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The United Methodist Church is at risk of fracturing after church leaders, this past week, reaffirmed the church's traditional opposition to homosexuality, LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage. Methodist clergy who officiate at any marriage not involving a man and a woman will now face strict penalties. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports that supporters and opponents of the new church positions are lining up against each other.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The United Methodist Church is the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the United States, but its numbers here are declining. The growth is in the global south, where Methodists tend to have a stricter interpretation of the Bible and more conservative social views. Dr. Jerry Kulah, general coordinator of the Methodist Africa Initiative, says the church's tough new stand on homosexuality was met with euphoria in his home country of Liberia.
JERRY KULAH: The old ladies in the villages, the old men in the villages, the young boys are all celebrating that the United Methodist Church has maintained its traditional view of the Bible.
GJELTEN: In fact, there were many U.S. Methodists who joined the Methodists from the global south in supporting the new resolutions at the General Conference in St. Louis. Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, was among them.
MARK TOOLEY: There's always been a large evangelical subculture in U.S. Methodism - even though the hierarchy of the church, for many, many decades, has been more on the liberal side.
GJELTEN: Some African Methodist leaders say they resent U.S. and European liberals telling them what positions they should take. Valerie Bridgeman, the academic dean at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, says she understands that complaint.
VALERIE BRIDGEMAN: But I also want to point out - having talked to several of my friends who are in Africa - that not all Africans agree with this decision. So I think it's unfair for Americans to blame Africa or South America or Philippines for this decision.
GJELTEN: In fact, if United Methodists split as a result of the church's new conservative direction, it could come first here in the U.S. Mark Tooley thinks Methodist pastors may be more liberal than the people in the pews.
TOOLEY: You may have pastors who would like to join the new, more liberal denomination. But a majority of the people in their church may prefer to stay in the old denomination.
GJELTEN: But there could also be a generational split. Jay Rundell, president of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, says the vast majority of the students at his seminary can't fathom how the delegates in St. Louis would judge homosexual activity to be immoral and gay marriage to be unacceptable.
JAY RUNDELL: They're struggling right now with their church. Particularly our younger students - this is a matter that, in most of their lives, is no longer debated.
GJELTEN: Rundell says his seminary will resist what he considers a misinterpretation of Methodist tradition, and he expects other Methodist seminaries to do the same. If they break officially with the United Methodist Church, they could lose church funding. Rundell says that is a concern. But seminaries like his also have to worry about losing students who become alienated from the church.
RUNDELL: If we have fewer students seeking ordination in the United Methodist Church, that affects us financially as well.
GJELTEN: As of today, it appears the United Methodist Church may have trouble, from here on, living up to its name.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
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