The cover of the May 1998 issue of Good News magazine, a renewal publication for United Methodists, showed the S.S. Titanic sinking in the icy Atlantic Ocean. The massive stern pointed upward while two lifeboats paddled away into the dark. The cover copy said: Will homosexuality sink the United Methodist Church? At the time, that question seemed like an improbable shock tactic.

But six years later in Pittsburgh, the improbable became possible for the 11-million-member global United Methodist Church—the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States. "I believe the time has come when we must begin to explore an amicable and just separation that will free us both from our cycle of pain and conflict," said William Hinson, president of the 650,000-member Confessing Movement, on the ninth day of a 10-day gathering of United Methodist leaders in May.

Hinson's comment sent a shock wave through United Methodism. It was the first time since 1972 that an influential Methodist leader had called publicly for a breakup. (At that time, United Methodists officially declared homosexuality and the Bible were incompatible.)

Hinson, a retired pastor from Alabama, said he was speaking only for himself. But within hours his comments moved on The Associated Press wire, and what started as an early morning statement by a nonvoting observer to the General Conference brought the body seemingly to the brink of separation by early afternoon.

Deep and wide

Church historians are well aware that unresolved disputes among Methodists have led to denominational fracture. The Methodist Episcopal Church, divided over slave ownership, split in 1844, some 17 years before the Civil War. Ninety-five years later in 1939, three Methodist groups reunited. ...

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