What just happened?

Last Friday, a group of leaders within the United Methodist Church (UMC) unveiled a proposal that would allow the denomination to split into two or more new denominations, representing the conservative or “traditionalist” faction and the LGBT-affirming factions.

“It became clear that the line in the sand had turned into a canyon,” New York Conference Bishop Thomas Bickerton said. “The impasse is such that we have come to the realization that we just can’t stay that way any longer.”

“This protocol provides a pathway,” Bickerton added, “that acknowledges our differences, respects everyone in the process, and graciously allows us to continue to live out the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, albeit in different expressions.”

The protocol will be voted on by delegates when they attend the UMC’s 2020 General Conference in May.

What led to this proposal to split the denomination?

In 1972, the UMC added affirmations about human sexuality to their Book of Discipline, a document that collects the laws, doctrine, administration, organizational work, and procedures of the denomination. Included in the Discipline were these statements: “We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift. Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”

This language on sexuality has become increasingly unpopular with elements of the denomination that affirm homosexuality and same-sex marriage. During the 2016 General Conference, the Council of Bishops proposed the appointment of a 32-person committee called the “Commission on a Way Forward” to help the Council of Bishops submit a recommendation to a special session.

Last February, the UMC held a special session to “examine paragraphs in The Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and to explore options to strengthen church unity.” During the special session, the delegates considered three options by the Commission on a Way Forward to resolve their disagreements. A majority of the delegates present voted 438 to 384 to adopt what was known as the to uphold the Traditionalist Plan.

What was the Traditionalist Plan?

Under this plan, the UMC would require “accountability to the current Book of Discipline language.” It would also broaden the definition of self-avowed practicing homosexual to include persons living in a same-sex marriage or civil union or persons who publicly state that they are practicing homosexuals. It would also require bishops and every annual conference to “certify that they will uphold, enforce, and maintain the Discipline’s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination.” Clergy who could not maintain the Discipline’s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination would be encouraged to join the “autonomous, affiliated, or concordat church.”

After the adoption of the plan, many observers predicted the result would be an inevitable division of the denomination led by the churches and Methodists who had embraced LGBT inclusion.

Who developed the latest proposal?

In summer 2019, representatives from three constituencies within the UMC—traditionalists, centrists, and progressives—met to propose a plan for moving forward. The result was a mediated proposal called the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.” The protocol outlines procedures for forming new Methodist denominations and dividing the financial assets and property among the separated churches.

For the terms of the protocol to be implemented, legislation incorporating its terms will have to be presented to and adopted by the delegates of the 2020 General Conference.

How will the protocol affect the denomination?

To understand how the protocol affects the denomination, it’s helpful to understand the polity of the UMC.

The UMC’s primary grouping of people and churches is the conference. Groups of local churches in a geographic area are organized to form a district, which, in turn, are connected to annual (regional) conferences. Jurisdictional conferences around the globe are also connected to the General Conference, an international body of nearly 1,000 delegates that generally meets every four years.

Comprising delegates elected by annual gatherings of regional conferences, the General Conference is the only body that can speak for the denomination and set official policy in the Book of Discipline, the instrument for setting forth the laws, plan, polity, and process by which United Methodists govern themselves.

If the delegates at the 2020 General Conference adopt the protocol, UMC churches that want to form a new Methodist denomination will register their intention by May 15, 2021. Local churches and conferences will then be able to vote to align with any of the newly established Methodist denominations that derive from the post-separation UMC.

Local churches must decide by December 31, 2024, if they will join another denomination. If no vote is taken, the church will remain a part of the Methodist denomination selected by its Annual Conference.

What happens to the property, assets, and liabilities of local churches or conferences that choose to join one of the new Methodist denominations?

Local churches that affiliate with one of the newly established Methodist denominations will retain their assets and liabilities. The Annual Conference to which the local church belongs will also release them from any further payment obligation (other than previously documented loans) and all “trust clauses” (i.e., a clause that states the local church owns the property in trust for the entire denomination).

Property, assets, and liabilities of Annual, Jurisdictional, and Central Conferences will be retained by those entities regardless of any affiliation decision.

Do the new Methodist denominations that split receive any financial assets from the UMC?

Based on the recommendations of the protocol, a total sum of $25 million shall be paid from 2021 to 2024 to the traditionalist Methodist denomination that will be established after the split. (If more than one traditionalist denomination is created, an agreement will have to be worked out between those parties about how the money is allocated.) An additional $2 million will be escrowed for payment to potential additional Methodist denominations that are formed.

The protocol also allocates $39 million from the budgets from 2021 to 2028 to “support communities historically marginalized by the sin of racism.”

Why does this split matter?

Within the United States, the United Methodist Church (UMC) is the largest mainline denomination, the second-largest Protestant denomination (after the Southern Baptist Convention), and the third-largest Christian denomination. As of 2016 (the last year for which statistics are available), the UMC has within the United States 6.9 million lay members, 44,080 clergy, and 31,867 local churches. The UMC also has churches and annual conferences in Africa, the Philippines, Mongolia, and mission initiatives in Southeast and Central Asia, and Honduras.

But another reason is that it underscores how American Christianity is increasingly becoming, as David French says, “a Christian triangle” with evangelicals representing one side, traditional Catholics a second side, and mainline Protestants and dissenting Catholics forming the third side of the triangle. Each side represents a differing view of where authority ultimately lies—for evangelicals, the Bible; for traditional Catholics, the Roman Catholic Church, and for mainline Protestants and dissenting Catholics, individual experience and preference.

This taxonomy is not new, of course. But the commitments required of each side’s source of authority makes it difficult for them to peacefully coexist within institutions. While the UMC is the latest—and largest—modern religious institution to split because it cannot reconcile the demands of Scripture and secular-infused individualism, it likely won’t be the last.

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