NEW YORK – Had there been no coronavirus pandemic, America’s largest mainline Protestant denomination would be convening this week for a likely vote to break up over differences on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ pastors.
Instead, the United Methodist Church was forced to postpone the potentially momentous conference, leaving its various factions in limbo for perhaps 16 more months. The deep doctrinal differences seem irreconcilable, but for now there’s agreement that response to the pandemic takes priority.
“The people who are really in trauma right now cannot pay the price of our differences,” said Kenneth Carter, the Florida-based president of the UMC’s Council of Bishops. “What is in our minds and hearts is responding to death, illness, grief, loss of work.”
The conference was to have taken place at the Minneapolis Convention Center starting Tuesday, running through May 15. Instead, bishops are proposing to hold it there Aug. 31-Sept. 10 of next year.
The differences have simmered for years, and came to a head in February 2019 at a conference in St. Louis where delegates voted 438-384 for a proposal strengthening bans on LGBTQ-inclusive practices. Most U.S.-based delegates opposed that plan and favored LGBTQ-friendly options; they were outvoted by U.S. conservatives teamed with most of the delegates from Methodist strongholds in Africa and the Philippines.
In the aftermath of that meeting, many moderate and liberal clergy made clear they would not abide by the bans, and various groups worked throughout 2019 on proposals to let the UMC split along theological lines.
There have been at least four different proposals for how to implement a split.
The most widely discussed plan has a long name -- the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation -- and some high-level support.
It was negotiated by 16 bishops and advocacy group leaders with differing views on LGBTQ inclusion. They were assisted by renowned mediator Kenneth Feinberg, who administered victim compensation funds stemming from the 9/11 attacks and the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Under the protocol, conservative congregations and regional bodies would be allowed to separate from the UMC and form a new denomination. They would receive $25 million in UMC funds and be able to keep their properties.
Formed in a merger in 1968, the UMC claims about 12.6 million members worldwide, including nearly 7 million in the United States. Leaders of the various factions have avoided making predictions of how many members might leave for a new denomination.
In hopes of minimizing friction, the protocol calls for a moratorium on enforcement of bans related to LGBTQ issues. Most bishops seem comfortable with that proposal, although Virginia-based Bishop Sharma Lewis approved initial disciplinary proceedings against a pastor in her region who officiated at a same-sex marriage.
There have been tangible benefits for one of the protocol negotiators, the Rev. David Meredith, who entered into a same-sex marriage with his long-time partner while serving as a pastor in Cincinnati.
The bishop of Meredith’s West Ohio region, Gregory Palmer, also served on the protocol team and endorsed the moratorium that freezes ongoing judicial proceedings against Meredith.
“Everything that has been a threat is now in a drawer collecting dust,” Meredith said.
Some conservatives worry that further flouting of the bans will occur ahead of the rescheduled national conference.
“For any clergy to try to use this interim to willfully violate their own vows … would demonstrate an extreme lack of integrity and self-control,” said John Lomperis, who works with the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy and will be a delegate at next year’s conference.
Lomperis is among a faction of UMC conservatives, now eager to form a new denomination, who worry that bishops supporting LGBTQ inclusion will use the delay to tilt outcomes in their favor during decision-making by regional bodies.
The Rev. Tom Lambrecht, general manager of the conservative Methodist magazine Good News, said he and his allies have heard of instances where liberal pastors were appointed to lead conservative congregations and where small conservative churches were closed.
“We will be vigilant to call out such behavior after the coronavirus crisis passes,” Lambrecht said via email.
Some conservatives complain that the proposed $25 million payment to a new traditionalist denomination is unfairly small.
But the Rev. Tom Berlin of Herndon, Virginia, a supporter of LGBTQ inclusion who served on the protocol team, says the proposal is generous in allowing departing churches to keep their property.
“The majority of the wealth in the UMC is found in the real estate and bank accounts of the local churches,” he said. “The protocol allows them to retain that.”
Berlin says debate over LGBTQ policies “is on the back burner for now.”
“Once we get out of this, we’ll get back to the future of the UMC,” he said. “But now, churches of all varieties are working to respond to this pandemic in positive ways.”
Support for the protocol is far from unanimous, though its backers predict it will win majority support next year. One dissenting faction, known as the “liberationists,” believes the proposal doesn't go far enough in curbing racism, sexism and anti-LGBTQ sentiment within the UMC.
A leaders of that faction, the Rev. Jay Williams of Union Church in Boston, hopes local churches will use the coming year to “innovate and adapt” without awaiting top-down directives.
“I hope that we might claim this moment as an opportunity to courageously confront the systemic oppressions that have plagued our denomination since its beginning,” he said via email.
When the conference does convene, the African delegates will be a key voting bloc. In St. Louis, they were pivotal in approving the strengthened bans on LGBTQ-inclusive practices.
The Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the conservative Wesleyan Covenant Association and one of the protocol negotiators, has met with many African delegates. He says they have pledged support for the protocol, but want some changes – for example, giving them the option of retaining the words “United Methodist” in the name of whatever new traditionalist body they join.
Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone, the lone African among the protocol negotiators, said the proposal was “by no means perfect” but seemed to be the most acceptable option.
In an email, he depicted the pandemic as “a holy call to action from God.... to make make Christian disciples for the transformation of the world.”