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Can this church be saved? Split on LGBTQ issues, United Methodists consider divorce

Peter Rowe, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Religious News

SAN DIEGO -- Sexual issues lead to many divorces. That includes the threatened split in the United Methodist Church. Divided on same-sex marriage and the status of LGBTQ believers, the nation's third largest Christian denomination -- after Catholicism and the Southern Baptist Convention -- may soon break up.

"No one celebrates separation. I certainly do not," said the Rev. Jonathan Park, associate pastor of the Korean United Methodist Church of San Diego, a traditionalist congregation. "But I believe it is inevitable."

The Rev. Bob Rhodes, whose leadership of the progressive Pacific Beach United Methodist Church has not prevented a close friendship with Park, agreed. For years, he had hoped the church's feuding wings could co-exist.

"Then a friend asked if I were counseling a couple where one was abusing the other, would I counsel them to stay together?" Rhodes said. "I think both sides feel they have been abused by the other."

While this debate has simmered since the church's 1972 declaration that homosexual acts are "incompatible with Christian teaching," it recently gained new urgency. On Jan. 3, a committee representing progressive, traditionalist and centrist church leaders issued a nine-page "Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation." If approved during the church's General Conference in Minneapolis this May, the traditionalists will form a new denomination.

"It's just time to move on." said the Rev. Glen Haworth, lead pastor of The Fount in Fountain Valley and president of the California-Pacific chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a traditionalist group. "We can't do our mission, we are too busy fighting."

 

For a mainline Protestant denomination with a history spanning three centuries, this is a spiritual crisis. Division would come as church membership, while shrinking in the U.S., is growing in Africa and Asia. Both traditionalists and progressives say acrimonious arguments are distracting from Methodists' work fighting poverty and responding to natural disasters -- UMCOR the United Methodist Committee on Relief, is now assisting earthquake victims in Puerto Rico -- or its campaign to educate an emerging continent's leaders at Zimbabwe's Africa University.

"People wonder, why is this the thing that we are known for, isn't Christianity much bigger than LGBTQ issues?" said Ron Benefiel, a professor of sociology and theology at Point Loma Nazarene University. "Isn't Christianity about God and Jesus? But this is the issue that has come to them."

This church traces its roots to 18th-century England, when an Oxford don and ordained Anglican priest urged the reformation of his own church.

John Wesley, with his brother Charles and other adherents, preached "practical divinity" to coal miners, blacksmiths and other blue collar workers. They recognized women as ministers and devised ways -- methods -- to put the Gospel into practice in the here and now.

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