The 13 million-member United Methodist Church is facing a potential split into two separate denominations over the issues of gay clergy and same-sex marriage ceremonies.
According to Sybil Davidson with the communications department of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, the current discipline of the UMC does not allow gay clergy. Nor does it allow its clergy to officiate same-sex marriages.
“However, the church is not of one mind on this matter,” Davidson said in an email statement.
A protocol for the anticipated division into two denominations has been put in place, Davidson said.
“A diverse group of church leaders representative of the wide range of United Methodists took part in a mediation process led by one of the top mediators in the country,” she said.
UMC explains the proposed protocol
According to a press release from the UMC, the agreement – “The Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation” – was finalized on Dec. 17, 2019.
“The action comes amid heightened tensions in the church over conflicting views related to human sexuality after the 2019 Special Session of the United Methodist General Conference failed to resolve differences among church members,” the press release stated.
“Mediation led those leaders to a unanimous agreement on a proposal that offers a way to navigate into the future for the United Methodist Church,” Davidson said. “Part of that proposal includes a way for those who no longer want to be part of the United Methodist Church to separate. That proposal has not been voted on yet. It is now in the hands of the General Conference delegates to consider.”
A 16-member committee was formed after a consultation initiated by bishops from Central Conferences located outside the United States, according to the UMC press release. The group was assisted by attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who specializes in mediation and alternative dispute resolution.
The committee held meetings over several months before reaching the agreement, which lays out a broadly supported pathway for separation and offers compromise in the disputes over other plans to be considered by the General Conference.
In the protocol statement, signatories claim their plan to restructure the church by separation is “the best means to resolve our differences, allowing each part of the Church to remain true to its theological understanding while recognizing the dignity, equality, integrity, and respect of every person.”
Signatories include church representatives from Europe, Africa, the Philippines and the United States, as well as from the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, according to the release.
If adopted, the protocol would establish a “traditionalist” Methodist denomination, which would receive $25 million over the next four years without further claim to the UMC’s assets.
Another $2 million would be set aside for any additional new Methodist denominations that emerge from the church split.
Additionally, the protocol would allocate $39 million to ensure continuation of supporting ministries for communities historically marginalized by racism, according to the UMC press release.
How congregations may be affected
Congregations that vote to separate from the UMC must do so within a certain time frame, and provisions are in place to allow those congregations to retain their assets and liabilities. Churches wishing to stay within the UMC would not be required to conduct a vote. All current clergy and lay employees would keep their pensions regardless of their churches’ Methodist denomination, according to the press release.
“All of us are servants of the church and realize that we are not the primary decision-makers on these matters,” Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone said. “Instead, we humbly offer to the delegates of the 2020 General Conference the work which we have accomplished in the hopes that it will help heal the harms and conflicts within the body of Christ and free us to be more effective witnesses to God’s Kingdom.”
Local pastors weigh in
Pastor Jack Couch, Lovejoy Memorial UMC
Jack Couch, pastor of Lovejoy Memorial UMC on East Washington Street in Newnan, said the issue needs to be discussed.
“I’m not looking to be controversial, but it does need to be discussed in the open,” Couch said.
Couch said it is important to understand the proposal has not been voted on and is not official. Couch said he believes no one should be excluded from the call of Christ.
“This is just me personally – I’m not speaking for my congregation – (but) I think the church has excluded too many people and my attitude is that we need to not exclude anybody,” Couch said. “We need to be pulling together much more than we need to be pulling apart. We need to be concerned about representing Jesus and not anything else.”
Couch said too much energy has been spent on the issue.
“It’s very unfortunate,” Couch said. “I don’t know how I would personally respond if there were a big split. If you ask every single church, they’ll have a little different perspective on that question. There’s like 100 sides in this. I’m not in favor of putting a lot of our energy into dividing the church. We need to put all of our energy into growing the church and not pushing anyone away. We need to find a way to welcome everyone to Jesus. That’s what our church is supposed to be doing – that’s church.”
Couch said the church should not be focused on just one issue the Bible addresses.
“The Bible deals with a lot of issues… homosexuality is not the only one,” Couch said. “The Bible also talks about reaching out to the poor and the oppressed. How well are we doing that?
“There are issues the scripture discusses that are just as inflammatory,” he added. “Sexuality is a very serious topic and the core of who we are as people, (and) the Bible acknowledges that, but we are not being consistent with scripture and the overall sense of love, passion and atonement Jesus came to give by just singling that issue out.”
Couch said his church is more concerned with the UMC supporting smaller congregations.
Lovejoy Memorial UMC was one of the dozens of UMC churches that was in danger of closing its doors for good if certain requirements are not met by April.
He said he had never been asked to marry a gay couple, but if he were asked, Couch said he would consider what scripture says. He also would consider what the two individuals had to say about themselves and their relationship, Couch said.
Rev. Alphonso Smith, Clarks Chapel UMC, Luthersville
According to Rev. Alphonso Smith said one of the catalysts in the debate over openly gay clergy happened around 2016 in the Western jurisdiction of the UMC, when a lesbian was consecrated as a bishop.
“The highest court of the UMC convened for an oral hearing regarding the election of the openly lesbian bishop in 2018,” Smith said. “The Judicial Council held the hearing in response to a motion for a declaratory decision on whether or not an LGBT person can be part of the clergy. The decision was to uphold the book of discipline guidelines.”
The Bible weighs in on many actions that are considered an abomination to God, including homosexuality, Smith said, but no one is beyond redemption.
“All throughout the Bible Jesus reconciled,” he said. “We are charged, called, trained and sent to reconcile, make new, or have a do-over. There is always the possibility to change or make up the shortage in Christ Jesus. You have to account for your own sins when you know better – even the pastor and the bishop.”
Smith said everyone needs redemption for different reasons.
“Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone,” Smith said.
Rev. Marlon Simpson, Burns Chapel UMC, Newnan
Rev. Marlon Simpson said no one really knows what a split will look like.
“Like many others, I am trying to define the word ‘split,’” Simpson said. “None of us really know how it will look if the proposal passes at the General Conference. Many will stay, many will probably leave.
Simpson said he is hopeful for the future.
“God will remain faithful to His children,” he said.
(Editor’s Note: Representatives from Newnan First UMC and Newnan Chapel UMC were contacted but declined to comment on the record for this story.)
Members of the mediation team will explain the plan via livestream on Monday, Jan. 13, beginning at 9:30 a.m. EST, according to the UMC press release.
The General Conference’s 862 international delegates – including 22 from the North Georgia Conference – are expected to decide the issue at their legislative meeting in Minneapolis, Minn. in May.