Last week, when the United Methodist Church postponed—for the third time in as many years—a vote on an orderly plan to split the mainline Protestant denomination over the full inclusion of its LGBTQ members, some conservative United Methodists announced they would launch a new denomination in May, orderly plan or no.
And United Methodists across the theological spectrum were left asking a number of questions, not only about the logistics of congregations leaving one Methodist denomination to join another, but also about the meeting where delegates are expected to discuss those plans to split.
“There are more unknowns than there are knowns,” said Jan Lawrence, head of the Reconciling Ministries Network, a progressive group that advocates for LGBTQ inclusion.
For decades, debate over ordaining and marrying LGBTQ United Methodists has roiled the United Methodist Church, one of the largest Protestant denominations in the United States.
At a 2019 special session of the denomination’s General Conference, the denomination’s global decision-making body, delegates approved what’s known as the Traditional Plan. Backed by conservative United Methodists, the Traditional Plan strengthened the denomination’s standing bans on the ordination of LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage.
But after progressives and moderates rebelled against the Traditional Plan, leaders across theological divides negotiated a proposal to split the denomination called the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation. Delegates were expected to vote on that proposal at the 2020 General Conference meeting, to be held in Minneapolis.
Then COVID-19 happened. The meeting was postponed to 2021, then to 2022.
Last week, the Commission on General Conference announced it was postponing the meeting again—this time to 2024. Though COVID-19 numbers have dropped in the United States, the commission said, delegates living outside the country are having trouble getting visas to travel to the in-person gathering.
For all this time, United Methodist leaders have waited through the delays, urging their members to remain in the denomination until the negotiated protocol could be voted on. In December 2020 one break-off group announced a new progressive Liberation Methodist Connexion denomination. Now, after last week’s postponement, a new conservative denomination is calving off.
“We’re encouraging those who can find a pathway that is appropriate for them to go ahead and exit the denomination,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, who leads the Transitional Leadership Council that is guiding the creation of the Global Methodist Church, the new conservative denomination.
Last year, the Transitional Leadership Council announced it planned to launch the denomination after the General Conference voted on the protocol. The postponement pushed up that timeline.
“The delay is what the problem is,” Boyette said.
Without having yet had the vote on the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation there are questions about how churches and conferences can leave the United Methodist Church to join a new denomination.And for those remaining in the United Methodist Church, there are questions about how the 2024 General Conference will proceed. Can delegates elected to the 2020 General Conference still serve in 2024? What if a lay delegate was ordained in the years since being elected?
Those questions will have to be answered by the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, according to the statement announcing the postponement.
Related: 43 Congregations of the Reformed Church in America Released to Join New Denomination (Church Worldwide, Jan. 13, 2022); CRC Synod 2021 Canceled, Discussion of Human Sexuality Report Delayed (The Banner, Feb. 19, 2021)
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