
Some local congregations are disappointed about the pending divide. Some are flush with relief. Others are actively fighting to keep it from happening at all.
“Certainly as a congregation, we’re feeling anxious about what this will mean for us,” said Tim Emmett-Rardin, interim pastor at Cedar Park’s Calvary United Methodist Church — the first Philly church to reconcile back in 1985. “We’re also hopeful that in May, there will be some clear resolution.”
Karyn Wiseman was a longtime Methodist pastor. For awhile, no one asked her about her sexuality — and she was grateful, because she would’ve had to admit she was a lesbian with a long-term partner.
“I was living on the razor’s edge,” said Wiseman, who grew up Methodist and until recently attended the Chestnut Hill United Church. “Do I go into ministry, and risk not being able to be myself? Or do I stay out of it but know that God had called me?”
So far, at least 17 of Philly’s Methodist churches are “reconciling” — meaning they’re accepting LGBTQ people and plan to stay with the UMC under more liberal guidelines. The rest, per Eastern Pennsylvania Conference Bishop Peggy Johnson, are wildcards.
Johnson, who oversees a flock of around 103,000 congregants, hasn’t spent much time asking around on where churches stand, she said. She’s still holding out hope the organization will stay together.
“My personal stand is that any time there is a split, everyone loses,” Johnson said. “A schism is kind of a lack of spirituality, a lack of creativity. But sometimes in our human frailty we have to go that way because it’s an impasse.”
A debate that’s raged for 40 years
In 2013, the Philly-area Methodist conference made national news over the issue.
At the time, Bishop Johnson held a church trial for Rev. Frank Schaefer, a pastor from Lebanon, Pa. after he officiated his son’s same-sex wedding. Shaefer was briefly defrocked — and his trial inspired backlash from Methodist pastors all over the country, who started to disobey the church’s rules that excluded LGBTQ people.
If the fissure does divide the Methodist church, it won’t be the first time.
The UMC has split dozens of times since its founding in the early 1700s — most memorably over slavery in the pre-Civil War era. At the time, denominations split into Northern and Southern branches.
It also wouldn’t be the first church to open a chasm over LGBTQ acceptance. The Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church and the American Baptist Churches have all had branches split off to start welcoming queer people into the folds.
Former pastor Wiseman, of Chestnut Hill, reluctantly admits she saw this coming.
“It feels bad, that I knew it was going to split,” Wiseman said. “It’s like, that’s your siblings that are breaking apart — the denomination that birthed you and raised you having to no longer be together.”
While Wiseman says she’s not going back no matter what — “I just felt so hurt and betrayed” — others in Philly’s more progressive UMC churches say they feel a weight has been lifted.
The debate with local conservative churches has raged ever since Calvary reconciled almost 40 years ago, interim pastor Emmett-Rardin said. “It’s not a conversation to us, it’s not a question. We’re tired of people’s lives being debated.”
What comes next? In May, the UMC conference in Minneapolis will decide the fate of the religious organization. The end result could look a million different ways, since multiple plans are on the table, and any number of amendments could be added.
In all scenarios, after the non-tolerant factions split off, the remaining churches would likely be able to officiate queer weddings and allow LGBTQ clergy.
Bob Coombe, pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, is thrilled about that part — he’s had a queer congregant for years who has wanted to become a clergymember, but she’s been waiting for the official greenlight from the UMC.
“There’s something to be gained on the other side of this grief,” Coombe said. “A gay or lesbian or transgender person could become a pastor, could be ordained out of this church. The changes look good for us. They give us the freedom to be who we are as a community.”