HIGH COUNTRY — Some High Country clergy were surprised on Jan. 3 when the United Methodist Church announced a proposal to divide the church “as the best means to resolve our differences” regarding ordaining LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriages, according to a signed protocol.
According to the UMC Council of Bishops, a diverse group of representatives from United Methodist advocacy groups and bishops from around the world collaborated on a proposed agreement that was achieved on Dec. 17 and announced on Jan. 3. The agreement made is now known as the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation,” and proposes the possible division of the church into two denominations.
The split would create a new “traditionalist Methodist” denomination that would continue to bar same-sex marriages in the church as well as ordination of LGBT clergy. The remaining portion of the United Methodist Church would permit same-sex marriages and LGBT clergy.
The Council of Bishops Office stated that the protocol document details the terms of the potential split of the roughly 13 million-member denomination, and the proposal is expected to come before the United Methodist General Conference for a vote at its legislative meeting in Minneapolis, Minn., in May 2020.
“The United Methodist Church and its members aspire to multiply the Methodist mission in the world by restructuring the church through respectful and dignified separation,” the protocol agreement stated.
The United Methodist Church has been in a yearlong debate on differing opinions when it comes to the matter of officiating at or hosting same-sex marriage ceremonies and LGBTQ persons ordained as clergy. During a meeting of the General Conference in early 2019, church delegates supported the “Traditional Plan,” which maintained the current language surrounding sexuality, marriage and ordination of LGBTQ persons and streamlined the process of enforcing penalties for violating the Book of Discipline — which constitutes the law and doctrine of the UMC.
Later in the year, members within the United Methodist Church from three constituencies — traditionalists, centrists and progressives — met with central conference bishops to “share ideas about the future of the United Methodist Church and how we might navigate the persistent conflict experienced by the denomination,” according to the Council of Bishops. The group initially met Aug. 16-17 in Herndon, Va., and subsequently met Oct. 17-18, Nov. 11-12 and Dec. 16-17 in Washington, D.C.
“It is the first time that representatives from all of the various perspectives in the United Methodist Church around human sexuality came to the table to negotiate a plan and were able to actually compromise and come up with something that everybody could support,” said Boone UMC Pastor Lory Beth Huffman.
If adopted by the 2020 General Conference, the implementing legislation would require those who wish to form a new Methodist denomination to file registration with the Secretary of the Council of Bishops with that intent. If the protocol is approved, the registration must occur not later than May 15, 2021, according to the Council of Bishops.
It also states that if the protocol is set in place, central conferences may choose with a two-thirds vote to affiliate with a Methodist denomination other than the post-separation United Methodist Church. If a central conference does not vote, it would remain a part of the post-separation United Methodist Church. Such an affiliation vote would need to be taken no later than Dec. 31, 2021.
As the proposed protocol anticipates the formation of a new traditionalist Methodist denomination, the document suggests that the new church would receive $25 million during the next four years and give up further claim to the UMC’s assets, according to the Council of Bishops. The council added that an additional $2 million would be allocated for any other new Methodist denominations that may emerge from the UMC.
Acknowledging the “historical role of the Methodist movement in systematic racial violence, exploitation and discrimination,” the Council of Bishops added that the protocol would allocate $39 million to ensure there is no disruption in supporting ministries for communities historically marginalized by racism.
Huffman said the news of the proposal was a “surprise” to her, as she received the news that morning from Bishop Paul L. Leeland of the Western North Carolina Conference. Leeland issued a statement after the announcement that included recommendations for faith leaders.
“Reflect rather than react,” Leeland said in the statement. “Be prayerful for the church. Remain objective. Since this is a negotiated proposal everyone is not entirely satisfied with the outcome, yet the denomination needs to look for the best solution to address its current impasse.”
Huffman said many clergy members are still processing the news and trying to plan how churches will move forward. With a membership of a little less than 1,500, Huffman said Boone UMC’s congregation has a variety of perspectives on this particular topic. Even with differing opinions, she said the church still lives out its mission to love the community and invite all to discover life in Christ.
Huffman said the original plan for Boone UMC was to wait until after Easter and then conduct congregational conversations to allow members to discuss, study, understand and process what the protocol could mean for the church. She said ultimately the decision of how Boone UMC moves forward is up to the church.
