The South Carolina United Methodist Conference avoided a vote this week on whether to split from the rest of the church.
With more than 2,000 United Methodists in Greenville for the state’s annual conference, delegates did vote on amendments that would add language about gender justice and gender equity to the denomination’s constitution.
The Rev. Keith Sweat had proposed that the church split from the national church because deep divisions over the years had hampered the ability of church leaders to minister properly.
Sweat made the proposal Monday and was not present for his retirement ceremony Tuesday. He did not respond to phone and email messages left at his office at Mount Bethel United Methodist Church in Ware Shoals.
It is not clear how much support Sweat’s proposal would have gathered since it never came to a vote.
Bishop Jonathan Holston, who presided over the state conference, ruled that language about splitting from the greater church would violate his oaths to the church and ruled the proposal out of order.
He told congregation members that he was aware of “troubling times for our denomination.”
The United Methodist Church is moving toward a decision in 2019 on how to keep the global church together amid deep differences on homosexuality. Bishops will meet that year as part of the Commission on a Way Forward, to deal with issues of sexuality and church unity.
“My prayer is that the Commission on a Way Forward will present a way that we can be faithful across our denomination in making disciples of Jesus Christ,” Holston said. “We must not lose our focus on this essential. I can promise you that I will uphold our Discipline and receive with respect this resolution as a sign of our common concerns about our denomination.”
The two gender-related constitutional amendments came up because the United Methodist Church’s General Conference in 2016 sent the language to regional conferences like South Carolina’s for their consideration.
One of the amendments would add gender justice to the denomination’s constitution, in addition to existing language about racial justice. The other would allow anyone, regardless of gender, ability, age and marital status to take part in the "life, worship and governance" of the church.
Both amendments were overwhelmingly approved at the national level, with votes of 746 to 56 and 509 to 242.
Kim Strong, who has attended state conventions for 38 years, said he is not aware of any amendments that passed on the national level but were rejected by South Carolina’s convention.
Individual state conference voting results will not be made public, but all the conferences will be tallied together, likely by fall, and a two-thirds vote can ratify changes to the church’s constitution.
Strong said the resolution on leaving the national denomination, while not explicitly addressing homosexuality, was widely seen as doing so by conference attendees.
He said he would have voted against the split if it had come to a vote.
“I don’t believe the United Methodist Church will have a split (in 2019),” Strong said. “I know God’s will will be done. Regardless of what happens, I will remain in the United Methodist church.”
The United Methodist Church has traditionally been the state's second-largest denomination, with about 232,000 members.