A new, more conservative Methodist denomination is set to launch May 1 after a years-long debate centered largely over LGBTQ rights.
PARSONS, Tenn. — By most appearances, Palm Sunday was typical for First United Methodist Church here in Parsons, a small, rural town in south central Tennessee.
The group of about 50 congregants sang hymns, listened to the Rev. Earl Dickerson preach, and gathered for coffee and Bible study after the service.
The normalcy of the morning stands in contrast with the past two weeks, when members voted on items related to the church’s process of leaving the United Methodist Church.
Like Palm Sunday, Easter weekend at the church will look normal, too, featuring a sunrise service and a community meal in celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
But three days after Easter, the church will take the final and decisive vote on leaving the United Methodist Church, a decision playing out across the world as part of a years-long debate within the denomination largely over LGBTQ rights.
Many other United Methodist churches will be making similar decisions as the reality of the denomination’s schism takes new life when a splinter Methodist denomination officially launches May 1.
“It seems reasonably confident that they are leaving,” Dickerson, senior pastor at Parsons First UMC, said in an interview. “The fact that the church has been a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association for several years show which way their heart has lied for a good while.”
The Wesleyan Covenant Association is an advocacy group that is helping establish the new denomination, the Global Methodist Church. The Methodist camp holds more traditional views on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Many expected the Global Methodist Church to launch later this year after delegates at the UMC General Conference voted on a plan to split. But officials decided last month to postpone the General Conference until 2024, prompting the Global Methodist Church to preemptively launch.
“I know I’ve heard several people say the pivotal decision was the delay of General Conference that caused them to want to act,” Dickerson said about Parsons First UMC.
‘We keep rising’: For churches hit by disaster, Easter brings promise of hope
The Global Methodist Church’s official launch was part of a widely agreed upon plan – called the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation,” or the Protocol.
UMC delegates have not voted on the Protocol, meaning conditions of the plan have not received approval. A key stipulation in the Protocol is for the UMC to pay the new denomination $25 million to get started.
A successful disaffiliation vote at Parsons First UMC would trigger a complicated process that few others have completed.
The recent decision to yet again delay the UMC General Conference left regional conferences with the task of clarifying key parts of the disaffiliation process. When the General Conference meets in two years, delegates will vote on the Protocol plan that clarifies those matters.
Similarities amid differences
In a different way, leaders at West End United Methodist Church in Nashville are feeling the weight of the moment.
“For me personally, as a pastor and a lifelong United Methodist, I’m sad to see some of our pastors and congregations leaving the denomination. I imagine we’re all sad about it,” the Rev. Carol Cavin-Dillon, senior pastor at West End UMC, said in a statement.
In contrast to the Wesleyan Covenant Association, West End UMC is on the other end of the debate. It allows LGBTQ people to serve in church ministries and supports pro-LGBTQ initiatives in town, such as sponsoring a booth at Nashville Pride Festival.
In fact, West End UMC said in a January 2020 statement that certain UMC policies and governing document language about homosexuality “are irreconcilable with our mission.”
The policies West End UMC criticized for not being inclusive enough were simultaneously condemned by traditionalists who wanted even more conservative policies, a contributing factor that led to the current schism.
Early days of UMC schism: Who keeps the church? As United Methodists face splits over LGBTQ issues, property disputes could follow
Explainer on UMC split: A new Methodist denomination announced its official launch. How did we get here?
At this point, Cavin-Dillon can’t predict how the changes in the UMC will affect West End members other than feeling a sense of mourning that comes with the fraying of a denomination that has stayed together for so long because of its common beliefs.
Many of those commonalities remain, though. For example, the church’s attitudes about Easter.
“Christians of all nations and cultures and contexts are united in that celebration, and Easter reminds us of our oneness,” Cavin-Dillon said.
Dickerson expressed a similar sentiment, saying he approached Easter this year like any other year, deflecting distractions about the disaffiliation process.
The UMC, with more than 6.2 million members in the U.S., according to 2020 data, is the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the nation. As of 2018, the denomination had more than 12 million members worldwide.
At the same time as First Parsons UMC leaders have been negotiating with regional conference officials about the cost of disaffiliation, they also have been planning for the Easter weekend community meal and the Sunday sunrise service.
Easter is Easter, Dickerson said, “whether or not there’s another name on the front of the building.”
Follow Liam Adams on Twitter: @liamsadams