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.
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.