Pastor Wendee's report of the state of The UMC as of May, 2021.
The United Methodist Church (UMC) is approaching a crossroads and it appears that a division in the future is inevitable. This is nothing new. Even in Acts, the early church had a major dispute over whether a Gentile believer must be circumcised to be a Christian. Later, Paul and Silas split up over a dispute about whether John Mark was suitable for ministry. In the early church, there were disputes over the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, whether eunuchs could serve as clergy, and more. Many people were excommunicated over what were deemed incorrect beliefs. The Orthodox church split with the Catholic Church over the location of the Church, then there came the Reformation, the Revolutionary War, which started the American Methodist Episcopal Church, and still many, many others. Most recently, all of the other mainline denominations in the United States have already gone through a division over the question of human sexuality. So, division within the church is not a new thing.
The UMC has been wrestling with the question of human sexuality since the 1970’s, and the question, which initially began with homosexuality, has been vigorously debated at every General Conference beginning in 1972. Every time, the General Conference – which is the ONLY body which can speak for The UMC – has voted to uphold the traditional understanding of marriage and human sexuality. In 2016, the General Conference was so disrupted by persons who supported a change in our Discipline, the Bishops stopped all discussion about this topic and called a Special General Conference in 2019 to finally settle the question. A special commission was formed to propose a solution to this issue, and they developed three plans: a progressive plan that eliminated all language in the Discipline about human sexuality and allowed all expressions of human sexuality, a traditional plan that upheld the current position that all are loved and welcome, and that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and the One Church Plan, which basically allowed local churches to make their own decision but kept the denomination intact. The Traditional Plan was passed. Rather than settling the question, it only brought more dissention.
There are still three positions – that the UMC becomes more progressive and removes all language that limits any expression of human sexuality, that the UMC continues with the conservative position, and that the UMC should remain together at all costs.
The Progressive Group says that all people should be fully included in the life of the church, and that there should be no “doctrinal test” to be allowed to serve in leadership or to become a clergy. They see themselves as “Big Tent” Christianity. They do not disregard Scripture, but they have reinterpreted it on this issue, leaning on reason and experience. Marriages between same-sex persons will be allowed to be done in the church by the clergy. They acknowledge the clergy have the right to refuse to marry any couple, but if they or a church refuses on the basis of it being same sex, it would be a problem. The LGBTIAP+ (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, intersex, asexual, pansexual, and any other expression of sexuality) lifestyle would be affirmed and that person would be allowed to have their same-sex marriage blessed in the church, to become clergy and to serve any church. The Progressives acknowledge that the reason the conservative position has been upheld all these years is because we have included the voices and votes of The UMC around the world – Africa, the Philippines, and more. They believe that the third-world churches are conservative because of colonialism (which is one group forcing their beliefs on a conquered group), and they acknowledge that they will not ever accept the current conservative position; in effect, imposing their beliefs on others.
The Centrist position is that the unity of the Church/denomination is more important than anything, so they would allow local congregations make their own decision about human sexuality and they would consider all positions valid. They have more or less joined with Progressives on their votes to try to keep The UMC together. They believe that in changing the Discipline, conservatives will be allowed to continue to follow their beliefs. Based on the experience of the other Mainline denominations, the conservative position will be pushed out within a decade or two. The hope is that The UMC can minister to others together, as we always have, however, the post-separation UMC will become different than it is today.
The Traditional position holds that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman for life. It affirms that all people are created in the image of God, are of intrinsic worth, and are welcome in the life of the church; and it holds that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Same sex weddings cannot be performed by UM clergy, and cannot be held in the local church. Self-avowed, practicing homosexual individuals are not ordained as clergy. The Traditionalists want accountability for those who refuse to uphold the Discipline. Many clergy and congregations are ready to leave The UMC to begin another denomination because they recognize that Progressives will never concede and leave to start their own denomination.
The property and some of the assets held by the local church is held in trust for The UMC. In the past, a local congregation had to walk away without these assets to leave The UMC. The “Gracious Exit” was affirmed by the Judicial Council and is currently in effect. A UMC church can leave the denomination with their assets, but there is a significant financial cost to be paid to the Annual Conference if they choose to do so at this time.
A little over a year ago, the leaders of the groups in each of these positions from around the world gathered for a mediation to try to come to some agreement that was acceptable for all. The Protocol for Reconciliation through Grace and Separation was the result. All of the leaders signed off and agreed that their groups would support this plan. In this plan, if an Annual Conference or a local church decides to leave The UMC, they can do so with their assets intact. This option is a fairly attractive because the property and assets of the local church will be fully owned and held by the local church.
This plan calls for $25M to be paid to significant new denominations formed as a result of the split. The Global Methodist Church (www.globalmethodist.org) has already been established for conservatives, and the Liberation Methodist Connexion (thelmx.org) has been set up for progressives. While $25M sounds like a lot of money, it is less than a drop in the bucket of The UMC assets. In the Oklahoma Annual Conference alone, the value of only three endowments is in excess of this amount. The purpose of this payment is to avoid litigation that would likely result from the split. The Episcopal Church in America has already spent over $80M in legal fees over their split about 15 years ago, and the issues are still not settled.
The Protocol will likely voted on at the next General Conference, currently set for September 2022, but it may not happen due to the pandemic. If delegates from around the world (about 40% of the General Conference delegates are from outside the US), the General Conference will likely not happen until 2024, leaving everything in limbo until then. In the meantime, many churches are leaving The UMC. Even though every UM clergy has sworn before God to uphold the Book of Discipline at their ordination, several Annual Conferences, Bishops, and clergy are ignoring the Book of Discipline by performing same-sex weddings and ordaining openly LGBTQ+ persons. There are no consequences and is no accountability for those who choose to ignore the Discipline. Some Bishops appear to be assigning progressive clergy to conservative congregations against their will, and this seems to be an attempt to keep the congregations and their apportionments in the Annual Conference. I believe our Bishop is trying his best to hold the middle line, but he has not really spoken too much on his personal beliefs. Our former Bishop, Robert Hayes, is a prominent leader in the conservative group.
There is a lot more information available; this is just a very general overview so you’ll be aware of what’s happening in our denomination. For St. Matthew, Pastor Ron and I have intentionally worked to keep our focus on Christ and doing His work in our community and in our world. Many other local churches have already split and even closed over this issue because the pastor made this subject the primary focus of ministry. We plan to continue to keep our focus on Christ, although we will be talking more about this subject because if there is a division in The UMC, this congregation must decide which path it will take. The people of St. Matthew are not of one mind on this issue, just as we are not of one mind politically, and the process will likely be painful.
For now I encourage you to study the Scripture for yourselves. We all have loved ones and friends who are members of the LGBTQIAP+ community, and I confirm that they are people who are created in the image of God, who are dearly loved by God, and who are worthy to be treated with respect and dignity. Anyone is welcome to worship with us at St. Matthew, and the expectation is that you will greet everyone with the love of Jesus. Set aside what you have heard on TV, read on the internet, and your feelings. Focus on what God is saying. Pray that God will answer your questions as you study. Start in the New Testament, and look for teachings on sexual immorality – there are many. The Scripture condemns ALL sexual immorality – not just homosexuality, and it never waivers on this point. Be sure to note whether what is stated is something God commanded or whether it is just something that happened. No one should feel superior because we are ALL sinners saved by God’s grace. The subject of Jesus’s sermons was “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.” In other words, turn away from your sins and turn to God. And remember that in the end, it does not matter what any of us believe – what matters is what God says, on any subject. If you want to talk about this further, call me or Pastor Ron.