The Swansonville United Methodist Church voted Nov. 13 to join a new denomination in the Wesleyan tradition – the World Methodist Church. This follows a similar vote from fellow church, Harmony United Methodist.
The two small rural churches in Pittsylvania County are led by Pastor John Bright.
By joining the Worldwide Methodist Church, Swansonville and Harmony will officially leave the United Methodist Church — an international denomination to which both churches — along with thousands of Methodist churches in Virginia and the United States — have belonged since the 1960s.
The reason for the breakup — an increasingly liberal United Methodist Church that, while agreeing in 2019 to uphold the denomination’s ban on ordaining LGBTQ clergy and officiating or accommodating same-sex marriage, also elected its first openly gay bishop, Karen Oliveto that same year, and it was followed by another last week, Bright said.
There was also concern among conservative churches of more liberal pastors ignoring the denomination’s decision to maintain its tradition of not sanctioning same-sex marriage and performing such ceremonies in the church, he said.
“We separate belief from behavior. We say this is what we believe, but we go ahead and do what we want,” Bright said.
Originally, the plan was to develop ways for all three factions of the denomination – progressives, institutionalists and conservatives – to leave if an individual church wanted to. But that process has been delayed three times due to the pandemic, and churches that wanted to leave the United Methodist organization were unwilling to wait until 2024 — when the next general conference was scheduled, Bright said.
In Virginia, Swansonville and Harmony are among the first 10 churches to vote to leave the denomination earlier this year, with 125 more in the process, Bright said.
Swansonville and Harmony aren’t the only two in Pittsylvania County going down this path, Bright said, adding that UMC churches have two more opportunities to begin the severance process before the Enabling Clause ends Dec. 31. 2023.
So far, the number of churches in the Methodist World Church is a moving target, as all must go through their respective conferences and receive approval for disaffiliation, said Keith Boyette, transition and connection with the GMC.
Boyette said that since Global’s formation in May, the response has been strong, especially in the southeast and south-central United States.
“The process has really just started in Virginia,” he said, adding that funding was an issue for these Commonwealth churches. Additionally, other states have different administrative structures and some have already had their general conference where severance approval is granted, Boyette said.
Swansonville and Harmony churches both have long traditions in Pittsylvania County.
Swansonville Church was formed in 1890 and today has about 35 to 40 members who attend regularly on Sundays, Bright said. Harmony was founded in 1926 and has around 20 members. These figures represent about half of the people present before the pandemic. Since COVID, many have grown older and sicker, others are staying home due to health issues and others have simply left for churches that were open during the pandemic, Bright said.
Leon Griffith, 76, has attended Harmony Church all his life and now his grandchildren worship there too.
For Griffith, it was an increasingly liberal UMC that helped him decide it was time to leave.
“Instead of staying and fighting, we thought our ministry would serve people better if we separated and didn’t stay in the church,” he said of UMC.
Griffith is keen to point out that this doesn’t mean Harmony isn’t welcoming.
Not at all, said Griffith.
“Everyone is welcome in our church. We are all sinners who have all failed… We don’t turn away anyone who comes to worship with us,” he said.
“We don’t want to criticize anybody for what they do,” Griffith said.
Doug Jamison has been going to Swansonville for about 10 years.
“It’s very sad,” Jamison said of the split from UMC,
For church members, it was more about the inconsistency in the leadership of the UMC.
The congregation saw the chaos at the UMC leadership level and believed it would continue.
“That led to the position we took,” Jamison said.
Bright said he also mourned the departure of UMC.
“I didn’t leave the Methodist church, the Methodist church left me. This is not the church I grew up in, this is not the church I was ordained to 30 years ago,” Bright said.
Although Swansonville and Harmony will have to pay to leave the UMC organization, it will retain its religious buildings, bank accounts and other assets. The payment has to do with funding medical care and pensions for its clergy, and thankfully both churches had had enough of donations from past members to cover expenses, Bright said.
Bright thinks some churches leaving the UMC may attempt to become “independent,” but thinks that won’t last long, given the difficulty of that option.
Bright said Harmony and Swansonville went through a 30-day prayer process before making the decision to leave UMC, and so far the Virginia Conference has been gracious about the decision.
“Everyone has been fair. Our attorney said there were no arguments, we’re all just going through it,” Bright said.
The World Methodist Church started in May this year as a substitute for traditional churches that left the UMC. With the vote to join Global, Swansonville and Harmony will change names and incorporate new signage.
They will become Swansonville Methodist Church and Harmony Church. The process should be completed by the end of November.
Swansonville has already replaced a stained glass window below the steeple which bore the UMC insignia of two flames. A marble sign out front will also be returned, a new name inscribed and then replaced, Bright said.
Bright expects Global to hold its first convening conference in 12-16 months and membership is growing.
“People come,” he said, adding that Global has its own discipline book — a document that outlines how churches will coexist together.
Decades of craftsmanship
While the World Methodist Church, with its conservative approach, was just formed this year, the schism within The United Methodist Church began in earnest in 1972, Bright said.
Bright said liberal leanings were evident as early as the early 1900s, but it was at the 1972 UMC General Conference that debate began over whether to insert a particular phrase into the discipline book of The denomination.
The sentence was: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching”, according to Bright.
The wording was not intended to condemn those who act on their same-sex attraction, but rather recognizes “the authority of Scripture,” Bright said.
Bright said the Bible presents sexual ethics – the full expression of sexuality between a biological male and a biological female within the confines of marriage.
Bright said it was only recently that he had to add the word “organic,” given the ever-changing definition of gender in today’s society.
The debate came to a head at the 2016 UMC General Conference, when the atmosphere became so contentious that the meeting was called off, Bright said. In 2019, the Conference voted to maintain the “traditional plan”, i.e. a ban on ordaining openly gay clergy and officiating or conducting same-sex marriages within the church. .
While adopting the “traditional plan”, the Conference at the same time elected its first homosexual bishop.
“It was a watermark in other mainline denominations,” Bright said.
This watermark also occurred in the Episcopal Church when it elected its first gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in 2003, leading to a rift within that denomination. The more conservative Episcopalians then formed the Anglican Church in North America.
“The acceptance of gay marriage and gay clergy is a symptom. It is not what is really at the heart. He leaves behind the Orthodox and Apostolic faith,” Bright said.
When the decision to stick with the “traditional plan” was approved, it was the more liberal churches that wanted to leave the UMC, Bright said. To do this, the Conference adopted a plan called paragraph 2553.
The pandemic caused three cancellations of the next conference, and at that time, and after the election of the gay bishop, many conservative churches also wanted out of the UMC and so it was decided that they could also use paragraph 2553, Bright said.
Another complaint from smaller churches such as Swansonville and Harmony is the feeling that they were not heard within UMC, Bright said.
Bright hopes the focus within the church can shift to helping people find Jesus in their lives.
“I see a tsunami of anxiety. They have lost hope,” he said.
The World Methodist Church is trying to bring the congregation back to a strong Wesleyan focus, Bright said.
The primary focus of Methodist founder John Wesley was the doctrine of salvation and the relationship between grace, faith, and holiness of heart and life, according to Asbury University.
“My hope is that we begin to proclaim that freedom is available through faith in Jesus Christ and empowerment through the holy spirit – and that we can proclaim that freedom in a world that is increasingly plagued by issues such as overdose, anxiety and depression,” he said. said, adding that this is the meaning behind “heart and life”.
Boyette said the GMC offers a clear message, vision and commitment to core beliefs.
It offers “that clarity of understanding and adhering to the Christian faith,” he said.