The impending schism of the United Methodist Church

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This past week I attended the annual meeting of the ecumenical officers of the Episcopal Church as a representative of the Catholic Association of Diocesan Ecumenical Officers. One of the central issues that were discussed was the impending schism of the United Methodist Church. Why, you may ask, was that of importance to Episcopalians? Well, that is because the Episcopal Church and Methodist Church have been working toward (and were getting closer to) a full communion ratification. The split within the United Methodist Church is certainly putting the brakes on any ratification of a full communion move with Episcopalians.

The issue at hand is the adoption of what is more popularly called the Traditional Plan, yet officially called the “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation,” at a specially-called General Conference, which in essence kept unmodified the bans on same-sex weddings and ordination of gay clergy adopted in 1972.

The more progressive wing of the United Methodist Church has responded. In the words of the Rev. Henry Gibson, pastor of youth, evangelism and inclusive ministries at Highlands United Methodist Church at Five Points South in Birmingham, Alabama, “That’s a decision a lot of us can’t accept as being in line with our Christian faith. This is not what we think the church is supposed to be.”

The Rev. Brian Erickson, senior pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Homewood, Alabama, explained, “In May, right after the 2019 General Conference, a group of centrist, progressive, American Methodists invited 10 folks from every annual conference in the country to discuss where we are — we agree the Traditional Plan was not in the best interest of the church.”

The Traditional Plan has set in motion an option for “graceful exit,” that would give permission for any dissenting congregations of the United Methodist Church to ask permission to leave the denomination and take their property with them.

Rev. Erickson admits, “Some form of splitting is going to happen and there’s a lot of pain about that.”

Even though it seems that the majority of Methodists in the United States favor a more inclusive stance toward the LGBTQ policies, the growing churches of Methodists in Africa and Asia have voted for staying with the traditional view stated in the Methodist Book of Disciple, the church’s rule book, that states, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Traditionalist Methodists claim that the issue of gay members is not the sole reason for the rift in their church. The Rev. Vaughn Stafford, lead pastor of ClearBranch United Methodist Church in Trussville, Alabama, explains that the Traditional Plan is just the tip of the iceberg of disagreement among Methodists. He said, “Our real issues are much deeper than that; it’s about the nature of Jesus, the person of Jesus, the interpretation of Scripture. We needed to band together with traditionally orthodox Wesleyans.”

He continued, “That’s really the bigger issue, human sexuality is the presenting issue. We’ve been a creedal church. We believe in the Virgin Birth … the Resurrection of Jesus. There are those within the denomination that would call that the Jesus myth. I believe those things. I’ve given my life to those things.”

Methodist Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, head of the Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, issued a statement earlier this month that said The ‘Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation will go before the General Conference that meets in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 5-15, 2020. General Conference is the body of the United Methodist Church that sets policy for the denomination. The 2020 General Conference will be comprised of approximately 850 delegates from around the world.

She added, “I invite our North Alabama United Methodist Conference to continue to pray for our church, our church’s effectiveness in fulfilling our mission of making disciples and the work of the upcoming 2020 General Conference.”

Her predecessor, Bishop William Willimon, added, “I think church schism is always a tragedy, always a sign of failure. The best you can say is the United Methodist Church is a mirror of the national political situation, without trying hard to be Christian. I think it’s sad!”

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.