Key leaders within the United Methodist Church have announced an agreement outlining how America’s third-largest religious denomination will split over the issue of LGBTQ inclusion.
The UMC’s traditionalist wing, which has steadfastly refused to ordain or preside over the marriages of LGBTQ parishioners, will split off and form a new denomination, according to a proposal published on Friday. According to the proposal, the conservatives would leave with $25 million and their local church properties.
The planned schism would allow the remaining churches to reconvene at a later date and potentially remove controversial language from the church’s rulebook that claims “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” LGBTQ Methodists and their allies have long argued that this language is harmful.
The agreement was reached by a 16-member group composed of representatives from different factions of the UMC, including the conservative Wesley Covenant Association and the LGBTQ-affirming Reconciling Ministries Network. Bishops from the U.S., Africa, Europe and the Philippines participated. Kenneth Feinberg, a mediation lawyer who helped oversee victims’ compensation funds after 9/11, was brought in as an outsider to help the leaders reach a deal.
The proposal, officially called the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation, still needs to be approved by delegates to the UMC’s General Conference, which is scheduled to take place in Minneapolis in May.
The Wesley Covenant Association has already taken steps to form the new denomination, including drafting a book of doctrines. WCA president Rev. Keith Boyette, who participated in the mediation, said that conservatives in the UMC have long felt the church’s theological divisions were irreparable.
“I believe this is a fair and equitable solution that puts decades of conflict behind us and gives us a hopeful future,” Boyette told UMNews.
The agreement leaves open the possibility of multiple additional Methodist denominations forming.
The UMC has about 12.6 million members worldwide, including nearly 7 million in the U.S., where the denomination has its own universities, a publishing house and other ministries. American Methodists also hold a wide spectrum of political views: Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren identifies as Methodist, as does former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Other mainline Protestant movements in the U.S. ― the Anglican and Presbyterian traditions, for example ― have experienced schisms over the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ members, as well as over the ordination of women.
After years of grappling with the possibility of a schism over the welcoming of queer Christians, the UMC’s General Conference voted last year to affirm existing church doctrine prohibiting same-sex marriage and the ordination of queer clergy and to impose harsher penalties on clergy who break the rules. Queer Methodists and their allies were deeply disappointed by the vote and immediately began seeking a new way forward.
The harsher restrictions on clergy went into effect on Jan. 1, but Friday’s agreement states that complaints against clergy members would be temporarily suspended until after the traditionalists leave the UMC.
J.J. Warren, a lifelong Methodist who is queer, delivered a passionate speech at last year’s conference about his desire to become a UMC pastor. If the new protocol is adopted by the next General Conference, it would clear the way for him to become ordained.
Warren told HuffPost that he was hoping the global church could remain united, but if that goal is unobtainable, “this protocol is the next best thing.”
The protocol has the “potential to unshackle the church from our decades of infighting and allow us to seek justice for queer people, people of color, and to correct our neocolonial US-centric governance structure,” Warren wrote in an email.
“Gay babies will be born in whatever church(es) we create—including the ‘traditional’” branches,” he added. “The work of full inclusion, like continuing to dismantle white supremacy, will last for decades, but this Protocol would allow the broader UMC to come to terms with, repent, and reform toward justice.”
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