Is the United Methodist Church splitting?
Today, October 11, 2022, the following headline appeared in the Winchester Star: “United Methodists are breaking up in a slow-motion schism.” Headlines grab attention, so they took some liberty to make it sound more dramatic, but the headline itself is not exactly correct. The United Methodist Church is not involved in a schism, in that there is a subtle but important distinction to make. A schism means that two existing parts of a group are splitting by mutual agreement.
For those who don’t know, the United Methodist Church has one legislative body, the General Conference, which meets once every four years, except during the COVID-19 pandemic. There can therefore be no mutually agreed upon schism until the General Conference meets again 2024, even if there was agreement made. No changes in church law, also known as our Book of Discipline, can be made by any part of the church except the General Conference.
Also for those who don’t know, the United Methodist Church has been discussing the full inclusion or exclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in our denomination since 1972. There is much more here to unpack than time allows, but the two basic issues being discussed are 1. the ordination of self-avowed, practicing, homosexual clergy who are otherwise fully qualified, and 2. the officiating of same gender wedding ceremonies by United Methodist clergy. At this time, neither of those are allowed by our Book of Discipline. And again, that cannot be changed, if it will be changed, until the next General Conference in 2024. A special, called General Conference was held in 2019 to deal only with these issues. While compromise proposals were brought, the result was more restrictive rules and mandated penalties for clergy and bishops who did not obey the Discipline on these points. These penalties exceed the penalties for any other offense (such as failure to perform duties, adultery, embezzlement, etc.)
Did that clear things up? Quite the opposite has occurred. Protests have continued and some bishops have refused to hear charges brought against clergy who have performed same gender weddings. There was a negotiated settlement (compromise) proposed for consideration by the 2020 General Conference. Then COVID-19 postponed General Conference indefinitely. That original proposal, known as the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, stands very little chance of being passed at the next General Conference. It was negotiated in 2019. Imagine if you negotiated a marital divorce and waited five years to put it into action. Much has changed since 2019, and the original groups that negotiated for the Protocol generally no longer support it themselves.
Where are we now? Well, here is where the word schism almost fits. There are some traditionalist (those who do not agree with gay marriage or the ordination of homosexual clergy) congregations and clergy who have tired of the tension and are planning to leave the United Methodist Church. How many congregations and clergy are in the process of leaving? No one really knows, but early signs indicate that it’s less than 10%. The official word for this is “disaffiliation.” These congregations would like to leave, but their church property is not theirs. Annual Conferences (we are in the Virginia Conference) are the legal holders of church property. One of the lessons United Methodists learned from our Episcopalian brothers and sisters when they went through the same struggle, was that this legal fight over who owns the property hurts everyone. Legal costs usually exceed the value of the property in question. So at the 2019 General Conference which resulted in more restrictive rules and penalties for attempting full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons, legislation was enacted which would allow congregations to leave the denomination with the property, with certain qualifications. Among those are the full payment of a congregation’s apportionments (Which are not “denominational dues” as the Star reported. They are each congregation’s fair share of global missionary support and retirement and medical care support for all clergy, among other things), plus a second year’s apportionment to allow the denomination to adjust to new financial realities. Disaffiliating congregations are also required to pay an estimated fair share of the unfunded pension liability for clergy who have served their congregations in prior years.
You will find this agreement in paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline. It was agreed upon in 2019 with the assumption that it would be utilized by progressive (those who support to gay marriage and the ordination of homosexual clergy) congregations who would not submit to more restrictive rules and punishments. Ironically, it is almost all traditionalist congregations who are seeking to leave.
What about the United Methodist Church in Virginia? On Saturday, October 29, there will be a called Annual Conference to allow congregations to disaffiliate. How many? Again, I do not know. (Update, October 17: Per the October 29 Annual Conference agenda, 3 churches are asking to close, and 13 are asking to disaffiliate in Virginia. There are more than 1,200 churches in the Virginia Annual Conference.) Are we transferring them to the Global Methodist Church (a denomination formed by traditionalists in May 2022)? We cannot do that because General Conference has not recognized the Global Methodist Church as a separate, official, denomination, and cannot do so until at least its next meeting in 2024. Disaffiliating congregations will simply be leaving the United Methodist Church. What they do after that is up to them. Some will become a part of the Global Methodist Church. Others will become independent congregations. It’s up to them.
Sadly, there are a few who are actively recruiting clergy and congregations to leave the United Methodist Church, and some of those are trying to scare United Methodists with misinformation. If you’d like to see some of the things they are saying, you can read the rebuttals here: https://www.umc.org/en/content/ask-the-umc-series-is-the-umc-really
How does this affect Braddock Street United Methodist Church? Not much. Admittedly, we have had about a dozen people who have actually said they are leaving our church because their beliefs no longer align with our congregation or our denomination. But remember that when people leave a church, many don’t say anything, they just stop coming, and they generally don’t respond to any efforts to reach out and reconnect. Given what the pandemic has done to us, we are just now seeing some of our folks again since May 2020.
The United Methodist Church remains a “big tent” denomination. In other words, you don’t have to agree with every official statement of our denomination in order to join together in faith and serve our Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, we believe that “Christian conferencing,” or coming together and sharing our different perspectives, is a way that we all grow deeper in our faith together.
And Braddock Street Church remains a “big tent” congregation. We are here and we belong and we serve because of our allegiance to our Lord Jesus Christ, and we serve together in Christ’s name. We are stronger because of our differences. Unity is not the same as uniformity. So try not to allow dramatic headlines and controversies beyond your control distract you from relationship with Christ or each other. As one of our own members told me years ago, “You know, we don’t have to see I to eye in order to walk hand in hand.”