By Kirk Petersen
The United Methodist Church is trying to achieve an amicable schism over issues of human sexuality. The 13-million member church is considering a proposal that, if successful, will avoid the years of property litigation that has cost the Episcopal Church untold millions of dollars.
Under the plan announced January 3, each Methodist annual conference (the equivalent of a diocese) would be able to vote on whether to join a new traditionalist Methodist denomination. Churches opposed to the decision made by their annual conference would be able to vote to join the opposite group. Conferences and churches that leave the UMC would retain their property and assets, and clergy and lay employees who leave would retain their pension rights.
Any church or annual conference that does not hold a vote would automatically stay with the continuing United Methodist Church, which would pay $25 million over four years to the departing congregations, as start-up funds for a new denomination. The new traditionalist Methodist church body would relinquish any further claim to UMC assets.
A nine-page “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” was negotiated over the past several months by bishops and other Methodist leaders representing a broad spectrum of opinion. Kenneth Feinberg, who was the special master of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, served as a pro bono mediator for the Methodist negotiators.
For now, the protocol is binding only on the 16 bishops, ministers, and lay leaders who signed it. The quadrennial General Conference will consider the proposal at its scheduled meeting May 5-15, 2020, in Minneapolis.
Just as with the Episcopal Church, the Methodists have weathered decades of conflict over issues such as same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy. The Methodist Book of Discipline declares that the “practice of homosexuality” is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” In February 2019, a special General Conference voted 53% to 47% to maintain the denomination’s traditional stance.
Methodist Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, one of the signatories of the protocol, said the denomination has been fighting over this issue for 47 years. “The line in the sand has turned into a canyon,” he said.
Given that the traditionalists prevailed in the February vote, it seems counter-intuitive for the protocol to establish that staying with the more progressive, continuing UMC would be the default outcome for a church or conference that does not hold a vote.
Another element of the protocol favoring the established church is that a 57% majority will be required for an annual conference to affiliate with the new Methodist denomination. In an FAQ, the UMC Council of Bishops explained that the 57% figure was reached through negotiation, between one side wanting a simple majority and the other seeking two-thirds, or 67%.
Conservative theology Professor Robert A.J. Gagnon posted on Facebook: “My initial reaction is that It should be the other way around: Let the heretics (for that is what they are, however sincerely they hold their views) split off since they are the ones denying Jesus and the historic witness not only of the church in general but of Wesley and the denomination in particular.”
An explanation for the default may be found in the fact that that while the traditionalists won last February, the Associated Press reports, “A majority of U.S.-based delegates opposed that plan but were outvoted by U.S. conservatives teamed with delegates from Methodist strongholds in Africa and the Philippines.”
As in the Anglican world, the United Methodist Church is growing in Africa while declining in the United States. Still, nearly 7 million of the Church’s 13 million global members are in the United States – making America the center of gravity for the UMC. “There is no question that the UMC establishment controls the seminaries and the church agencies,” said Terry Mattingly, a longtime religion journalist who blogs at getreligion.org.
Bickerton told TLC that after the traditionalists prevailed in the special General Conference, “approximately two-thirds of the annual conferences selected more moderate to progressive delegates for the next General Conference.”
Bickerton said “I believe that the conservative wing of the Methodist church has had a long desire to create something new for themselves,” and has already drafted an alternative Book of Discipline. Bickerton oversees the 447 Methodist congregations in the New York Annual Conference.
For all these reasons, creating an entirely new denomination based on their interpretation of Scripture will likely be much less of a challenge for the traditionalists than attempting to alter the course of the established UMC.
The potential split will strain the finances of a major religious institution. The UMC in the United States is roughly four times the size of the domestic Episcopal Church, making it the third-largest denomination in the country, behind the Roman Catholics and the Southern Baptists. But like all mainline Protestant denominations, the Methodists have seen steady declines in attendance (and thus income) for years.
In October 2019, UM News reported: “United Methodist bishops received a sobering message during their autumn meeting. Without any changes, the fund that supports their work will run out of money in five years.”
Still, just like a divorce, splitting a denomination will likely be much less expensive if the two sides can reach a compromise while agreeing to disagree over key matters.
The Episcopal upheavals earlier this century led to the establishment of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of its formation. No one will ever know exactly how much money Episcopalians and Anglicans have spent on property litigation, but it’s a lot.
In an unrelated Title IV disciplinary action in 2017, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles disclosed that it had spent $5 million in litigation over nine years to recover church properties of just four breakaway parishes. That doesn’t include what the parishes themselves spent.
Multiply that by the litigation in the five dioceses where bishops led a majority of their congregations in leaving the Episcopal Church (TEC), and then consider that there is no end in sight to litigation in the dioceses of Fort Worth and South Carolina. The overall litigation cost for all parties clearly must be measured in tens of millions of dollars, and counting.
That would fund a lot of ministry. It also makes the $25 million in startup money the UMC would pay look like a prudent investment.
The UMC and the Episcopal Church have been moving toward a full-communion relationship for decades, like the relationship between the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. After the Methodists voted for the traditional plan, TLC reported: “Some now worry full communion could become a casualty of tense, politically charged times in churches at risk of breaking apart. But others say it is time to keep building on ecumenical momentum and not let sexuality debates interfere with a larger witness.”
If the protocol is adopted, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in North America may each wind up with a potential full-communion partner.