A group of leaders within the United Methodist Church (UMC) has put forth a proposal that would allow churches with a biblical view of sexuality and marriage to leave and form a new denomination.
The plan, “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation,” allows Methodist conferences – a group of churches in a geographical area – to vote by 2021 on whether to join the new, conservative denomination, with a 57% majority required.
Local churches would have until 2024 to join the conservative denomination, with only a majority vote needed. If a local church joins the new denomination, the plan allows it to retain its property, assets and liabilities.
The protocol will be presented at the UMC’s 2020 general conference in May, where it will be debated and voted on by delegates. General conferences occur every four years. The UMC is the third largest Christian denomination in the U.S., with 13 million members globally and about 6.8 million in the U.S.
Last February, 2019, the UMC held a special general conference to try and iron out differences between churches and organizations that hold opposing views of homosexuality. The UMC Book of Discipline holds to historic Christian teaching about sexuality and marriage that says sexual expression is reserved for a husband and wife in a marriage relationship.
The Book of Discipline states, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” But activist bishops, clergy and churches have flouted this rule, performing same-sex union ceremonies and ordaining gay- and lesbian-identified ministers and bishops.
Several proposals were put forward at that 2019 special conference. The “One Church Plan” would have removed the statement about homosexuality from the Book of Discipline, allowed the ordination of gay-identified clergy, and eliminated prohibitions of same-sex unions in churches. That plan was defeated, largely on the strength of international delegates, who hold to biblical orthodoxy and make up about 45% of UMC members.
Instead, to the shock of many American leaders in the UMC, the conference voted to approve the “Traditionalist Plan.” This maintained the denomination’s stance on homosexuality along with the prohibition of same-sex marriages and ordination of gay-identified clergy. This plan also attempted to enforce these prohibitions more forcefully.
The contentious debate and vote at the special conference made it clear that there was no bridging the gap between the opposing groups. The new separation proposal was developed by 16 representatives from a variety of groups and included UMC Bishops from several areas in the U.S. and from around the world. The group came together, along with a mediator, to try to negotiate differences.
Those representing Biblical teaching and traditional Wesleyan theology included the Wesleyan Covenant Association, The Institute on Religion and Democracy, and The Confessing Movement. These organizations have worked for years to encourage the UMC to hold to biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality.
The United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, the Methodist Federation for Social Action and Reconciling Ministries Network were also represented. These groups have revised their theology to accommodate homosexuality and transgenderism and have worked to push the denomination to change its stance on these issues.
While LGBT issues are at the forefront of these UMC debates, the underlying issue has to do with the authority of scripture and biblical interpretation.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association, for example, says: “We look to the Bible therefore as our authority and trustworthy guide, which ‘is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ (2 Timothy 3:16; NRSV). Illuminated by tradition, reason, and experience, the revelation of Scripture is the church’s primary and final authority on all matters of faith and practice.”
In contrast, the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus believes “in the ongoing revelation of God’s love and justice.” Their statement of beliefs does not mention the authority of scripture or how it should be interpreted. The group’s website also lists “three simple rules” in its statement of beliefs, “Do no harm, do good, stay in love with God.”
Delegates to the 2020 conference have four months to mull over this proposal. It remains to be seen whether the majority, which voted to maintain a biblical stance on sexuality, will choose to leave and form a new denomination or whether they’ll decide on a different route.