Editor’s Note: This is one of three stories on a split in the United Methodist Church (UMC) as some congregations have elected to “disaffiliate” due to conflicts — including an ongoing debate over human sexuality and the church’s stance on it. News Channel 11 spoke with congregations in the area who are planning to remain UMC and others who will be leaving about the reasons, process and feelings surrounding their decisions.
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. and WEBER CITY, Va. (WJHL) — Chuck Griffin and Lauri Jo Cranford are both United Methodist Church (UMC) clergy and both have April 22 circled on their calendars — but their perspectives about what the day means are very different.
A long-running rift within the UMC culminates that day in the UMC’s Holston Conference when representatives from the East Tennessee/Southwest Virginia conference’s 800 or so churches will gather for a special called session. When it ends, around 220 congregations who have voted to “disaffiliate” from the conference that stretches from Chattanooga to Wytheville, Va. won’t be UMC member churches anymore.
Leaders of departing and remaining churches both say several factors contribute to the breakup, but one stands out clearly: the approach to human sexuality and LGBTQ issues.
“On the issue of homosexuality, which … we talked about it as the presenting symptom of a deeper problem, that deeper problem being that we have two different ways of reading Scripture under one roof,” Griffin told News Channel 11.
Cranford oversees the conference’s Three Rivers District, which covers Washington, Unicoi, Carter and parts of Greene counties. Griffin pastors Holston View UMC in Weber City and is regional president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), a six-year-old group he said was established to “advocate on behalf of conservative traditional Methodists.”
Cranford has had what she called “a very busy season” talking to churches, sharing facts about the process and presiding over the votes of those who’ve gotten to that stage.
Human sexuality — specifically the subject of practicing LGBTQ clergy and the performance of same-sex marriages — has been a flashpoint in the runup to disaffiliations that began occurring in different conferences in late 2022. Cranford and Griffin, whose church is in the Appalachian District, both say it’s not the only issue, but it was the sole topic at a special 2019 meeting of the entire denomination that nudged the church toward its current situation.
“It’s been a lot, and it’s been heartbreaking,” Cranford told News Channel 11 as sunlight filtered through the stained glass windows and lit the dark wood and stone of First United Methodist in Johnson City. “The votes especially are heartbreaking. These are churches that I’ve served alongside or have served, and it’s been a hard season.”
With several other pastors from churches that are staying in the denomination gathered around her, Cranford acknowledged she wasn’t surprised to see things reach this point.
“I’m disappointed,” she said before listing contentious issues through the decades that have sometimes seen the church split and sometimes seen it hold together.
“We have struggles throughout, so this isn’t necessarily surprising,” Cranford said. “It’s disappointing that it’s gotten to a point where if we agree or disagree determines whether or not we stay together.”
In a separate interview, Griffin discussed the journey toward April 22. It was also a sunny day, and light also filtered through stained glass onto the lighter wood of Holston View. He, too, had several pastors and one layperson with him — all from churches that are leaving the denomination.
Long road to a rift
Griffin said by the time the WCA formed, the UMC was 40-plus years into a long-simmering debate over issues of theology including – but not limited to – human sexuality.
“Up until about six years ago, we had always thought that the leadership of the church were the advocates for traditional conservative Christianity within the Methodist church,” Griffin said.
United Methodists have debated human sexuality almost since the denomination’s 1968 founding, when the Evangelical United Brethren Church merged into the Methodist Church. Since its first general conference in 1972, the UMC’s “Book of Discipline,” which guides all aspects of church life, has included language that the church “does not condone the practice of homosexuality.”
Griffin said what he called an approach of “theological pluralism” that began 50 years ago had eventually led to open flouting of the human sexuality language in some areas of the United States, though not the Holston Conference.
“We began to see ordinations (of clergy) happening against what was in the discipline, there were just other issues that were arising, too,” he said. “We were seeing certain bishops espouse ideas that just went against core Christianity. We were beginning to realize there was a need to advocate on behalf of conservative Methodism.”
A good bit of that concern centered around the Book of Discipline’s statement on “Human Sexuality,” contained in Paragraph 161 (“The Nurturing Community”).
Section G on human sexuality calls for “responsible stewardship of this sacred gift” and says the following related to LGBTQ: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
It goes on to “affirm that God’s grace is available to all” and mandates people welcome, forgive and love each other “as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.”
As more voices within the UMC called for changing that paragraph to permit openly LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings, the church convened a called general conference in 2019 specifically to deal with the issue.
The prohibition stayed and some specific enforcement language was added related to violations of Paragraph 161.
“It just spelled out consequences,” Cranford said. “If a pastor was brought up on charges for doing a same-sex wedding, these were the consequences because before it just wasn’t as clear.”
But the vote was very close. The differences had created enough division that during the 2019 conference, the UMC created an off-ramp for churches in what is a fairly top-down denomination.
The expectation was the progressive churches would use the “disaffiliation” out, which requires churches to buy out of the church’s shared pension fund and some other liabilities in addition to following a spiritual discernment process prior to a vote.
But no progressive churches made a move to leave, and instead, some churches and clergy in certain areas of the country flouted the discipline — in the view of some conservatives, with impunity.
“When it became clear that there was not going to be that kind of enforcement, that it was going to be very spotty, that there are going to be entire sections of the United States that were basically in schism, we just made the decision it’s really time to leave,” Griffin said of the churches that are disaffiliating.
“I think there might have been more comfort with ‘yeah, we’re gonna stay around as long as it looks like we’re going to enforce what we’ve approved as the discipline of the church,” he added.
