General Conference delegates should be in no rush to approve a new process for churches to depart the denomination, say leaders of the Uniting Methodists.
The unofficial advocacy group, which formed in 2017 with the goal of keeping The United Methodist Church together, is urging delegates to the special session to refer all exit-plan petitions to the regularly scheduled 2020 General Conference.
The special session of the denomination's top legislative assembly, which meets Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis, aims to set the denomination’s direction on the potentially church-splitting debate around homosexuality.
“We really feel the leading of the Spirit to bear witness to the possibility of continuing to be bound together in a common mission, a common tradition, a common theological core, to be the body of Christ,” said the Rev. James A. Harnish on behalf of the group’s coordinating committee. Now retired, he was the longtime pastor of Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, Florida.
Working to keep the church together is biblical, he added, pointing to Paul’s call in Ephesians 4:3 “to make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit.”
Long-simmering tensions over the denomination’s stance on homosexuality — including bans on same-sex unions and ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy — boiled over at the 2016 General Conference. Delegates asked the bishops to form a commission to help the church find a way forward together and call a special General Conference to take up any proposals.
Molly McEntire, a group member and chair of the Florida Conference’s General Conference delegation, said she and fellow delegates would have enough on their plate without getting into the exit petitions.
“The whole point of this General Conference is to find a way forward — not to split, not to go our separate ways — but to find a way forward,” she said. “I think that’s our main task.”
The Uniting Methodists group is also advocating that delegates adopt the One Church Plan, one of multiple proposals up for consideration. That plan leaves questions of whether to allow same-gender weddings up to individual churches and clergy, where such unions are legal. The plan leaves LGBTQ ordination up to individual conferences.
Harnish said members of Uniting Methodists have their own convictions on marriage and ordination but they believe that despite differences, “we can be the body of Christ together.”
Mainstream UMC, an unofficial advocacy group that works closely with Uniting Methodists, also is urging a delay in considering exit plans until 2020. “How can we talk about exit without first acting on the report and giving unity a chance?” asked the Rev. Mark Holland, the group’s founder, in an emailed newsletter.
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s policy book, has a process for churches to leave now but it requires negotiation between churches and their conferences. The 1796 General Conference instituted the trust clause, which prevents churches from simply leaving and taking United Methodist property with them
Five individual petitions to the 2019 General Conference contain proposals for a “graceful” or “gracious” exit that would put the denomination’s trust clause on hold while churches and members decide whether they can live with church policies related to homosexuality.
In September, a theologically diverse group of United Methodists in the West Ohio Conference released an open letter urging General Conference to prioritize approving an exit plan for churches.
Two of those letter contributors — the Revs. Mike Slaughter and Doug Damron — are also part of the Uniting Methodists’ coordinating committee.
Slaughter, a General Conference delegate, said he doesn’t think discerning a just exit plan should top the agenda but should definitely be part of what’s under consideration.
“I want to do whatever to keep the majority of us together, and we need to look at that first,” he said. “And then we need to look at, if that doesn’t work for some, how there can be a gracious, just exit.”
Damron, another General Conference delegate, said not all Uniting Methodists are of one mind on how to handle exits.
“Just speaking for myself, I think it would be helpful to have an exit provision accompanying the One Church Plan,” he said. “However, I am also aware of the need for us to walk together if we hope to pass the One Church Plan so I do intend to support the move to deal with a gracious exit in 2020.”
Other unofficial advocacy groups see deviating from church teachings on sexual ethics as necessarily church dividing.
The Renewal and Reform Coalition includes unofficial advocacy groups that support the Traditional and the related Modified Traditional plans. Together, those proposals beef up enforcement of church restrictions related to homosexuality. They also require conferences and bishops to certify they will uphold the rules to remain part of the church.
In addition to these plans, the coalition urges the 2019 General Conference to pass an exit plan.
“From my perspective, adding an exit path is part of resolving the conflict in our denomination,” said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of coalition member Good News.
“It signals a willingness to let those who cannot because of conscience live by our Book of Discipline leave the denomination. It is unfair and does great harm to force congregations that can no longer live within the covenant of our church to stay in that relationship.”
The Wesleyan Covenant Association, another coalition member, has made clear it wants the rules upheld or the church should prepare for a split. The group also has made plans to deal with the possibility if its leaders deem such a split necessary.
“Delay and referral of the exit petitions to the 2020 General Conference unnecessarily prolongs the conflict,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, the association’s president. “Permitting the conflict to continue will further demoralize the church and produce missional paralysis.”
He said the WCA urges the delegates to act on the exit petitions as the first legislative matter so that a just exit process will be available regardless of which plan is adopted.
McEntire of the Florida Conference urges United Methodists to stop and think about the impact if the denomination divides. She pointed to the hospitals the denomination funds and the disaster relief the church provides when hurricanes strike.
“Stop and think about the fact that we literally have people who are alive because of The United Methodist Church,” McEntire said.
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.