CHICAGO — The United Methodist Church — one of the largest religious denominations in the United States — announced Friday that it is expected to split up over longstanding disagreements about LGBTQ inclusion.
A group of UMC bishops, as well as progressives and traditionalists within the worldwide denomination of about 12.5 million people, signed a proposal that outlines the separation and is likely to be approved at a general convention in May.
“I think there is a broad agreement across the theological spectrum that, unfortunately, we have come to an impasse that cannot be bridged,” said the Rev. Douglas Damron, Senior Pastor at Epworth United Methodist Church in Toledo, Ohio.
LGBTQ issues came to the forefront last year after the UMC’s highest judicial body met in Evanston and upheld strict prohibitions against same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy. The controversial measure, known as the “Traditional Plan,” was passed at a special meeting of the global delegation in February and went into effect on Jan. 1.
“I really do think that the church as we knew it died in February 2019,” said the Rev. Alka Lyall, pastor at Broadway United Church in Chicago.
UMC members began working on the separation proposal this summer after meeting in Chicago, according to the Council of Bishops. Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone commenced the process and invited representatives from the church’s traditional, centrist and progressive movements to participate.
The separation plan calls for the creation of a “traditionalist Methodist denomination” that will be distinct from the UMC. While the new denomination, which has yet to be named, will continue to practice the ban on gay marriage and clergy, the UMC will begin the process of removing restrictive language from its bylaws.
In the past, UMC clergy have faced discipline for performing same-sex marriages or identifying as LGBTQ, but many progressive churches have flouted such prohibitions for years.
The Rev. Dr. Maidstone Mulenga, a spokesman for the UMC Council of Bishops, said the separation plan was reached amicably and will allow for the church to set aside this divisive topic.
“Our hope is that we’ll move on and spend more time doing what we’ve been called to do, which is to tell people about Jesus Christ and transform his world through our work in ministry,” he said.
In Illinois, Methodist Bishop Sally Dyck, who oversees 370 churches in the northern third of the state, welcomed the proposal, saying it would allow the UMC to become more inclusive while also letting the traditionalists develop their own “expression of Methodism.”
Dyck said she expected the majority of churches in her region to remain in the UMC, though there could be some that choose to leave.
The decision might not be as uniform in some other parts of the state.
The Rev. Chris Ritter, who leads a traditionalist congregation in Geneseo, a small city by the Iowa border, said the members of his church are likely to support a split from the UMC if the plan is approved.
“I hate that we reached this point,” he said. “It’s best we disengage from all this and figure out how we move forward with like-minded parties.”
Under the separation proposal, the UMC will provide financial support to the traditionalist denomination once it forms.
The plan calls for the UMC to pay the new denomination $25 million over four years, and local churches that leave UMC and join the breakaway group will be allowed to keep their buildings and other property. The payment amount was determined based on a “review of the financial health of the church” and discussions with stakeholders, according to the Council of Bishops. Congregations that want to join the new denomination will have to take a vote, according to the proposal.
Sixteen UMC representatives — including leaders from Europe, Africa and the Philippines — met for several months to craft the agreement. Attorney Kenneth Feinberg, a nationally recognized mediation expert who served as Special Master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and other prominent settlements, helped guide the process on a pro bono basis, according to the Council of Bishops.
In the proposal, called “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation,” signatories agree that separation is 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 final separation plan is expected to be considered in May, when church delegates from around the world are due to hold a General Conference in Minneapolis.
It’s widely expected to be adopted, with several Methodist pastors saying before Friday’s official word broke that a split in the church was inevitable. Leaders, however, hope for an amicable separation.
“Many of us recognized that the United Methodist Church that we joined and committed ourselves to had radically shifted,” Damron said. “We were no longer the church of open hearts, open minds, and open doors, but we have become something else.”