The United Methodist Church has proposed to split in order to resolve an impasse between two factions within the church that have not been able to agree on gay marriage and clergy. If passed, the proposal will restructure the church and create a new denomination for "traditionalist-minded congregations."
A 16-member group of bishops and church leaders signed the proposal in December and released the nine-page plan titled, "Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation," on January 3. If passed during the church's 2020 general conference, set for May 5-15 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the proposal will allow churches that disapprove of gay marriage and clergy to break off from the church.
"The United Methodist Church and its members — after careful reflection, discussion and prayer — have fundamental differences regarding their understanding and interpretation of Scripture, theology and practice," reads the proposal. The church leaders agreed 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."
Under the proposal, traditionalists forming a new denomination can continue to restrict same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay people as clergy, the United Methodist News Service reports. The new denomination will likely be formed through the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a conservative network of congregations that has long prepared for such a split.
New York Conference Bishop Thomas Bickerton, part of the group behind the proposal, told the news service "it became clear that the line in the sand had turned into a canyon" during the contentious 2019 general conference.
"The impasse is such that we have come to the realization that we just can't stay that way any longer," he added.
If formed and incorporated, the conservative denomination would get $25 million in United Methodist funds, can keep its local church properties, and all current clergy and lay employees of the denomination would be able to keep their pension plans.
The December proposal grew from discussions led by Bishop John K. Yambasu of Sierra Leone. Yambasu supports the Traditional Plan, one of several proposals considered during the 2019 Special General Conference, and believes marriage should be between a man and a woman. "As Africans we do not take kindly to the issue of homosexuals being ordained in the church... because we are United Methodists and that is what the book says we do," Yambasu said in a video posted by United Methodist in 2018.
The first openly gay United Methodist bishop, Karen Oliveto, told CBS Denver that the church's intent to split is personally heartbreaking. "I carry some sadness in this moment," she said.
According to Oliveto, however, the issue has been present since the faith's very beginning. "This has been growing in the United Methodist Church since 1972," she said. The contention began when progressives within the church took issue with a principal — listed in the foundation of the denominations values — that says the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
"At that point, we turned from a very grace-filled understanding of human sexuality to one of condemnation for a group of people," Oliveto said. "... (The traditionalists) adhere very closely to a — I would say — a more literal reading of scripture," she said. "(Progressives) look at it through a lens church tradition, reason, and human experience. And, I think our traditionalists more look toward the Bible, first and only."
"It is a huge moment in the life of our denomination," Oliveto said.