Methodist Church Announces Plan to Split Over Division on LGBTQ Acceptance

The United Methodist Church, which has struggled for years with LGBTQ acceptance, has announced a plan for a split in which parishes that oppose same-sex marriage will leave the denomination, but pave the way for LGBTQ inclusion among the remaining congregations.

The new plan, announced Friday, was hailed by both church leaders seeking to overturn the Methodist Church's bans on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage as well as other congregations seeking to go their own way over opposition to LGBTQ inclusion.

A 16-member group of Methodist bishops outlined the plan in a nine-page "Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation." Under the proposal, churches that separate would get $25 million in funds from the denomination over the course of four years and be allowed to keep their local church properties.

New York Conference Bishop Thomas Bickerton, one of 16 bishops that negotiated and signed the proposal, said in a statement the contentious nature of LGBTQ inclusion within the church demonstrated the need for a plan for an amicable separation.

"It became clear that the line in the sand had turned into a canyon," Bickerton said. "The impasse is such that we have come to the realization that we just can't stay that way any longer."

Bickerton praised the plan as "a pathway 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 Methodist Church, which has an estimated 9 million adherents in the United States and 13 million worldwide, announced the plan nearly a year after the United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis approved a "Traditional Plan" that not only reaffirmed its existing ban on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage but called for greater enforcement.

Although U.S. delegates at the conference overwhelmingly voted "no," the proposal succeeded as a result of an alliance of conservatives from both the United States and abroad. An estimated 43 percent of the delegates are from overseas and overwhelmingly supported the anti-LGBTQ policy.

Prior to the vote on the "Traditional Plan," the conference rejected a separate proposal that would have allowed the ordination of LGBTQ ministers and church recognition of same-sex marriage. The proposal was voted down 449-374.

The new plan — reached with the assistance of Kenneth Feinberg, a mediator who worked on the federal Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund — requires approval by the 2020 General Conference, which will meet in May in Minneapolis. The process of drafting legislation for the meeting, according to the church, is still underway.

But the church seems to be on its way to adopting the proposal. The plan for separation has the backing of church leaders who are LGBTQ supportive as well as those who are not.

Among those negotiating and signing on to the plan was Jan Lawrence, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, which has sought to allow full LGBTQ inclusion in the Methodist Church.

"As a United Methodist who is LGBTQ, my priority at the table was to make sure we addressed the full participation of LGBTQ people in the life of the church, making sure the answer was not 'ask us again in 2024,'" Lawrence said in a statement. "The language needs to be removed now. I am pleased that there is [an] opportunity here for that to happen in 2020."

Also hailing the plan was the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a congregation within the Methodist Church that opposes LGBTQ inclusion and has already taken steps toward leaving the denomination.

"This is a very important agreement, and the most hopeful development in a dispute that has undermined the health and vitality of both local churches and the denomination in general," said the Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and one of the 16 church leaders who negotiated and signed the agreement.

Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone, who last summer began the private talks that led to the proposal, encouraged church leaders at the upcoming conference to adopt the plan.

"We humbly offer to the delegates of the 2020 General Conference the work which we have accomplished in the hopes that it will help heal the harms and conflicts within the body of Christ and free us to be more effective witnesses to God's Kingdom," Yambasu said.

In addition to allocating $25 million for the congregations wishing to leave the denomination, other details of the plan include:

  • Escrowing $2 million to help other potential new denominations;
  • To support communities historically marginalized by racism, allocating $39 million over eight years to strengthen Asian, Black, Hispanic-Latino, Native American and Pacific Islander ministries, as well as Africa University ($13 million of that amount would come from funds the separating traditionalist denomination chose to forgo);
  • After the 2020 general conference, holding a special conference for the remaining denomination that would seek to create regional conferences, lift the prohibition on LGBTQ inclusion and repeal the "Traditional Plan."
  • Allowing a central conference made up of Methodist leaders outside the U.S. to choose with a two-thirds vote to affiliate with the new denomination (The vote deadline would be Dec. 31, 2021, and if no vote is taken the conference remains in the Methodist Church);
  • Permitting the pension plans of the United Methodist Church to remain in place for all current clergy and lay employees, even if they affiliate with the new Methodist denomination as proposed under the plan.

Michael Vazquez, Religion & Faith Program Director for the Human Rights Campaign, acknowledged the split with the Methodist Church was painful but offered a positive outlook.

"The United Methodist Church's decision to split, while a result of the denomination's anti-LGBTQ posture, is an opportunity for the Church to make amends and reconcile with its LGBTQ family," Vazquez said. "We honor the work of LGBTQ Methodists who have fought and worked for reform. Ultimately, the Church's decision to split leaves many LGBTQ Methodists who want to be fully included in the life of the Church in limbo, trying to determine their place in a Church that has still not embraced them."

This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.


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