Once again, there has been a good deal of news this month about the state of the United Methodist Church (UMC), specifically around the issues of LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, Queer) people in the denomination.
This issue goes back to 1972 when restrictive negative language was added to the legal and doctrinal governance of the United Methodist Church. Since then, over the decades, a terrible impasse has developed as progressive and traditionalist camps, each believing themselves righteous and inspired, have clashed, leaving many in the church broken and fearful of the denomination’s future.
Last year’s special General Conference vote confirmed, by a narrow margin, the traditionalist point of view, pushing the global church closer to a schism or even collapse.
But there are signs of hope in the stormy, yet grace filled seas of Methodism!
Earlier this month, a group of 16 committed United Methodists, both clergy and laity, from around the globe proposed a plan, developed over the previous four months, that would allow the church proper to renew and stabilize while supporting those who believe that it is time to separate and begin a new Methodist denomination. Made up of representatives from the traditionalist, progressive and centrist perspectives, this committee created a proposal known as the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.” The protocol outlines procedures for forming new Methodist denominations and dividing the financial assets and property among the separated churches, to allow all the sides of the church to prosper and reconcile through separation.
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“We’re asking them (the global church) to do something historic, not just for the United Methodist Church, but frankly something needed in America and in the world right now, which is to watch a group of people in a large, 12 million-person institution cooperate in such a way that we help each other do the things that we desire to do and answer the callings we feel God has laid on our hearts,” said the Rev. Tom Berlin, who represented centrists in the group.
In order to create a successful protocol, the group members considered all points of view, so no theology or cultural orientation was unaccounted for. In addition, through the use of an experienced mediator while creating the protocol, the members saw the possibility of a way forward for the whole church. “One of the things the mediator offered during this process was that our job was to get to yes, and he kept reminding us of that. He also reminded us that we had the opportunity to write the narrative, and that if we didn’t write it, someone else would,” said Janet Lawrence, who represented progressives.
Key details of the protocol include growing The United Methodist Church into a more open and welcoming worship space for all people in the church while allowing traditionalist-minded congregations to form a new, separate denomination in respect of their more restricted theological view. The protocol plan also looks toward a restructuring of the remaining global United Methodist Church into regions, with greater flexibility to adapt church policies, including LGBTQ inclusion. The new traditionalist denomination would receive $25 million in United Methodist funds to create their new church and would keep their local church properties. In addition, the UMC would allocate $39 million over eight years to strengthen Asian, Black, Hispanic-Latino, Native American and Pacific Islander ministries, historically marginalized by racism.
“I believe this is a fair and equitable solution that puts decades of conflict behind us and gives us a hopeful future,” said Rev. Keith Boyette, representing traditionalists.
The next UMC General Conference takes place in May 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the proposal will be submitted for discussion and, hopefully, approval by the assembled body of delegates from Methodist churches around the world. While much work needs to be done to turn the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” into legislation for the conference in May, it appears to truly have a real chance of success.
“We humbly offer to the delegates of the 2020 General Conference the work which we have accomplished in the hopes that it will help heal the harms and conflicts within the body of Christ and free us to be more effective witnesses to God’s Kingdom,” said Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone, who began the talks last summer, which led to the group meetings and final proposal.
I know that our local St. Helena United Methodist church joins many throughout California, the nation and the world in prayer that our global denomination, by letting ourselves grow and change into the future, may follow the words of John Wesley, co-founder of Methodism: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, for all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
Burke Owens is pastor at the St. Helena United Methodist Church at 1310 Adams Street, at Oak, in St Helena. Sunday worship is held at 10 a.m. and child care is provided. For more information about the church, its community, offerings and programs, please see the church website, www.sthelnaumc.org or call the church office at 707-963-2839 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Thursday.