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Church unity blow as US Methodists to split over same-sex marriage and gay clergy

By Cian Molloy - 06 January, 2020

“It became clear that the line in the sand had turned into a canyon. This protocol graciously allows us to continue to live out the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, albeit in different expressions,” says Methodist Bishop Thomas Bickerton.

The United Methodist Church in the United States is to split because of “fundamental differences” regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy.

A 16-member group of United Methodist (UMC) bishops and other church leaders published a nine-page ‘Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace through Separation’ on Friday that will allow ‘traditionalist-minded congregations’ to form a new denomination.

The United Methodist Church was formed in Dallas, Texas, in 1968 following the union of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church in the United States. Worldwide, the UMC has close to 13 million members in 136 countries, making it the largest denomination belonging to the World Methodist Council. The majority of its adherents, 9 million, are in the United States, where the UMC is the third largest Christian denomination, after the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention.

Publication of the separation plan comes exactly two weeks before the start of the annual worldwide Week of Prayer for Christian Unity on Friday 18 January.

The split has been almost inevitable since last year’s contentious 2019 UMC General Conference in St Louis, Missouri, which saw the passing of the ‘Traditional Plan’, which reinforces restrictions on same-sex weddings and the ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) ministers. That development sparked resistance by those who believe the church should be as ‘inclusive’ as possible, and communications between the two sides of the debate were steadily becoming more heated and fractious.

“It became clear that the line in the sand had turned into a canyon,” commented New York-based Bishop Thomas Bickerton. “This protocol provides a pathway that acknowledges our differences, respects everyone in the process and graciously allows us to continue to live out the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, albeit in different expressions.”

Under the proposal, which will be put to a vote at the UMC’s 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis, the break-away ‘traditionalist denomination’ will be allowed to keep local church properties and will receive US$25 million from the UMC’s General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA). A further $2 million is to be set aside to help other potential new splinter denominations that appear on either side of the proposed divide.

Additionally, to support communities historically marginalised by racism, the GCFA would allocate $39 million over eight years to strengthen Asian, Black, Hispanic-Latino, Native American and Pacific Islander ministries, as well as Africa University. Of that total, $13 million would come from funds the separating traditionalist denomination has chosen to forgo.

UMC conferences outside the United States will be allowed to choose to affiliate with the new Methodist denomination, providing that choice is approved by a two-thirds majority at a national central conference. The deadline for such a vote is 31 December 2021 and if no vote takes place by then, a national conference will remain within the UMC.

These developments do not affect the Methodist Church in Ireland, said the Church’s Belfast-based press officer Rev Roy Cooper.

“This will be a matter of concern to us, but it will have no immediate impact,” he said. “In conjunction with most mainline churches here, the Methodist Church in Ireland has a Biblical conception of marriage as a union of one man and one woman. At this moment in time, there is no talk of us shifting that position. Indeed, I understand that the law on marriage here means that no Church will be held in contempt for refusing to conduct such [same-sex] marriages.”

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