The United Methodist Church is undergoing an increasingly nasty divorce

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The United Methodist Church is undergoing an increasingly nasty divorce

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After decades of infighting, America’s second-largest Protestant denomination is now undergoing a slow-motion schism.

Theologically “traditionalist” members of the United Methodist Church want their church leaders to agree on basic doctrines about Jesus Christ while tolerating a range of political opinions. In contrast, liberal United Methodists welcome wide disagreement among church leaders over theological doctrines but push uniformity on left-wing social justice causes. As newly elected liberal United Methodist Bishop Kennetha Bigham-Tsai recently declared, in the UMC, “it is not important that we agree on who Christ is.”

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Our divisions are misleadingly reported as mainly about homosexuality. Yes, we have important disagreements over how (not whether) we should genuinely welcome our loved ones who are gay. But as has been well documented, the differences between factions encompass much more.

Traditionalist United Methodists are more concerned about the UMC’s doctrinal disharmony. A recent survey of Americans in United Methodist congregations found 38% believing that “Jesus committed sins like other people.” Even top denominational leaders have been allowed to publicly deny the resurrection of Christ or undermine belief in His divinity.

Many are alienated by the liberal faction’s insistence on using UMC resources to promote left-wing political agendas. The denominational bureaucracy funded by the high apportionments required from congregations includes a Capitol Hill lobby office called the General Board of Church and Society. Its CEO has declared, “Our denomination supports open borders.”

Last summer, top UMC denominational officials stood united in expressing strong support for elective abortion. Other “woke” causes the UMC’s apportionment-funded bureaucracy has pushed include boycotting Holocaust museums to protest Israel, telling people to “always start” introductions by “stating your pronouns,” opposing sanctions against North Korea, and broadly decriminalizing drug use and prostitution.

It is widely agreed that our sexual-morality debates reflect deeper and ultimately unsustainable disagreements. So in early 2020, after extensive professional mediation, leaders of every major region and faction supported the Protocol on Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. This was a proposal to split our denomination in two, demanding major concessions from traditionalists.

The more liberal denomination would inherit the denomination’s name, while traditionalists would have the burden of establishing a new denomination and convincing United Methodist congregations and regions to join it as the UMC becomes increasingly liberal. Traditionalists have now launched the Global Methodist Church, a denomination committed to doctrinal clarity, accountable leadership, less costly bureaucracy, and avoiding the UMC’s zeal to take positions on every political issue.

But as the concessions from traditionalists became secure, liberal protocol supporters increasingly abandoned their promises, seeking more for themselves — part of a longer pattern of behavior.

One option now remaining for traditionalists is a new church law called Paragraph 2553. The UMC has long claimed ownership of all congregational property, and this fact has held hostage those unhappy in the denomination. But Paragraph 2553 offers congregations a historic opportunity to disaffiliate from the UMC and keep their property under certain conditions, including significant but usually affordable exit fees.

However, this provision expires with the last 2023 meeting of a congregation’s “annual conference” (the main UMC geographic division), held usually no later than June, with voting and paperwork due much earlier. Over 2,000 U.S. congregations have already disaffiliated, with at least as many in process. Overseas, the UMC’s Bulgaria and Slovakia regions have already left, its Russian and Estonian regions have begun to leave, and many more exits are expected from Africa and the Philippines.

Even though this separation is proceeding according to terms largely set and managed by liberals, liberal denominational officials are scrambling to stem the growing exodus. Some have imposed extreme additional financial and other costs on disaffiliating congregations. The Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, led by Bishop Latrelle Easterling, greedily forces churches to pay 50% of the value of property for which these congregations have already paid. Others have suddenly changed the rules midprocess. Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, immediately before becoming Virginia’s bishop in January, abruptly canceled all disaffiliation processes in north Georgia.

Others have also sought to block congregations from disaffiliating, particularly those with valuable real estate or pastors who have been despised as traditionalist leaders. This growing toxicity is motivating nonliberals to hurry and leave before things get even worse.

As alternatives are closed off, our slow-motion separation is increasingly being fought in court. Some litigious bishops have been acting like vindictive spouses in divorce battles. So far, disaffiliation-related lawsuits have been filed in at least 12 states, nearly all of which could have likely been avoided with the protocol.

It often happens that different segments of large organizations, religious and otherwise, need to part ways. The UMC is offering lessons in how not to manage separation well.

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John Lomperis, M.Div. is director of the UM Action program of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and an elected United Methodist General Conference delegate from the denomination’s Indiana Conference. 

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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