Louisiana Bishop Presides Over Vote That Divides the United Methodist Church

“We are broken people called to serve a broken people,” Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey of Louisiana said in a video statement produced by the United Methodist Church (UMC) in the immediate aftermath of a controversial vote that threatens to create a permanent schism among the church’s nearly 13 million members.

Last week in St. Louis, Harvey presided over the global conference’s historic vote on whether to allow individual churches to decide their own policies on LGBTQ clergy and marriage equality or whether to adopt a more punitive “Traditional Plan” that effectively bans the recognition of equal rights for LGBTQ members and increases sanctions against openly gay and lesbian ministers.

Ultimately, the Traditional Plan prevailed narrowly by a vote of 438 to 384, and as a consequence, the UMC is now reeling from what one member described as a “catastrophe.”

“There’s been a lot of hurt. A lot of people will leave here hurt, harmed, disappointed,” Harvey said.  

Cynthia Fierro Harvey, who was elected as Bishop of Louisiana in Sept. 2012, had been an outspoken supporter of the so-called “One Church Plan” and is an advocate for a more inclusive and tolerant stance on sexual orientation, but as the President Designate of the Council of Bishops, she had the unenviable assignment of overseeing a decision that she strongly opposed. “I just happened to be the person that was trying to guide the process. I was trying to help them do their best work,” she said. “Sometimes that worked, and sometimes it didn’t.”

The first-ever woman and first-ever Hispanic elected as Bishop of Louisiana, Harvey was born and raised in a small town in a remote part of West Texas, in a neighborhood she once described as being “on the wrong side of the tracks.” After graduating with a degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin, she spent twelve years working as a regional marketing director for the Rouse Company before earning a Master of Divinity from the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. Today, she oversees a conference of 486 congregations and nearly 120,000 members in Louisiana.

For decades, Methodist leaders in both Texas and Louisiana have played an outsized role in the global church’s internal politics, and while other Protestant denominations in the Deep South remained adamantly conservative, the United Methodist Church was defiantly moderate and, at times, surprisingly progressive on a range of social issues. The UMC, until recently, supported the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade; its position now is not expressly anti-choice, though it scrapped references to the controversial case. It acknowledges the scientific fact of evolution. It opposes the death penalty, and it supports stricter gun control laws. Former President George W. Bush is a Methodist, as is presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The UMC is the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States and a branch of Methodism, a faith that dates back to the 18th century. Initially a subset of the Anglican Church, Methodism, which was founded by brothers John and Charles Wesley, may have begun in England, but it took root in the New World. The brothers visited Georgia in 1735, hoping to convert Native Americans; the experience informed their beliefs and the doctrine of the nascent denomination. There have been several iterations of the Methodist faith, but when The Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968 in Dallas, the newly-created United Methodist Church became its largest and wealthiest contingent.

The UMC has long emphasized ecumenism over orthodoxy, which has allowed the church to be more malleable and less doctrinaire while, at the same time, committed to global expansion and missionary work.

A victim of its own success?

Last week’s vote revealed a continental divide between the growing contingency of the UMC’s international members, particularly those in Africa, and the diminishing influence of its American members. While the UMC is headquartered in the United States and more than half of its congregants are Americans, its membership in Africa has surged in recent years. Two-thirds of American delegates opposed the Traditional Plan, and the more inclusive One Church Plan had been drafted and endorsed by the UMC’s Council of Bishops.

But 43% of delegates were from overseas, primarily from Africa, where homosexuality is illegal in many countries, and they were adamantly against any proposal that could be framed as a supportive of marriage equality. They joined a small contingency of evangelical conservatives in defeating the One Church Plan.

Three years ago, when United Methodists met in Portland, Oregon for the last Global Conference, the schism seemed inevitable, as Emma Green of The Atlantic noted in “The Divided Methodist Church.” This was, in many ways, due to the UMC’s strident efforts to create a “global church.”

“In some ways, the Methodists’ problem is one of their own making: The American church has sent missionaries all over the world to spread the faith. Over time, communities abroad have become consistent voices in support of ‘traditional’ heterosexuality, while their progressive peers in the United States have gradually shifted to support gay marriage and pastors,” Green writes. “In a denomination that’s remarkably accommodating to local cultural practices, homosexuality might represent the outer limit of tolerable difference.”

Delegates punted the decision in 2016 (that same year, the Western United States District elected the very first openly gay bishop, Karen Oliveto), but three years later, even though support for an inclusive LGBTQ policy had surged in the United States, hard-line conservatives in Africa became more influential.

Delegates from Liberia were particularly outspoken; the country’s current Vice President is Jewel Howard Taylor, the ex-wife of dictator Charles Taylor, who is now serving a 50-year sentence after being found guilty by the U.N. of- as characterized by the trial judge- “aiding and abetting as well as planning some of the most heinous and brutal crimes in recorded human history.”

Jewel Taylor makes Mike Pence look tolerant. She once proposed legislation that would have made the “crime” of same-sex marriage punishable by death. In addition to her duties as Vice President, Taylor also chairs the Liberian Senate Health and Social Welfare Committee on Gender, Women, and Children.

Methodism has become a dominant force in Liberia, but it is a much different faith than the version practiced by its American adherents.

After the vote last week, a few of the delegates from Africa declared a victory over colonialism, which may strike some as absurd considering that the denomination was founded by white men in England who believed in evangelism and that the church’s presence in Africa has been largely subsidized by Americans. Regardless, this was not a vote against colonialism; it was actually a rejection of local autonomy.

In the United States, UMC leaders (of all ethnicities) are clearly in damage-control mode, hoping to reassure disaffected congregants that the issue of LGBTQ rights is not yet settled while also attempting to keep the fragile global church unified.

To that end, conference delegates narrowly voted to allow its Judicial Council the opportunity to strike down portions of the Traditional Plan they determine to be in violation of the church’s constitution. The UMC’s website reflects an unspoken truth: The church is barreling toward a split, and the global mission will likely be scaled down dramatically. It’s difficult to imagine how the UMC could be sustainable in the United States while financing and promoting bigots abroad.

There is a remote chance the Judicial Council decides to strike down the substantive portions of the Traditional Plan, and there is even a chance Louisiana and Texas could play a role: Tim Bruster, a pastor in Ft. Worth, is an alternate clergy member of the council; Bruster was born in Shreveport.

But Methodists probably shouldn’t hold their breath: The President of the UMC Judicial Council is N. Oswald Tweh, a prominent lay leader from Monrovia, Liberia.

Full disclosure: While I did not interview Bishop Harvey for this article, I met her briefly after she delivered a eulogy at my paternal grandfather’s funeral last year; he had once been a “district lay leader” for the United Methodist Church. Like Harvey, I also earned a graduate degree from SMU. Oh, and we were both born on Cinco de Mayo.