Will the nation’s third-largest church split up over LGBTQ debate? Methodist leaders try to reach an answer.

(Mike DuBose/UMNS via AP) This 2017 photo provided by the United Methodist News Service shows the Book of Discipline which contains the rules that guide the United Methodist Church. The church convenes its top legislative assembly Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, for a high-stakes four-day meeting likely to determine whether America's second-largest Protestant denomination will fracture due to long-simmering divisions over same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy.

In recent years, the deep division over sexuality in the United Methodist Church has led many in the church to use a word they hadn’t heard since their European history classes: schism.

A schism, the splitting of a church over irreconcilable differences, has sometimes seemed imminent. Yet in an extraordinary meeting of church leaders in St. Louis that begins Saturday, the 12 million-member denomination will try to reach a plan to hold their church together while also deciding the church’s stance on LGBTQ issues.

“It is very difficult to be the church in the same way in Monrovia, Liberia, and in San Francisco and in Austin, Texas, and in Peoria, Illinois, and in Montgomery, Alabama,” said Bishop Kenneth Carter of Florida, one of the three moderators of the 32-member Commission on a Way Forward that has been preparing plans since 2016 for the denomination to consider. “From a political perspective, we are a church that has among its members Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush and James B. Comey and Jeff Sessions. ... How much unity can we achieve? And how much separation do people need from each other?”

The United Methodist Church is, in the United States, the third-largest faith group in the nation and the largest mainline Protestant group. Here, many Methodist pastors want to perform same-sex marriages and ordain gay men and women as clergy. They look to their counterparts in other mainline churches that have long allowed gay weddings, like the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church, as far ahead of their own denomination. But the issue of sexuality remains deeply divisive among both clergy and believers across the nation, with strong opinions on both sides.

Furthermore, the United Methodist Church is not just an American church but a global one. About a third of the denomination’s churches are in Africa, where the church is rapidly growing, and where leaders tend to deeply oppose the idea of being part of a church that sanctions homosexuality.

How to hold all this together? In St. Louis from Saturday through Tuesday, more than 800 clergy and lay leaders will vote on several options — including, perhaps, ending the unity in the 50-year-old denomination’s name.

“When I’m realistic, I realize our denomination probably will break apart. We will most likely split,” said the Rev. Frank Schaefer, one of the highest-profile ministers involved in this debate. Schaefer, a father of three gay children, was put on church trial for officiating the wedding of his son and was defrocked by United Methodist officials in Pennsylvania, then hired again as a pastor at a United Methodist church in Santa Barbara, Calif., under a different bishop. “We’re spending resources debating and fighting each other. It’s like a bad marriage. Sometimes it’s better to break up and move on.”

One option, which Schaefer said he supports, would allow each church to essentially decide for itself whether to hire gay clergy and perform same-sex weddings. The Rev. Stefanie Bennett, who leads the nation’s oldest United Methodist congregation, John Street United Methodist Church in New York City, said most of her 100 members have told her they are hoping for this plan to pass. “They would be sad” if the denomination splits, she said, though she believes the church needs a change in its approach to LGBT members. “The UMC has not represented Jesus well in the way LGBTQI have been treated in our midst.”

A second choice, called the “traditional option,” would continue the United Methodist Church’s official stance against homosexuality, and would even beef up enforcement against clergy who go against the church’s policies on the issue.

Mark Tooley, a lifelong Methodist who heads the group Institute for Religion and Democracy, hopes the traditional plan will pass. He expects a small number of liberal churches would leave the denomination, but he believes as many as 95 percent would remain. At stake, he said, is whether the denomination will follow other mainline Protestant churches that have seen membership decline. Tooley believes Africans will become the majority in the denomination in the next five to 10 years, thus pushing Methodists in a more theologically conservative direction. “We’re becoming a very different kind of denomination,” he said.

A third approach would split the church into three connected but distinct denominations: one that affirms LGBTQ inclusion, one that strictly condemns homosexuality, and one that gives each pastor a choice for how to approach the question. “That would simply give people the separation that many people want,” Carter said. “There would be some shared resources, but they would have their own bishops and their own budgets. It would really be a way of having a looser connection.”

Participants in the St. Louis meeting, which runs through Tuesday, can modify these proposals and suggest new ones. Another plan that has been floated by some progressives, called the “simple plan,” asks for more purity — removing all language against homosexuality from the church’s book of rules entirely. “It’s a conviction which is really based in civil rights, so I don’t want to disparage it,” Carter said. “It’s really saying, ‘Why should [same-sex marriage] be OK in Washington, D.C., and not in a very conservative area? Persons need those protections there.’ There’s a lot of power in that.”

This meeting is the first time the church called a special session on a single topic, outside of the every-four-years format for global meetings, since 1970. That year, the topic was merging another denomination into the United Methodist Church.

This time, the topic is whether to break apart.