Religion News: UMC Leaders Struggle with Divisive Issues

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The looming split in the United Methodist Church has gotten a lot of attention as the media focuses on a proposed protocol that acknowledges the inevitability of separation and provides guidance through the process. “Not so fast,” say regional church leaders. Not everyone believes a split is the answer, or even that the correct solution is one that’s already been proposed. Tim Worley, pastor of three rural western Albemarle County UMC churches, said, “This proposed ‘protocol’ and the more recent proposed legislation that goes with it, is just that, a proposal. It is not United Methodist church law, and may never be.”

Delegates to the United Methodist Church general conference in early May will try to decide on one of several plans designed to somehow resolve long-held disagreements about human sexuality.

Dan Kesner, the UMC Charlottesville District Superintendent, also sees a number of different options still viable for his colleagues. Kesner oversees an area from Rappahannock to Amherst Counties, a diverse region that includes many rural churches as well as four that are quite large, including the Crozet UMC. The 73 churches in his district are likely to have differing opinions, he said, and he has encouraged them to prepare for the future.

“Without a crystal ball, though, there’s not much we can do to prepare ourselves,” Kesner said. Churches have put together prayer vigils as a way to be thoughtful about the issues. The district itself cut its budget in anticipation of financial demands in the conference’s aftermath.

“Most of all, I’ve asked them to have continuing conversations among their congregations,” he said.

Even within his district, Kesner sees a wide variety of opinions from ministers and congregations, a variety that’s reflected in the general conference. “We certainly have pastors who are very progressive, those who are moderate, and those who are conservative.” Kesner considers himself a moderate. He said there is a way to keep the church whole and “agree to disagree.”

One of the proposed plans allows for that. The plan, endorsed by the UMC’s Council of Bishops, removes language about sexuality from the church’s law book and allows decisions about same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT clergy to be made by regional authorities. This “One Church Plan,” would provide choices for those who support the more inclusive practices, but could not require ministers or churches to engage in those practices.

On the other side, and the one most widely publicized, is “The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace,” hammered out in the wake of the contentious 2019 meeting. At the heart of the dispute is the question of whether gay ministers should be ordained, and whether ministers should be allowed to officiate at gay marriages. Under the protocol’s terms, the churches that leave (for the purposes of the protocol, the churches that want to strengthen the UMC’s existing prohibitions) could form a new “traditionalist” Methodist denomination that would receive $25 million over four years and give up claims to UMC assets. In addition, $2 million would be allocated for potential new Methodist denominations. There are also financial provisions for church communities marginalized by racism.

Among those who see a split as inevitable are those from countries where homosexuality is a crime, and those who believe scripture clearly forbids same-sex marriages. Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) leaders anticipate a new Methodist church after the Conference, and have suggested the WCA as the path to the new church. However, the coalition that put together the protocol for separation included representatives from each ideological faction, facilitated by mediator Kenneth Feinberg, who has overseen some of the nation’s biggest and most public compensation disputes. 

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