United Methodists face possible denomination split - BlueStone Press
June 2, 2020

United Methodists face possible denomination split

Pastor Berninger offers perspective

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The United Methodists are back in the news, this time with a proposed plan to divide the denomination in response to vote to adhere to the proposed Traditional Plan moving forward, which imposed stricter rules surrounding the exclusion of the LGBTQ community. To recap, at the 2018 national general conference of the United Methodist Church held in St Louis, Missouri, several plans for the denomination moving forward were presented, including the Traditional Plan and the One Church Plan.

In the Traditional Plan, the church’s current bans on ordaining LGBTQ clergy or officiating same-sex marriages is upheld, with stronger language (for example, “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” – as reported by Religion News) and a stricter checks-and-balances system to be put in place for insuring the rules are upheld.   

Under the proposed One Church Plan, more autonomy would be given to individual congregations, allowing individual churches and regional annual conferences to decide whether to ordain and marry LGBTQ members. 

In a surprise upset, the Traditional Plan won by a slim margin – 438 to 384 (UMC.org). The results caused an uproar in the community, with clergy on both sides of the issue passionately speaking out on the issue and forecasting a coming schism, including local ministry.

Pastor Caroline Berninger of the Rondout Valley United Methodist Church expressed in the May 24 edition of the BlueStone Press that she felt “it’s quite likely that in the next year or two there will be a proposed division of the current denomination between more conservative and more centrist and progressive, and it will be up to regional divisions to decide where we go. It’s my feeling that RVMC would opt for a more centrist, progressive way.” 

On Jan. 3  the United Methodist Church announced their intention to defer implementing the stricter sanctions associated with the Traditional Plan until the proposed plan to divide the denominations was either approved or denied by the Judicial Council at the United Methodist quadrennial General Conference, which is being held in Minneapolis this May. The proposed agreement to split was brokered by mediation expert Kenneth Feinberg (who handled the compensation fund for victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks). As part of the agreement, $25 million would be allocated to the new denomination (the one in keeping with the Traditional Plan) but would forgo any portion of profits derived from United Methodist assets. Churches on a local level who wish to join the new Traditional Plan-oriented denominations would be required to vote on the decision within a time frame to be specified. Those who drafted the plan stated that they believe that the division was “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.”

Berninger is untroubled by the unrest and says that it is not unusual in church history.

“From its beginnings in 18th-century England, Methodism has engaged with just about any theological and social issue of the day,” she said. “Several years ago some RVUMC members and I did a brief study focusing on the UMC's ‘Social Principles’ (reviewed by the denomination's General Conference every four years and addressing just about any ‘hot button’ issue you could name), and people were really glad to see how the church has honestly and prayerfully wrestled with the complexities of life.

“Life in England in the 1700s, and in the U.S. in the 2000s, is very different from 1st century Galilee, and it's always going to be a challenge for present-day Christians to come to grips with how we believe Jesus would have us respond to what's happening in TODAY's world,”

Berninger said. “Context matters! The church's decades-long conflict over matters of human sexuality is the latest in a long history of issues that have divided people of faith. The prospect of a split is sad, but not shocking; and the prospect of a prayerfully, thoughtfully mediated split is actually something of a relief.”

While most feel that the likelihood is high that the plan will be approved, Berninger is not as confident. “Predicting what will happen at General Conference is kind of like predicting the outcome of the presidential election – there are more ways to get it wrong than right,” she said. “My initial feeling is that this proposed ‘protocol of reconciliation and grace through separation’ is somewhat more likely to be supported by the wider church than other proposed plans, but I could be completely wrong. And, in the meantime – we at RVUMC will keep on trying to love God and neighbor here in Stone Ridge, in 2020. Happy New Year!”

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