A plan for splitting the United Methodist Church was announced Friday by a group of influential church members representing a wide range of positions on the LGBT issues that have increasingly divided the UMC in recent decades.

If approved at the UMC General Conference in May, the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” would lay the foundation for a new traditionalist Methodist denomination that would receive a total of $25 million over four years. Another $2 million would be set aside for the possibility of any other new denominations that emerge from the split.

The plan also calls for $39 million to be allocated to support Methodist ministries in “communities historically marginalized by racism,” according to a statement from the 16-member group that formulated the proposal.

“The undersigned propose restructuring The United Methodist Church by separation as the best means to resolve our differences, allowing each part of the Church to remain true to its theological understanding, while recognizing the dignity, equality, integrity, and respect of every person,” the protocol states.

The group behind the proposal consists of bishops and church members from around the world as well as members of Methodist advocacy groups representing diverse positions on issues such as ordination of gay clergy and same-sex marriage that have created a rift in the church. The eight-page document was unanimously approved Dec. 17 after being formulated over the course of several months. The process was mediated by attorney Kenneth Feinberg, best known as the Special Master who administered the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

“All of us are servants of the church and realize that we are not the primary decision makers on these matters,” said Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone, who organized the effort. “Instead, 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.”

Yambasu’s work began soon after a special session of the church’s General Conference in March voted against a plan to allow individual churches to determine their policies on ordination and marriage of gay people and related issues. Instead, the “Traditional Plan” was approved, affirming the church’s long-standing prohibitions on LGBT ministers and same-sex marriages and introduced the possibility of more severe penalties for UMC clergy who perform same-sex marriages.

Under the plan announced Friday, the Traditional Plan would be repealed following the separation of the conferences and individual churches that supported it.

Though unofficial in nature, the proposal — and its announcement, accompanied by elaborate materials on the UMC’s official online news site — seemed designed to preempt other possible plans to split the church. Members of the group behind the proposal agreed not to support other separation plans.

The proposal also lays out deadlines and voting requirements for the UMC’s conferences and individual churches to vote to leave. Local churches that wish to choose a denomination at odds with the one chosen by their conference would be able to vote on leaving and would also choose whether to require a two-thirds or simple majority to leave. They would have until the end of 2024 to complete the process.

Other terms include a provision allowing all church employees to keep their retirement benefits, regardless of which denomination they wind up affiliated with. Individual churches would retain their property and liabilities.

Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, leader of the church’s Western Pennsylvania Conference, described the plan in positive terms in a statement posted to the conference’s website.

“A truly diverse group of United Methodists has reached unity,” Moore-Koikoi said of the plan to split the church. “As one of our pastors has often said to me, ‘Bishop, sometimes unity takes on different forms.’ And sometimes to reach unity it takes time, repeated failures, love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, extended conversation, and persistence.”

At the Erie-Meadville District headquarters in Saegertown, Superintendent Dennis Swineford offered a dose of caution.

“It’s not by any means a final decision. It’s a proposal being put forward that the delegates to the General Conference will consider in their deliberations,” Swineford said.

“The church isn’t splitting up tomorrow.”

Locals weigh in on possible split

The Friday announcement of a widely supported proposal to divide the United Methodist Church into multiple denominations seemed likely to throw a monkey wrench into weekend plans for several Crawford County pastors.

Pastor Rebecca Patterson of Grace United Methodist Church in Meadville spent several hours on Friday reading through the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation" and by late afternoon acknowledged that she would probably address the issue in her weekly sermon.

“I started writing something that I will probably include in the church bulletin on Sunday,” she said.

Jeffrey Little, pastor of Saegertown United Methodist Church, said “obvious division” in the 2018 annual conference, the regional gathering of church officials, had set the stage for such a proposal.

The division comes largely in response to the church’s policies on LGBT-related issues such as the ordination of gay clergy and same-sex marriage. Under the plan announced Friday, a new “traditional” Methodist denomination that maintains the church’s prohibitions on gay clergy and same-sex marriages would be formed. The United Methodist Church would continue with the remaining churches and would liberalize its LGBT-related policies. The new denomination would receive $25 million, and individual churches in each denomination would keep their property.

“I think this has a very good chance of passing because of the prominence and diversity of the stakeholders involved,” said Allegheny College Chaplain Jane Ellen Nickell, referring to the 16-member group of bishops and church members from around the world that formulated the plan.

Nickell cited two key features of the plan: It was initiated by a bishop from Africa, where congregations tend to be more conservative, and it gives American traditionalists “what they want, which is to walk away with their property intact and no financial penalty.”

The plan still must be approved by the church’s General Conference, which meets in May.

Little cautioned that the proposal is a long way from being enacted.

“It’s way too early to know exactly what is going to happen, and I think speculation is even more divisive,” he said.

While a split in the church would be significant, he added, other things are more significant.

“The work of Christ is going to carry on no matter what the church does,” Little said.

Patterson, who described herself as a centrist, said the growing divide in the church has made a split seem inevitable to many.

“Probably the best we can hope for is this amicable separation,” she said.

While the proposal covers many logistical issues, she added, questions still remain, such as what would become of church-related groups like the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the church’s humanitarian relief organization.

And then there’s the question of the name.

“I’m not sure it’s fair for any one branch to hang on to the term ‘united’ after a separation,” Patterson said.

Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

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