Church’s rift gets upstaged by virus
Methodists pause discussion on split
NEW YORK — Had there been no coronavirus pandemic, America’s largest mainline Protestant denomination would be convening this week for a likely vote to break up over differences on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ pastors.
Instead, the United Methodist Church was forced to postpone the potentially momentous conference, leaving its various factions in limbo for perhaps 16 more months. The deep doctrinal differences seem irreconcilable, but for now there’s agreement that response to the pandemic takes priority.
“The people who are really in trauma right now cannot pay the price of our differences,” said Kenneth Carter, the Florida-based president of the UMC’s Council of Bishops. “What is in our minds and hearts is responding to death, illness, grief, loss of work.”
The differences have simmered for years, and came to a head in 2019 at a conference in St. Louis where delegates voted 438-384 for a proposal strengthening bans on LGBTQ-inclusive practices. Most U.S.-based delegates opposed that plan and favored LGBTQ-friendly options; they were outvoted by U.S. conservatives teamed with most of the delegates from Methodist strongholds in Africa and the Philippines.
In the aftermath of that meeting, many moderate and liberal clergy made clear they would not abide by the bans, and various groups worked throughout 2019 on proposals to let the UMC split along theological lines.
The most widely discussed plan has a long name — the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation — and some high-level support.
It was negotiated by 16 bishops and advocacy group leaders with differing views on LGBTQ inclusion. They were assisted by renowned mediator Kenneth Feinberg, who administered victim compensation funds stemming from the 9/11 attacks and the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Under the protocol, conservative congregations and regional bodies would be allowed to separate from the UMC and form a new denomination. They would receive $25 million in UMC funds and be able to keep their properties.
Formed in a merger in 1968, the UMC claims about 12.6 million members worldwide, including nearly 7 million in the United States. Leaders of the various factions have avoided making predictions of how many members might leave for a new denomination.
In hopes of minimizing friction, the protocol calls for a moratorium on enforcement of bans related to LGBTQ issues. Most bishops seem comfortable with that proposal, although Virginia-based Bishop Sharma Lewis approved initial disciplinary proceedings against a pastor in her region who officiated at a same-sex marriage.
There have been tangible benefits for one of the protocol negotiators, the Rev. David Meredith, who entered into a samesex marriage with his long-time partner while serving as a pastor in Cincinnati.
The bishop of Meredith’s West Ohio region, Gregory Palmer, also served on the protocol team and endorsed the moratorium that freezes judicial proceedings against Meredith.
“Everything that has been a threat is now in a drawer collecting dust,” Meredith said.
Some conservatives worry that further flouting of the bans will occur ahead of the rescheduled national conference.
“For any clergy to try to use this interim to willfully violate their own vows … would demonstrate an extreme lack of integrity and self-control,” said John Lomperis, who works with the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy and will be a delegate at next year’s conference.
Lomperis is among a faction of UMC conservatives, now eager to form a new denomination, who worry that bishops supporting LGBTQ inclusion will use the delay to tilt outcomes in their favor during decision-making by regional bodies.