For a long time, the United Methodist Church has remained united in form, though not in practice. In recent times, we have watched as the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the Lutheran Church split. However, there was hope the UMC could avoid such a split. The General Conference (GC) is the international gathering of delegates from the UMC which meets every 4 years to guide the church and legislate changes. Approximately 850 delegates are elected from every Conference around the world. There has been a long-standing division in the UMC regarding the authority and interpretation of Scripture, the practice of homosexuality being the main issue presenting the divide. At every GC since 1972, this topic has come up and each time the church has affirmed the clarity of Scripture. The UMC’s Book of Discipline, which contains, among other things, our doctrine and principles of organization, reads: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Therefore, United Methodist pastors are prohibited from officiating at same sex weddings and those practicing homosexuality are prohibited from serving as pastors.
As some may recall, there was a special called GC in 2019 to deal with the divisions based upon issues of human sexuality. The prohibitions against the practice of homosexuality were upheld. Those taking a progressive point of view, who are pushing for full affirmation of homosexual practice, see the issue at hand as one of justice. Those taking a traditionalist viewpoint, see the issue at hand primarily as one of Scriptural authority, considering homosexual practice as a rejection of God’s Word. Thus, we have an impasse. It became clear the divide was not going away. The direction of culture was made equally clear. In 2016, a group of United Methodists who had a high regard for Scriptural authority gathered and formed the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA). They agreed that if the UMC did not uphold the clear teachings of Scripture, they would start a new denomination.
In summer 2019, Kenneth Feinburg, a world renowned mediator, met with a group of theologically diverse United Methodists to see if a solution to the long division could be found. They came up with the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. Amazingly, traditionalists, centrists and progressives agreed on this being the best way that the UMC move forward. Yes, it was a split, but a peaceful one. It was a way to end the decades long division that consumed far too much time, energy and resources that could be used to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission! Things looked hopeful.
Then, the pandemic hit and General Conference 2020 was postponed until 2021. Some progressives felt they could not wait. Therefore, they split and formed the Liberation Methodist Connexion. The GC 2021 was postponed until 2022. In March of this year the announcement was made: General Conference further postponed to 2024. On that same day, the Wesleyan Covenant Association announced that the Global Methodist Church, a new denomination, would launch May 1, 2022. A short time after these announcements, a pastor who served on the Commission on General Conference wrote an open letter to the church stating that the decision to postpone GC for the third time was done without integrity and was part of a strategy to prevent the UMC from splitting. You can read his letter here: Why I Resigned from the Commission on General Conference
So, it appears that the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation’s promise is on life support. Now, churches across the nation are making plans to separate from the UMC. Rather than one clear plan for separation accompanied by reconciliation and grace, a splintering is occurring. From my vantage point the whole thing is sad. Rev. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, has a sermon entitled On Schism. In this sermon, he states that splits in the church are always grievous, yet sometimes necessary.
We have a shared covenant as a church, the Book of Discipline (BOD). For decades leaders in our church, including bishops, have openly rejected it and taught others to ignore certain parts of it. We have whole jurisdictions of our church that have voted to reject and ignore parts of the BOD pertaining to human sexuality. However, Bishop Sharma Lewis, our current Bishop in the Virginia Conference has held to the covenant, upholding the BOD.
I grieve that when the historical questions of Rev. John Wesley are asked to those about to be ordained, many are not answering truthfully. “Do you know our doctrines and discipline?” – “Yes.” “Are you in agreement with them?” –*fingers crossed* . . . “Yes”. When I shared this with a friend who serves the UMC in Connecticut, he said in his Conference, they answer that second question with, “No,” and they ordain them anyway. We are already split and have been for a long time. The crucial question is can we formalize the split in a peaceful way. I pray the answer to that question is, “Yes.” I humbly ask you to pray for the UMC.