Bulgaria-Romania United Methodists vote to leave

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United Methodist Bishop Patrick Streiff (right) leads the March 31 session of the Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference, with help from the Rev. Margarita Todorova, interpreter, and the Rev. Tsvetan Iliev, conference secretary. Later in the four-day meeting, conference members voted unanimously to leave The United Methodist Church for the new, traditionalist Global Methodist Church, which begins operations May 1. Photo courtesy of the Bulgaria-Romania Conference. 
United Methodist Bishop Patrick Streiff (right) leads the March 31 session of the Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference, with help from the Rev. Margarita Todorova, interpreter, and the Rev. Tsvetan Iliev, conference secretary. Later in the four-day meeting, conference members voted unanimously to leave The United Methodist Church for the new, traditionalist Global Methodist Church, which begins operations May 1. Photo courtesy of the Bulgaria-Romania Conference.

Key points

  • The Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Conference voted to leave The United Methodist Church for the Global Methodist Church, a traditionalist denomination that begins operations May 1.
  • The conference’s episcopal leader, Bishop Patrick Streiff, ruled that the disaffiliation resolution did not accord with church law and could not be voted on.
  • Conference members elected another presider and voted unanimously for the disaffiliation resolution.
  • The chair of the Transitional Leadership Council of the Global Methodist Church said Bulgaria-Romania will be received as an annual conference.

The Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference has voted to leave The United Methodist Church and join the Global Methodist Church when that new, traditionalist denomination begins operations on May 1.

Over their bishop’s objection to the process, Bulgaria-Romania conference members unanimously approved a disaffiliation resolution on April 1, during the conference’s annual session, held in Varna, Bulgaria.

The resolution speaks of “the current crisis of The United Methodist Church” and describes the Global Methodist Church as one that “upholds the authority of Scripture and seeks to live in obedience to the Lord’s commands, as we understand them.”

Bishop Patrick Streiff of the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe oversees the Bulgaria-Romania Conference and in an April 7 statement said the vote to leave was taken “without legal basis in the (United Methodist) Book of Discipline.”

Though bishops preside at annual conference sessions, Streiff said the members went around him, electing a clergy member to preside for the vote to disaffiliate. 

Streiff said Romanian United Methodists indicated later through their superintendent that they would work with him toward a “respectful and peaceful agreement for leaving the church in the course of this year.”

But Streiff said the new superintendent of Bulgarian United Methodists, the Rev. Krasimir Madzharov, plans to implement the disaffiliation resolution, which would mean joining the Global Methodist Church on May 1.

“I deeply regret that the church in Bulgaria was not willing to follow the church order for leaving The United Methodist Church and decided to cut all ties towards the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe,” Streiff said. “With the UMC in Romania, I will continue to work for a mutually respectful way of leaving The United Methodist Church.”

Madzharov declined an interview request, saying Bulgarian United Methodists want to stick to a press release they issued, giving their account of the meeting. The Rev. Rares Calugar, superintendent for United Methodists in Romania, could not be reached immediately.

In response to United Methodist News’ questions about whether he would contest the Bulgarians’ move, Streiff said all he can say for now is that a decision of law he made during the session will go to the Judicial Council for review — and that he asked for expedited consideration.

The Judicial Council — The United Methodist Church’s top court — could rule Streiff was right that the disaffiliation was done improperly. But members’ strong desire to leave is made clear in the disaffiliation resolution, which calls for changing articles of incorporation, retaining properties and swiftly coming under the Global Methodist Church.

David W. Scott, who oversees the blog UM & Global, wrote in an April 8 post: “The Central and Southern Europe Central Conference may have little recourse to opposing the decision and little incentive to fight a unanimous decision by the annual conference.”

Bulgaria has just under 1,200 United Methodists in 30 churches, with 18 active clergy, according to the website of the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe. The website reports that The United Methodist Church in Romania has 30 members, three clergy and three churches. (The Rev. Cristian Istrate, a United Methodist pastor in Romania, described those numbers as out-of-date and said United Methodist ministries reach hundreds in that country.) 

Though the Bulgarian-Romania Conference is small, its move to disaffiliate may be seen as a harbinger, given the uncertainty and tumult facing the 13-million-member United Methodist Church.

For decades, the denomination has had internal division over theology and biblical interpretation, including how accepting to be of LGBTQ people. Though the denomination’s bans on same-sex marriage and ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” remain, opposition to them, particularly in the U.S., has intensified.

The proposed Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation — unveiled in early 2020 by a diverse group of church leaders — would let traditionalist United Methodist churches leave with their properties and form a new denomination. United Methodist conferences also could leave for the new denomination, under conditions laid out in the plan. And the new denomination would get $25 million to start.

But the 2020 General Conference at which the protocol was to be considered has been delayed three times, due to the pandemic. The United Methodist Church’s next lawmaking assembly isn’t scheduled until 2024.

Meanwhile, traditionalist United Methodists have announced they will go ahead and launch the Global Methodist Church on May 1. With the extended delay of General Conference and consideration of the protocol, the pace of local church disaffiliations has quickened, as has discussion of conferences departing.

The Council of Bishops has asked the Judicial Council, the denomination’s high court, questions related to the process for U.S. conference disaffiliation.

The Bulgaria-Romania Conference resolution states that the conference is not leaving under Paragraph 572 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline, which spells out how an annual conference in Europe, Africa and the Philippines can become “an autonomous Methodist, affiliated autonomous Methodist or affiliated united church.”

In their press release, Bulgaria-Romania Conference members said Paragraph 33 of the Book of Discipline (establishing the annual conference as the basic body in the church) and Judicial Council Decision 1366 have established a basic right for a conference to vote to separate.

“It is true that the General Conference has not defined the procedures and conditions of how such a vote can be exercised but this cannot be an instance for the annual conference to not take advantage of this possibility,” the press release said.

Streiff, in his statement, said he told the conference members that the disaffiliation they sought could only be done under Paragraph 572, which spells out a lengthy, multi-step process, including approval by General Conference.

Streiff said that when members challenged his ruling, he explained that “the question before us becomes a question of law that I will submit to the Judicial Council” — and that no vote on the resolution could come until the court ruled.

However, Streiff said “members then continued the meeting without my presiding,” choosing the Rev. Daniel Topalski, former superintendent of the Bulgarian United Methodist Church, to preside.

The disaffiliating group’s press release essentially affirms Streiff’s account, saying members unanimously approved a motion to suspend the rules and then chose Topalski as temporary presiding officer.

Topalski is the president of the Eastern European Regional Chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, which has led the planning of the new denomination.

Though Streiff said the Bulgarians and Romanians are now on a different timetable for disaffiliation, the Global Methodist Church will receive the Bulgaria-Romania Conference on May 1, said the Rev. Keith Boyette. He chairs the Transitional Leadership Council of the Global Methodist Church and is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

“Unless they indicate otherwise, once the churches and clergy affirm their commitment to the Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline of the Global Methodist Church, the churches in the annual conference will be recognized as member congregations and the clergy in the annual conference will be received as ordained elders, ordained deacons, and persons who are in preparation for ordination,” Boyette said.

He added that “the Bulgaria-Romania Annual Conference will be among the first annual conferences to align with the Global Methodist Church,” but he did not name any other conferences.

Romania borders Ukraine, and Romanian United Methodists have been deeply involved in refugee relief work since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected] To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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