Amicable breakup of UMC needed, pastor group says

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A group of United Methodist pastors and theologians is calling for an amicable split of the denomination, saying differences over homosexuality and other issues are irreconcilable.

The group describes itself as traditionalist and says its ranks include more than 80 members, including pastors of some of the larger United Methodist congregations.

“Are we not at a point where we can acknowledge, after years of dialogue and debate, the depth of our differences and together, progressives and traditionalists, give each other the freedom to pursue our understanding of God’s will?” the group said in its statement.

Slideshow: Talk of division not new for The United Methodist Church

A group of pastors says it's time to consider breaking up The United Methodist Church, due to divisions over homosexuality and other issues.

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The group makes clear its support for the church’s current official positions on homosexuality, including that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, but says its disagreements with “progressives” go farther, including to whether the Bible is the infallible word of God.

“I don't think we will ever agree on the issues that deeply divide us,” said the Rev. Chuck Savage, president of the Georgia United Methodist Foundation, in a press release accompanying the statement. “However, it is my hope that we will agree on a plan of separation that will serve both traditionalists and progressives well. My opinion is that if we can reach agreement on such a plan both progressives and traditionalists will emerge stronger.”

Talk of a breakup of the United Methodist Church is not new, and discussions at the 2004 General Conference led to passage of a unity resolution.

But the Rev. Tom Harrison, part of the group releasing the new statement, said recent clergy defiance of church law by performing same-sex unions convinced him that going forward as one denomination isn’t realistic.

“You can’t play that way,” said Harrison, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Okla., in a phone interview. “It’s chaos. My argument really is rooted in the violation of our covenant together, the Book of Discipline.”

Initial reaction to statement

The group’s statement has just begun to circulate, but was met with dismay by the Rev. James Howell, pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C.

“We manage to disagree on a great many things, as we do within our very own families, and we can still love and stay together,” said Howell, who offered an unsuccessful “agree to disagree” measure at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. “No such division will be a win-win. The fissures will be within congregations, and we will thus be irreparably weaker.”

The Rev. Scott Campbell, an outspoken advocate of changing the Book of Discipline regarding homosexuality, also expressed reservations.

“While I appreciate the tone of their statement, I am saddened that we have not tried every alternative that is available to us,” said Campbell, pastor of Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church in Cambridge, Mass. “Several proposals to restructure the church to allow greater autonomy within differing ministry contexts will be coming before General Conference in 2016.  I believe these are worth seriously considering and perhaps even attempting to implement before we take the drastic step of separation.”

The group calling for a split has had conference call talks, but has chosen no name and elected no leaders. Some members of the group are currently unwilling to be identified, but one who is, the Rev. Larry Baird, said he hopes a list of participants will be published this summer.

Baird thinks the next step is for the group to meet in person to begin to talk about how an amicable split might happen. He said he hoped that would lead to discussions with the other side.

“I, for one, would like to avoid the kind of situation that some of our other sister denominations have gone through — the bitter splits,” said Baird, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Grand Island, N.Y. “We’ve got to be able to do better than that, in my opinion. At least, I pray so.”

But the Rev. Bonnie Beckonchrist, board chair of Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial caucus which favors full inclusion of LGBT persons in the United Methodist Church, said even an amicable breakup would be costly.

“I believe people, individuals and congregations, will be hurt by such a split,” said Beckonchrist, a retired United Methodist pastor. “The differences we are talking about are located not only in our denomination, but within individual families and congregations. Sitting in the same pew are folks who differ on many things, but in healthy families and congregations grace abounds and love is what ultimately unites them.”

The group advocating a split has turned to Good News, an unofficial caucus that supports the church’s current stance on homosexuality, for help with communications.

But the group is not part of Good News and does not carry its endorsement, said the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, Good News’ vice president and general manager.

“We are definitely intrigued by the whole process,” Lambrecht said. “We’ve heard from various sectors of the church express the sentiment that separation may be the only way to resolve the deep division that’s in the church today.”

The group’s statement notes that division over homosexuality extends to the Council of Bishops.

San Francisco Area Bishop Warner H. Brown, Jr., president of the Council of Bishops, issued a statement about the group’s effort.

"Everyone is tired of the rancorous debate that has roiled within our church for the last forty years," Brown said. "But, while I appreciate all sincere efforts to resolve this conflict, I do not believe that most United Methodists would prefer a schism. Most of us continue to value our common Wesleyan heritage and mission. Despite our differences, we remain united in our purpose to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I am prayerful and convinced we can find a way forward that will keep us united as a family of faith. Among United Methodists there are a diversity of opinions on a number of social issues including human sexuality and same-gender marriage. We are not all of one mind. But we do not have to think alike to work together on the mission God has given us."

 *Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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