A negotiating team within the United Methodist Church has developed a plan for splitting the denomination, whose members had reached an impasse over whether to allow same-sex marriage and ordination of gay clergy.
The plan, announced Friday through the church’s news service, would allow congregations that lean toward the church’s “traditionalist” stance to spin off into a new denomination, taking $25 million from the denomination and keeping their local church properties.
The church said the proposal was drafted by a 16-member group of bishops and other church leaders with the help of Kenneth Feinberg, who led negotiations with the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The proposal would have to be approved at the meeting of the church’s governing body, called the General Conference, scheduled for May in Minneapolis.
The United Methodist Church claims 13 million members worldwide, including nearly 7 million in the U.S.
In North Carolina, the denomination is divided into two conferences, with more than 650,000 members as of 2010.
The majority of clergy and lay members of the United Methodist Church in Maine have supported the blessing of same-sex marriages and the ordination of noncelibate gay and lesbian clergy for years. In 2000, the Rev. Vicki Woods, now retired, was one of 191 people arrested at that year’s general conference while protesting the church’s stance against homosexuality.
In 2016, Woods came out publicly at the annual meeting of the conference, where some delegates called for the conference to leave the denomination because of its statement that homosexuality is inconsistent with Christian teaching.
“I stand for the first time to say that I, too, am incompatible with Christian teaching,” she said. “I’ve been a district superintendent, I’ve been a delegate; I’ve been a faithful pastor, but if I told the truth, I’ve been harmed. I’ve had to sit here and pretend that I’m somebody else. Some of you will think that I’ve lied to you, but today you need to know I love the church, I preach the Gospel and yet in truth today I tell you that I am one of your incompatible Christians. I don’t know what you want to do with me.”
Woods’ statement more than three years ago was greeted with applause, according to a report posted on the conference’s website.
The New England conference in May 2019 supported efforts for the church to be more inclusive.
Beth DiCocco, director of communications for the conference, called the separation agreement “significant.”
“The proposed protocol is a significant step, if for no other reason than it shows that a theologically and geographically diverse group of United Methodists can come together with mutual respect and reach consensus,” she said. “While we are encouraged to see this, we know that many questions remain, and much work needs to be done before the future path of the denomination is clear.”
The church has argued for decades over whether to allow the marriage of same-sex couples and the ordination of gay clergy. The denomination has barred both, and at a special General Conference last year voted to strengthen sanctions against churches that went against the rules.
Those rules were to go into effect this year, but will be postponed by Friday’s announcement.
Bishop Paul L. Leeland of the Western North Carolina Conference issued a statement Friday urging members to “Reflect rather than react. 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. ”
The proposal offers a path, Leeland said, that treats others with grace and respect.
“The primary question for me,” he wrote, “is how do we Glorify God and love others in our decisions? How can we be open to those who interpret and understand scripture differently as we worship God and serve neighbors while traveling along different paths of faithfulness?”
BDN writer Judy Harrison contributed to this report.