The Future of the UMC and St. Andrew UMC. Is the UMC Splitting?
September 29, 2021
You have likely heard the urgent news of a pending church split within the UMC. Let me share with you briefly a bit of background and current news around the topic that is ever evolving and what this means to our St. Andrew congregation.
Why is there so much discussion of a UMC church split? What is behind it? What is on the horizon?
In early 2019, at a specially called General Conference (GC) was held with the expectation that it would decide “once and for all” the future of the UMC regarding denominational issues related to church polity and the issues of inclusion, marriage, and ordination for those identifying within the LGBTQ spectrum.
(The worldwide General Conference typically convenes only every four years on the same years as our election cycle. It is the only body in the UMC that makes denomination-wide policy decisions.)
As you will recall, at that GC the UMC reaffirmed the decades old “traditional” church law forbidding same-gender marriages in the UMC church, the conducting of such marriages by UMC clergy, and the ordination of self-avowed “practicing” LGBT folks within the UMC.
But far from deciding this once and for all, the rancorous and defiant tenor revealed two things that would soon follow.
First, the “centrist/progressive” folks were not going to go away quietly simply because they “lost.” They were going to double-down on their efforts to work the process to change the decision in 2020, the next scheduled GC. Second, the “traditionalists” (e.g. Wesleyan Covenant Association) realized the folly of believing the decision was “once and for all.” They “won” the battle but not the war. So, they intensified structural work on creating a new denomination along “traditionalist” lines regarding these particular issues as well as other UMC practices.
These perceived “irreconcilable differences” inspired a diverse group of UMC leaders who engaged the help of famed mediator Kenneth Feinberg to construct a proposal released in January 2020: The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. The Protocol created an economically feasible pathway to an amicable separation, a.k.a. a church split, especially for the “traditionalists” pursuing the creation of a new denomination. The Protocol was scheduled to be on the docket at the GC in May 2020.
But… enter Covid-19 which prevented the 2020 GC from convening in person or online. The 2020 GC was rescheduled with great hope for the fall of 2021. But pandemic-related health concerns about the delegates and concerns about full inclusion by holding the GC virtually continued to prevail which led to its postponement. Now the plan is for the GC to meet in person in August 2022.
What has developed behind the scenes on this matter in the meantime?
The waiting time before the 2022 GC has seen the emergence of many things (www.um-insight.net and www.umnews.org are good resources for updates). Three are worth noting:
- A growing number of “traditionalist” churches, large and small, are officially disaffiliating from the UMC prior to the 2022 GC. Our polity allows them to do this within certain guidelines. The new Methodist denomination is still in the formative stages, yet they just wanted to be out of the UMC. What they choose to do now is up to each individual church.
- Some international churches, especially the African UMC churches, see this time as a blessing to accurately inform their congregations about the next GC where they wouldn’t have been able to do this previously.
- Countless voices and counter-movements to the Protocol have arisen. These urge anything from a quicker timeframe to vote on the Protocol to facilitate the inevitable split (the new “once and for all”), to another season of prayer to discern the future, to encouragement to claim our common heritage and pledge to stay together at all costs as a witness to Christ.
Unless a congregation collectively discerns a desire to disaffiliate from the UMC for either traditionalist or progressive reasons, there is no official vote a church needs to take right now. There is no new denomination to join so, in the short run, the church would, practically speaking, be declaring itself as independent. Also, the Protocol is still just a proposal waiting to be discussed, amended and voted upon at the 2022 GC by representative delegates who have already been elected, so there isn’t really any legislative work to do.
Some churches are choosing to discuss and vote upon whether to continue to affiliate with the UMC if it either retains the “traditional” language or accepts a more “progressive” stance. This is an option for St. Andrew. However, with the flight of many traditionalist churches away from the UMC as well as the unpredictability of GC 2022, this seems more of a “test the waters” vote rather than a binding action. There is no guarantee GC 2022 will happen.
Still another option beckons as a possibility. A local church convinced that Christ calls them to full inclusion of LGBTQ folks can work through a detailed process by which they would be designated a Reconciling Ministry. Such a process requires particular training and conversations take place prior to a church vote. If the vote is affirmative in the percentage required, a church would then be able to promote itself as a Reconciling Congregation.
So, that’s where we are! Just like Covid-19, we live in a time of uncertainty as a denomination. But, we do know that in this meantime we are called to continue the work of Christ as an open community growing in the ways of Jesus, sent out daily to share the healing love of God.