A close review of our Methodist church history yields a rather convincing 1939 parallel of how a like-minded movement to today’s Global Methodist Church turned out.
An Inaccurate Comparison
Recently, as the administrator of the 11,000 member United Methodist Clergy Facebook group, I deleted a post that was offensive.
The post was about the Methodist Episcopal Church South (MECS), which, in 1844 just before the American Civil War, broke off from the Methodist Episcopal Church so they could continue to cling to slavery and reject free abolitionist authorities. The post compared the MECS to the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s new splinter denomination (the Global Methodist Church) that is so determined to cling to anti-gay hysteria that they are willing to break away from The United Methodist Church.
Traditionalists on the Facebook group were unsurprisingly unhappy at being compared to the slaveholding Methodist Episcopal Church, South. They complained and so I deleted it.
But I deleted it because there’s a more accurate and more recent parallel to the Global Methodist Church in our history, and churches and pastors should know our history so they know what they are signing up for if they break away now.
The Segregated Methodist Church, 1939
In the 1930s, a movement was underway to reunite the aforementioned Methodist Episcopal Church (basically the North), the MECS, and the Methodist Protestant Church. While creating a Plan of Union, some in the South balked at unifying with the North because they didn’t want to have the black churches and pastors gain equality with the churches of the South.
Those seeking unity capitulated to this group. Per Jane Ellen Nickell in We Shall Not Be Moved: Methodists debate race, gender, and homosexuality (2014), quote:
“[Delegates] did not argue in favor of an integrated church or increased power for African Americans. Instead [they] assured MECS delegates that the plan addressed such concerns by keeping African Americans segregated and by limiting their influence on the larger church.” (Nickell, 43)
As they sought unity, they accomplished it through perpetuating racial injustice and structural racism in the newly-formed Methodist Church. Nickell continues:
“White southern delegates were satisfied that their racial authority was secure and that the prospect of being overpowered by the north was balanced by the increased power the unified church could wield in the larger society. Geographic jurisdictions afforded white southerners some degree of control over their own affairs, and ensured leadership by pastors and bishops from that region. In the end, arguments for unity and inclusiveness carried the day—yet unity was related to the overall structure of the new denomination, which nevertheless incorporated a new form of internal division in its geographic and racial jurisdictions, and inclusiveness referred to token numbers of black delegates, while white men still comprised the vast majority of General Conference delegates and could direct the course of the new church according to their interests.” (Nickell, 45)
Eventually, the Plan of Union combined the three denominations (along with some Spanish-speaking churches) at the Uniting Conference in 1939. Black pastors and black churches were placed in the racist “separate but unequal” Central Jurisdiction, and the newly minted Methodist Church was divided into jurisdictions to ensure northern bishops couldn’t preside over southern conferences. The UMC’s current Jurisdictional structure–which Traditionalists hate so much because the West can practice LGBTQ+ inclusion–was the result of Southerners wanting their own autonomy.
The Separated Methodist Church, 1937
So what does this have to do with the Global Methodist Church? Let’s see what happened.
During the unification efforts, there were folks who clung so tightly to their segregationalist beliefs that they could not stomach even being in a denomination that enshrined white supremacy but nonetheless included black preachers and churches. So a contingent created a new denomination. Nickell again:
“A few disgruntled holdouts formed the Southern Methodist Church, which grew out of the remnants of the Laymen’s Organization for the Preservation of the Southern Methodist Church. Inspired by Bishop Candler and led by Bishop Collins Denny, the Laymen’s Organization was founded in 1937 as a last-ditch effort to stave off union. This denomination lost legal battles that prevented them from using the MECS name or retaining any property, but it continues today with 5,000 members in over 100 congregations throughout the southeast.” (Nickell, 45)
The Southern Methodist Church was founded in 1940, a year after the 1939 Uniting Conference.
The reaction to efforts towards unity resulted in a new denomination bitterly opposed to any legitimacy or shared life with a minority group. Sound familiar? Today with the Global Methodist Church, it is LGBTQ+ persons, but in the 1930s, it was Black Americans.
Southern Methodist Church, redux?
The parallels are…curious:
- The 1939 merger ended up with two racist denominations: one small one that practiced separation, and one large one that practiced segregation.
- The end result of the Protocol, if it passes, will be two anti-gay denominations: The GMC that practices separation, and the UMC that continues to exclude LGBTQ+ persons from the full life of the church, even if changing that has a better chance with fewer anti-gays in the voting ranks.
- When you look at the Southern Methodist Church website and their own history, there’s absolutely nothing there that indicates its documented “segregationalist” origins.
- When you peruse the Wesleyan Covenant Association (or the Global Methodist Church website), there’s absolutely nothing there that indicates its anti-gay separationist origins.
- You noticed the dates, right? The Layman’s association began before the vote on the Plan of Union to influence it and call for continued separation, then the denomination SMC came after the vote, joined by a smaller group than the Layman’s membership.
- Likewise, the WCA was created before the 2016 General Conference, in order to influence elections and decisions. They continue to say the GMC new denomination will start “after” the Protocol is passed, though all the groundwork is already laid.
You can see the comparison is not perfect, and there are surely better examples in our history. But I’m struck that the origins, the method, and the narratives are strikingly close, just
supplementing substituting anti-black with anti-gay animus.
Is the GMC’s power base in the same region as the Southern Methodist Church? Yes. Will the GMC be larger and broader than the Southern Methodist Church? Undoubtedly. So time will tell whether this is a 2.0 situation that replicates the past, or a spinoff that is new in trajectory, but similar in origins.
My greater concern from this history lesson is when the GMC affiliates leave, will The UMC be stuck with a permanent anti-gay structure because the damage was done?
The predecessors to the Southern Methodist Church’s insistence on segregation turned a unification effort into a cobbled-together unity, with divisions due to racial bias seeking middle ground with people who had no intention of ceding ground at all. Unity was achieved at the cost of deep wounds for generations because of making peace with people who wanted no peace. Methodist Nice is one of our original sins in our denomination.
Likewise, in The United Methodist Church today, the GMC affiliates are withholding apportionments, withholding pulpits, leading an outright air-war against the bishops (which they don’t have the same authority in the GMC plans), and wanting to vote on UMC matters when they already are leaving, and indeed are calling for people to have dual membership in The United Methodist Church and the GMC so they can continue to thwart plans for full inclusion even after the GMC is gone.
The United Methodist Church is still infected by the decisions 80 years ago to give in to racial animus rather than confront it. Will we do the same in this moment of LGBTQ+ inclusion? The way forward for The GMC is to regress, will the UMC progress or be pulled backward by the undertow?
The choice is ours.
A Future Hope?
After this article published, a commenter Warren Gill made the following comment on social media, which I republish now with permission:
I don’t know much about the SMC, but I do assume at some point it has moved away from its racial separationist views. Part of that assumption is there’s an SMC congregation 45 minutes outside of D.C., and three of its four staff are men of color. While I don’t know how much congregational autonomy each church enjoys, I would assume that if the denomination still took a hardline anti-integration perspective, it wouldn’t have Black clergy. (I recognize there are a lot of assumptions here.)
I think that’s a great lesson also for the GMC. The SMC was founded on segregationist, white supremacist, anti-Black principles, but it was not able to maintain that in the longterm. The GMC will not be able to maintain indefinitely its anti-LGBTQ+ identity. The Holy Spirit has a way of sneaking in and turning stone hearts into hearts of flesh and love.
Even if that congregation is the only racially integrated SMC, it should also serve as a warning for the GMC. Aspirations of doctrinal purity never stand the test of time.
Dang. That’s a sermon in a comment! Thanks Warren!
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