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People are quitting the United Methodist Church over its views on gender and sexuality

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The United Methodist Church is facing a crisis that will define its future. Roughly a quarter of its 30,000 congregations in the U.S. are leaving over the church's views on marriage, sexuality and its position on LGBTQ members and clergy. The United Methodist Church has what's estimated to be over 5 million members now. More congregations might vote to leave by December 31, which has been the deadline to vote. Matthew Wilson is an associate professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

MATTHEW WILSON: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: How would you describe the difference between various groups?

WILSON: Well, I think at the core of the difference is issues surrounding sexuality and marriage. And there are certainly other issues. There are theological and ecclesiology points on which the traditionalists and the progressives disagree. But really, at the core and the root of it, things keep coming back to just fundamentally different conceptions of what marriage is, what gender is, and how the church ought to position its teachings with regard to sexuality. And that has just proven an inseparable divide between them.

SIMON: So there are some congregations that accept LGBTQ members - if I might put it this way - without sermonizing them and others that think they need that.

WILSON: I think any congregation will accept anybody to, you know, come to church to participate in the religious life of the community. The question is things like marriage ceremonies and ordinations. That's really where the rubber hits the road here, is who can be ordained as clergy in the denomination, who can be married by ministers in the denomination. And there are just fundamental differences about what the rules surrounding those things should look like.

SIMON: Yeah. Is there a distinct demographic difference that you've been able to chart?

WILSON: Generally speaking, the more conservative traditionalist churches have tended to be in the South and in the Midwest. The more progressive churches have tended to be in the Northeast and on the West Coast. That speaks to the American church. Now, then there's also a more global phenomenon where the church is fastest growing in the developing world, particularly in Africa. The great majority of sentiment is on the more conservative side.

SIMON: And what brought this schism - if I might put it this way - to a head now.

WILSON: There has been, for at least a century, just brewing debates in American Protestantism about traditionalism versus modernism. But these things really came to a head within Methodism within the last 10 years or so as some of the progressive churches started defying the Book of Discipline and the rules within the church by ordaining openly gay clergy, by officiating at same sex marriages. And the traditionalists were angered by this and said, look, these practices are prohibited under our church rules, under our teachings and the Book of Discipline. And the traditionalists would win, typically, when these things came to votes at the global Methodist bodies. But then many of the progressive congregations would just ignore those rulings and ignore those votes.

SIMON: What are some of the repercussions going to be for the faith at large and individual congregations?

WILSON: Well, this certainly has created a lot of pain and division within the denomination and within some individual churches. Because, you know, you've got people who have been friends and colleagues for a long time, who have fundamentally different views of this. And, you know, you certainly have some people who are changing churches, who are left without a church home because their church either chooses to leave and they disagree with that, or their church chooses to stay and they disagree with that.

SIMON: Are there financial repercussions?

WILSON: There are; although the church has tried to deal with those as best it can by creating this amicable separation process. So churches who choose to leave, you know, don't get divested of all their property, and they don't become homeless and lose their church building and those sorts of things. But there are definitely financial repercussions for various denominational entities. If we think about seminaries, universities, charitable works, hospitals - right? - Methodists sponsor all of those things. And the question for all of those going forward is who are the Methodists, and what is the financial support for a given hospital or university or seminary going to look like? But the difficulty for all of these institutions is going to be managing their relationship going forward with these different Methodist bodies.

SIMON: And those are things to be determined in the future?

WILSON: That's right. That's right. We don't know yet exactly how those relationships are going to be negotiated, in part because the traditionalists are not entirely settled on what their future looks like. Some of the churches that have left have become part of the global Methodist Church. Others are talking about forming other, more traditionalist Methodist bodies. And still others have just gone the independent route. And they may trend over time to become essentially like independent, nondenominational conservative Bible churches.

SIMON: Matthew Wilson, associate professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. Thanks so much for being with us.

WILSON: Oh, well, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH AND BERNHARD MARX' "ORGAN SONATA NO. 4 IN E MINOR, BWV 528: II. ANDANTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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