The future of Mississippi's United Methodist churches and institutions is in question after a group of influential United Methodist Church leaders announced a preliminary agreement to split the church in two on Jan. 3, due to irreconcilable disagreements over LGBTQ rights. The denomination's traditionalist wing, which rejects same-sex marriage and the ordination of queer clergy, will likely depart from the church if the church formally approves the agreement at its global conference in Minneapolis this May.
Jackson-area church officials stressed to the Jackson Free Press that a long process of institutional debate and amendment precedes even a formal vote on a schism. But they acknowledged that a schism may lead to Mississippi's annual conference joining the traditionalist branch, taking its nearly 1,000 churches and extension ministries with it.
One of those institutions is Millsaps College, founded in affiliation with the Methodist Episcopal Church South, which merged into the United Methodist Church in 1968. Methodist reverends make up a segment of Millsaps' board of trustees. If the Mississippi annual conference—the church's regional unit—chooses to leave with the traditionalists, it could end up taking Millsaps with it.
Rev. Dr. Joey Shelton, chaplain and director of church relations at Millsaps, admitted he sees no clear answer. "You have to look at the charter of the college," he said in an interview. "Is it cut and dry that the college would automatically be considered an asset of the conference or not? The way the charter reads—it's kind of confusing what the ultimate relationship is."
The potential schism comes after years of intractable debate over the role LGBTQ people deserve in the church community and hierarchy. Those disagreements played out at last year's conference in St. Louis, Mo., where a narrow majority of church delegates voted to reaffirm the church's ban on same-sex marriage. In spite of this narrow