The United Methodist Church, the third-largest Christian denomination in the U.S., is set to split the entire church due to conflicting positions on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage.
Church leaders unveiled a proposal to allow "traditionalist" Methodists to form a new denomination that would not allow LGBTQ clergy or perform same-sex unions on Friday, while the existing church would adopt inclusive policies, according to the church's news site, UM News. The plan would need to be approved at the United Methodist General Conference, scheduled for May in Minneapolis.
At a special conference last year, church delegates voted against lifting the bans on out clergy and same-sex marriages. The denomination officially considers "the practice of homosexuality" to be "incompatible with Christian teaching." But many Methodist congregations support LGBTQ equality and inclusivity, and the issue has been a source of contention in the church for years.
The plan released by a committee of Methodist bishops and other leaders recognizes that the differences are unresolvable. "It became clear that the line in the sand had turned into a canyon," New York Conference Bishop Thomas Bickerton, who was on the committee, told UM News. "The impasse is such that we have come to the realization that we just can't stay that way any longer."
Under the plan, called "Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation," the denomination would allocate $25 million over four years to the traditionalist group. Churches in that group would be allowed to keep their local properties but would relinquish claims to other United Methodist assets. There are also provisions for other congregations to join the new group later. The new church is expected to include many congregations from Africa as well as some from the U.S.
The protocol, which will be the basis for legislation to be considered at the General Conference, was negotiated with the help of prominent negotiator Kenneth Feinberg, who worked on the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and another compensation fund set up for victims of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. Feinberg and other lawyers donated their time to the church.
Feinberg "has a deep interest in religion and the preservation of the public witness of religion, and this is what intrigued him and enabled him to say yes to us," Bickerton said. "We are extremely indebted."
Release of the protocol came just as a new church policy was to go into effect that would strengthen penalties for clergy who perform same-sex marriages, The Washington Post notes. The new penalties, approved last year, provided for "one year's suspension without pay for the first wedding and removal from the clergy for any wedding after that," according to the Post. Enforcement of those sanctions will now be postponed.
LGBTQ-supportive Methodists welcomed the new plan. "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,'" Jan Lawrence, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, which works for LGBTQ equality in the church, told UM News. "The [anti-LGBTQ] language needs to be removed now. I am pleased that there is opportunity here for that to happen in 2020."
The United Methodist church has nearly 7 million members in the U.S., making it the third-largest Christian denomination in the nation, behind the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention. It has more than 6 million members overseas.