Griffin acknowledged the breaches have mostly occurred in areas outside the Holston Conference.
“But it began to be more and more of a problem just in terms of confusion that it was causing for people who were looking for a church to go to,” Griffin said. With ministers being assigned by the hierarchy, “sometimes you’d have a conservative congregation with a progressive minister and it was just causing a lot of confusion.”
Cranford said each UMC jurisdiction determines enforcement of any Book of Discipline matters.
“Holston, we are upholding the Book of Discipline, especially with regards to human sexuality,” she said. “I know in our area when we’ve had complaints that are written and that are signed, we have taken every single one of them seriously.”
Cranford said people here “seeing other areas of the country or other persons who are interpreted as not upholding the Book of Discipline” is “where a lot of the pushback comes.”
A theological divide
Clear divides exist within the UMC on the matter of human sexuality.
“The Bible is very clear on the issue of homosexuality as a sin,” Griffin said. “There’s not really much of a way to debate what scripture says on that.”
He pointed to the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Roman church as one example and also brought up Jesus’s teaching on divorce in Matthew 19 — “it’s in the context of divorce, but we also hear him talk about marriage being between a man and a woman.”
Cranford, on the other hand, said the issue of human sexuality is “not a settled issue.
“We do not (all) agree on how the scriptures are interpreted, and that’s part of the argument, part of the conflict.”
Cranford said she has read several theologians who write about humans at the time Scriptures were written having less “understanding of homosexuality that we have now from a biological standpoint.
“There wasn’t the understanding of a committed relationship as we understand now. It was more of a power relationship. There are people who interpret Scripture differently, whereas when it says two men together it actually meant a man and a boy, so there’s discrepancies in that as well.”
But Cranford and Griffin also said the differences that have brought the church to point of division extend beyond the human sexuality issue. Cranford said Biblical interpretation at a broader level is involved, as are church administrative issues.
“I think a lot of it is interpretation of Scripture,” Cranford said. “I think it also has to do with how the church is structured, and I think that’s the part that’s kind of the behind-the-scenes or the less mentioned aspect of it. This is a great fighting soundbite, that it’s only about human sexuality.”
Some departing leaders have also chafed at some of the rigid hierarchy within the UMC, but Griffin also said the scriptural issue runs deeper than sexuality.
“We talked about it as the presenting symptom of a deeper problem. That deeper problem being that we have two different ways of reading scripture under one roof,” he said.
Griffin said theological conservatives within the UMC have “a high view of scripture.” He said that doesn’t mean those members are fundamentalists or Biblical literalists. Rather, Griffin said, “We have to take it all seriously, and we have to try to abide by what Scripture says rather than changing Scripture to fit the way that we see the world.”
He said some in the UMC “don’t treat Scripture that seriously” and are willing to “discard pieces” of it or reinterpret it “in a way that the church traditionally and historically would find very radical. It’s just very difficult for us to exist in one denomination with each other.”
Cranford bristled at the suggestion that centrists or progressives don’t hold to the belief that the Bible is the inspired word of God.
“Wherever and however they interpret, I don’t believe people are just throwing out Scripture, and I don’t believe they are just changing it to match what they would like it to say,” she said.
Her experience has led her to believe people from varying vantage points study Scripture and try to “discern prayerfully how God is speaking to them through Scripture.
“We say as United Methodists we believe this is in the inspired word of God, and we take it very seriously,” Cranford said. “Even in the midst of taking it seriously, it doesn’t mean we’re necessarily going to agree on the interpretation and that’s where it gets tricky.”
The Holston Conference asked churches that wanted to consider leaving to follow a specific process: get leadership together and decide whether to enter a 90-day period of “spiritual discernment” before voting on disaffiliation. A two-thirds vote in favor after following the process, along with a slate of financial and administrative procedures, set churches up to be on the April 22 list.
Greg Davis pastors four small churches that comprise the Baileyton circuit in Greene County. Sitting on a pew at Holston View, he said God convicted him after the 2019 conference “that my people need to know what’s going on.”
All four churches opted to start the discernment process in September.
“We had prayer meetings, various discussions within all the churches that then led to …. individual conferences and every one voted 100% to disaffiliate,” Davis said.
He applauded the Holston Conference’s leadership through the process, saying Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett “is allowing us a very painless way” to depart. He’s heard that some conferences have levied higher costs on departing churches than Holston and that “we are in one of the luckier conferences.”
Sitting in her own church, First UMC pastor Jodie Ihfe said the congregation had open conversations about the disaffiliation issue. She met personally with all the Sunday school classes and small groups for question-and-answer sessions.
“Then I had a leadership gathering at the first of the year where we had more than 50 members of our committees and leadership teams, and we spent an hour or more talking about what’s going on, the history that led up to this moment in time and what our next steps can be and should be as a congregation,” Ihfe said.
In the end, the congregation of about 150 active members opted not to enter a discernment process, though Ihfe said members’ views on the human sexuality issue, as well as many other topics, vary widely.
“Those folks are even in the same Sunday School class, and they will argue and they will fight and they will hug it out at the end,” Ihfe said.
“I appreciate it so much because it causes people to go back to the Scriptures to read their Bible at home to come back with more questions. It really helps develop the faith of our members even deeper than just assuming everybody agrees about everything and not having any difficult conversations.”
While Ihfe and Davis have some positive reports, the process hasn’t been without rancor or discomfort, as our story on the road to the split details.