July 25, 2023
A blue and white banner hangs behind the altar table at The Fount Church in Fountain Valley, Calif.
“Come thou fount of every blessing,” reads Glen Haworth as he gestures toward the front of the sanctuary. “That’s where we get our name.”
He wants to make clear what the banner means.
“The fount is Jesus of course. Not us,” he says. “So when we say we’re the church, we’re referring to our Lord and not ourselves.”
The United Methodist congregation was founded in 1964, during boom times in Southern California.
Haworth, a lifelong United Methodist who’s been a pastor his entire professional life, came to The Fount nine years ago. He says that when he arrived, the 50 member congregation was already unhappy with the direction of the denomination.
More recently, the congregation voted unanimously to leave the United Methodist Church because of what Haworth describes as a drift from traditional biblical teachings on morality.
“Most recent and probably most prominent is the differences of opinion we have with regard to homosexuality, marriage in general, the sexual ethic,” he says. “And we believe, as do many Christians, that the Bible is very specific in that teaching.”
And he believes that teaching is accurately reflected in the United Methodist Church’s official rule book, called the Book of Discipline. It states, “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The problem, as Haworth sees it, is that church leaders openly defy this official teaching and other rules that flow from it such as bans on ordaining LGBTQ clergy and blessing of same-sex marriages.
Some church leaders defy church rules
In 2019, the United Methodist General Conference voted to uphold those bans. But, a number of bishops and other church leaders – mostly in the U.S. – said that would openly not enforce these policies as a matter of justice for LGBTQ people.
Around the world, there are more than 12 million United Methodists, with about half of them living in the United States. In this country, the larger and often more conservative congregations tend to be in the South and Midwest.
A recent accounting by the United Methodist News Service shows that about 20% of United Methodist congregations – more than 6,000 – have left the denomination in recent years.
But disaffiliating isn’t necessarily easy. The denomination allows congregations to leave if they pay two years of church dues plus fund pension obligations. Local geographic regions can also set additional requirements. And that’s the rub for The Fount.
The California Pacific Annual Conference, the local division of the United Methodist Church, also requires congregations choosing to leave to pay 50 cents on the dollar to keep their property. The Conference says it needs that money to fund new United Methodist ministries in the area.
The Fount’s multi-acre campus in Orange County was recently assessed at more than $6 million.
“In 1964, this property didn’t cost $6 million,” Haworth says, “and to pay $3 million now to the annual conference with 50 members is impossible.”
He views the situation as patently unfair, especially since conservatives like himself actually won the vote over LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings back in 2019. Haworth says he’ll try to negotiate a lower price. But if that fails, The Fount’s only options may be walking away with no building at all or going to civil court to try and keep it.
Big tents are getting smaller for many religious groups
The United Methodist Church has long wanted to hold together both conservative and progressive readings of the Bible and interpretations of Christian doctrine. But the many congregations disaffiliating reveal the limits of that desire.
“The sorrow for me is that at the root of Methodism has always been this concept of the big tent,” says Sandra Olewine, a Methodist minister and the local superintendent who oversees the geographic area in which The Fount is located.
She says that capacious tent has been a stabilizing factor for the church and serves as a witness to the larger society, polarized over so many issues. “There has always been a sense of grace about differences in our theological perspectives,” she says, “with commitment to trying to continue to love our neighbors.”
That love-beyond-difference, Olewine says, bears fruit in the way very different congregations find common ground, do ministry together and serve their communities.
But LGBTQ issues have become a shibboleth in the United Methodist Church, as they have been for many other mainline Protestant denominations in recent decades. Episcopal, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches have all taken a decidedly more progressive stands on human sexuality. And each of those denominations has lost membership.
Yet these divisions aren’t new and aren’t exclusively related to the LGBTQ issues, says Grant Hagiya, president of Claremont School of Theology, the Methodist seminary based in Southern California.
“It hasn’t been healthy for the denomination to be at odds with each other over this issue,” he says.
The retired bishop says he understands The Fount’s dissatisfaction, as well as that of the other congregations wanting to leave. But Hagiya says what’s really at stake here is justice for LGBTQ people.
And he believes thinking about the church’s rules in that context is something even a medieval theologian could support.
“Aquinas would say that if a law is unjust, it’s not a law. Our laws are human made and they can be wrong, immoral,” Hagiya says.
While Thomas Aquinas certainly wasn’t referring specifically to bans on LGBTQ clergy or same-sex marriage, Hagiya says the idea of the just versus the unjust law is applicable here. That’s why he and others believe it’s theologically acceptable to not enforce the rules in the Book of Discipline.
Some choose to stay, hoping for broader change
Given that traditionalists won the vote in 2019, one might expect those departing the denomination to be people such as Kimberly Scott, a queer Black woman and lifelong United Methodist. But rather, she was recently installed as pastor at Grace United Methodist Church in South Los Angeles.
“Where people see schism happening in the Methodist church,” Scott says, “I see walls tumbling down – walls of oppression, walls of hatred, walls of intolerance tumbling down.”
She’s a second-career minister, who left her longtime job as a school guidance counselor and P.E. teacher to follow her call to the pulpit a decade ago.
Scott says she has seen enormous change in her lifetime. In fact, she’s not the first LGBTQ person to be the pastor of this 250-member, predominantly Black congregation. A gay male predecessor of hers now serves as a bishop in the United Methodist Church.
Scott is grateful for the bishops and other church leaders who are willing to break the rules so she can live out her vocation. She says that those rules continue to exist at all is heartbreaking. Yet, she’s decided to stay in the church and be a living protest against injustice.
“My family came from Methodists in the South,” she says. “So we were Methodist when members were OK with slavery. Right? And my family never left. And so I was like, I can’t leave over this. If my grandparents stayed, then I can stay to see this to the end.”
That end, Scott believes, will eventually be an official change to the rules against LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings when representatives from around the world gather for the United Methodist Church’s General Conference next year.
She says a smaller church not divided by issues of sexuality could use its energy fighting the sins of misogyny and systemic racism. The goal, she says, it to make disciples for Christ.
While Scott is disappointed that her denomination isn’t able to remain quite as big a tent as it once was, she’s hopeful that something new is happening in the church, given the departures of those who are more conservative on LGBTQ issues. And she says she holds no ill-will toward those who want to leave.
“Their faith is their faith. The only thing I say to them is this: Please don’t destroy the church as you’re going,” Scott says. “Go in peace.”