View of the stage during the United Methodist Church’s special session General Conference inside the Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis, Missouri, on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019. | United Methodist News Service/Kathleen Barry
Five United Methodist Church leaders who previously backed a measure to create a gracious exit for congregations tired of the denomination’s longstanding debate over homosexuality have withdrawn their support following the launch of the Global Methodist Church.
The five leaders released a statement on Tuesday declaring that the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” they supported two years ago “no longer offers a viable path forward, particularly given the long delays, the changing circumstances within the United Methodist Church, and the formal launch of the Global Methodist Church in May of this year.”
“Moreover, bishops and church leaders in the Central Conferences, especially in Africa and the Philippines, have consistently voiced serious misgivings about the Protocol and its potentially disruptive impacts in their geographical regions,” read the statement.
“Given the growing opposition to the Protocol within the constituencies we represent, the dwindling support among General Conference delegates, and the serious reservations of Central Conference leaders, we can no longer in good faith support the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace through Separation or work towards its adoption at the next General Conference.”
Over the past several years, the UMC has faced a divisive internal debate over whether to change its official stance opposing the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of noncelibate LGBT individuals.
In January 2020, a group of 16 UMC leaders of diverse theological backgrounds serving as an unofficial mediation group announced the proposed separation protocol that would have provided a pathway for churches who want to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church over theological differences.
Those who signed the statement withdrawing their support include the Rev. Thomas Berlin of the LGBT advocacy group UMCNext, the Rev. Egmedio Equila, Jr. of the Philippines Central Conference, Janet Lawrence of the LGBT advocacy group Reconciling Ministries Network, the Rev. David Meredith of the UM Queer Clergy Caucus and longtime LGBT advocate, and UMC layperson Randall Miller.
The five leaders said that while they have stopped supporting the protocol, they remain committed to some of its “most essential provisions.” These include finding better ways for dissenting congregations to disaffiliate from the UMC, a call to strengthen financial support for minority-centered ministries, and a continued suspension of Book of Discipline punishments for those who violate the Book of Discipline’s rules.
A group of seven UMC bishops who participated in mediation and signed the protocol released a letter Thursday that reaffirms their support for the proposed measure. They say the proposal is “now in legislative form and is the appropriate discernment of the delegates to the upcoming General Conference.”
“As signatories of the Protocol, we continue to affirm this work which came to us through the leadership and sacrificial gift of Kenneth Feinberg and his colleagues,” stated the bishops.
“We are united in respect for our colleagues who are led to step away from the Protocol, and pray that we will continue to explore ways to celebrate the ministry of The United Methodist Church even as we work for an amicable separation with those who chose to depart from our fellowship.”
The bishops say they affirm “the way the abeyance has reduced the harm of individuals in our administrative and judicial processes and the future deliberation on the repair of the whole church through resources channeled toward dismantling racism and colonialism.”
Among its provisions, the protocol includes a provision to set aside $25 million for conservative Methodists to create a new denomination in which they could join instead of continuing the debate with theological liberals.
By March 2020, three regional bodies — the Michigan Annual Conference, the Philippines Conference and the Sierra Leone Conference — had voted to send the protocol to General Conference for consideration. The Philippines and Sierra Leone conferences expressed overt support.
The UMC General Conference, the churchwide gathering that votes on denominational legislation, was initially scheduled to take place in May 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, the General Conference was postponed multiple times. It’s slated to take place in 2024.