The proverbial can is once again tumbling down the proverbial road. It’s one thing the United Methodist Church is good at.
To recap, when the 2016 General Conference was on the verge of reaffirming and reinforcing its longstanding position on celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage between one man and one woman, some called for a delay to study the matter further. A slim majority of General Conference approved the delay. Out of that came “The Commission on the Way Forward”, which lead to a proposal to modify the sexual ethic by defining marriage to be between two persons and to allow annual conferences to change ordination standards accordingly.
Despite that, at a special called session of General Conference in 2019, the traditional view was indeed reaffirmed and reinforced by a slight majority. From there resistance against the denominations official position increased. Annual conferences, including my own of Western NC, passed petitions whereby they declared the traditional position to be evil and incompatible with the gospel, and vowed to resist its implementation. The denominational divide over contradictory moral visions rooted in deeper theological differences greater and the impasse more inert than ever.
By January of 2020, however, factions from all sides had worked out, with the help of a world class mediator, a separation agreement called, “The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation and Restructuring” (see gracethroughseparation.com) Although it gave those who were not in agreement with the official position, significant advantages in terms of voting thresholds and retention of assets, traditionalists agreed to be the ones to leave the UMC and form a new denomination that would retain the traditional sexual ethic, which the “Post Separation UMC” would then change. Traditionalists began laying the groundwork for what would become the Global Methodist Church. The protocol of separation would be presented to the General Conference scheduled for May of 2020 and likely would have passed easily.
Unfortunately, March of 2020 saw COVID19 put the whole world on pause. The General Conference was necessarily postponed to 2021, then again to 2022. A special session with a limited agenda to be attempted virtually was scheduled in 2021 by the Council of Bishops, but that too was quickly canceled.
Many anticipated that the General Conference would proceed in August/September of 2022, especially since other organizations found ways to have international conferences. One was our sister denomination, The AME Zion, that held a hybrid in-person/virtual conference that included participants from African countries and India. It is reported that a top AMEZ official even offered to help the UMC do the same. Nonetheless, the Commission on General Conference voted 14 to 9, with 1 abstention, to postpone again until 2024. With the uncertainty that comes with two more years of waiting, the transitional council of the Global Methodist Church announced that it would officially launch on May 1st this year, allowing churches the opportunity to transfer sooner rather than later.
Even after the earlier delays a group of progressives from around the country, including my own conference’s secretary, current and former district superintendents, and several other clergy and laity, signed onto a statement called “A Call to Grace” (www.acalltograce.com) calling on bishops and annual conferences to find ways for traditional churches to exit graciously even before the next General Conference. To quote,
“Honoring the expressed desire of some churches and church leaders to leave The United Methodist Church and participate in other denominations, we call bishops and annual conferences to use existing disciplinary authority to find grace-filled ways for these leaders and churches to follow their call now, allowing them to take their church property with them where appropriate.”
The 2019 General Conference had passed a disaffiliation plan (par. 2553 UMC BOD) called “The Taylor Disaffiliation Plan.” This plan, however, requires a greater financial burden on churches than the protocol of separation, and it expires in 2023 (before the 2024 General Conference). It would require churches to pay two years of apportionments and an unfunded pension liability. Together that can be in the tens of thousands for small churches, hundreds of thousands for mid-size churches, and over a million for large churches. The protocol wouldn’t require these costs as the unfunded pension liability would be transferred to the new denomination.
There is another option that has been in the UMC Book of Discipline much longer and has no expiration date. It would allow for most of the main and gracious principles of the protocol to be implemented by annual conferences and conference leaders. A traditional church could simply transfer into the GMC and transfer the pension liability as well through a comity agreement. It is better suited for churches that want to transfer to another denomination.
2548.2 With the consent of the presiding bishop and of a majority of the district superintendents and of the district board of church location and building and at the request of the charge conference or of a meeting of the membership of the local church, where required by local law, and in accordance with said law, the annual conference may instruct and direct the board of trustees of a local church to deed church property to one of the other denominations represented in the Pan-Methodist Commission or to another evangelical denomination under an allocation, exchange of property, or comity agreement, provided that such agreement shall have been committed to writing and signed and approved by the duly qualified and authorized representatives of both parties concerned.
If bishops want to, they can encourage the use of paragraph 2548.2 to implement most of the principles of the protocol and answer the “call to grace” to finds gracious and generous ways to allow traditional churches to transfer into the Global Methodist Church, to be less punitive, and to demonstrate that they see traditionalists as friends despite the disagreements.
The issue is not one of ability. They can do this within the guidelines of 2548.2. The question is will they be willing? Where there’s a will, there’s 2548.2 and a greater opportunity for grace and good will for all, not to mention a better witness to the world.
Rev. Dr. Cliff Wall