Rev. Brent Nidiffer, who served as a pastor in Avery County for more than a dozen years and currently serves as minister with both the Roan Mountain and Valley Forge United Methodist churches in neighboring Carter County, Tennessee, indicated the position of his congregations on the potential schism and its effect on his own ministry.
“We went through General Conference last February, and my position was that no matter what the global church decided, we would still be the church locally, and it wouldn’t really affect us,” Nidiffer said. “We will do what we always do. That’s been the position at both churches I serve, and we’re going to continue to do what we have done and be the church that we’re supposed to be that loves everybody.”
Nidiffer said he will follow The Book of Discipline as it states out the doctrinal positions, the practical theological applications for both the clergy and the church.
“That’s what the vote and debate is over, the wording and language that ‘The Book of Discipline’ lays out, and how it dictates how we as clergy operate, what we can and cannot do,” Nidiffer said. “For example, I cannot perform same-sex marriages as is written in ‘The Book of Discipline,’ so when I took my vows of ordination with the Methodist Church, I vowed that I would uphold ‘The Book of Discipline’ as it was, and cannot or would not go against what I had committed myself to in that regard.”
Should the church affirm by vote this May to agree to divide into separate Methodist branches, Nidiffer noted that he anticipates that his churches would not experience a significant change in their ecclesiastical polity.
“I think the word ‘schism’ is a good description of what may take place. Our churches are aligned on the more conservative side of things,” Nidiffer explained. “Our churches in Roan Mountain and Valley Forge would be more in line with the traditional Methodist framework. In a general sense, I believe a number of churches in the region would share that sentiment, but there may be a few churches within districts and conferences that align with a more progressive view.”
Regardless of the final verdict, Nidiffer stressed the importance of open dialogue and its significance on the ultimate outcome and future ramifications on the church on both a local and broader scale.
“It’s a very public conversation,” Nidiffer said. “The churches of the United Methodist Church are having a more broader, ongoing conversation, just as much of the nation of the United States is having a conversation and discussion on the societal level on LGBTQ issues and grappling with its reality in our society.”
Rev. Dan Brubaker, a retired minister with the Banner Elk United Methodist Church, is currently serving as the interim minister at the Minneapolis Methodist Church of Newland in Avery County. He said the news was something that has been expected.
“Hopefully, love will prevail, and even if we do split we can still be friends and still worship God together,” Brubaker said.
Pastor Ben Carson, serving at FaithBridge UMC in Blowing Rock, issued a letter to his congregation after the announcement. The letter stated that the church was planning to host an information session on the proposed protocol on Jan. 5.
“So what does this mean for FaithBridge? It means that we continue on the mission that God has given us — to build a bridge of faith through Christ for those who are disconnected from church,” Carson stated in the letter. “It means that we continue to live into the vision that God has given us — to love without limits. It means that we will continue to share the good news of God’s grace and love to our community and beyond.”
Since the protocol is merely a proposal at this time, Deerfield United Methodist Pastor Wes Austin said there wasn’t anything to make decisions about yet. He said any part or all of the proposal could change or be discarded, so the church would continue to fulfill its mission as a United Methodist congregation until it knew more.
Pastor David Lawrence of Jefferson United Methodist Church also wondered if the proposed protocol would look the same when it comes to a vote in May, as discussions from across the world will be had about the topic. Juston Smith, campus minister of the Wesley Foundation at Appalachian State University, presented similar sentiments, saying it was important to keep in mind that the protocol will not be decided upon until then.
Overall though, Lawrence said he liked the protocol proposal as it offered more of a “win-win” situation unlike the initial Special General Conference decision.
Lawrence added that the Western N.C. Conference of the Methodist Church has been like a family to him for around 40 years, and that their meetings often feel like family reunions.
“It makes me sad to think of my present and former churches drawing a line in the sand and separating from one another,” Lawrence said. “It saddens me to think of any of those churches splitting themselves. The win is that LGBTQ persons will have a church home in one of our denominations; they need a real family too.”
A livestream event is scheduled to take place at 9:30 a.m. on Jan. 13 to provide further clarity and explanations of the plan by members of the Mediation Team, according to the Council of Bishops.
Abby Whitt, Thomas Sherrill, Jamie Shell and Bailey Little contributed reporting to this article.