A group of pastors says it's time to consider breaking up The United Methodist Church, due to divisions over homosexuality and other issues. Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, UMNS.

By Sam Hodges | May 22, 2014| DALLAS (UMNS)

A group of United Methodist pastors and theologians is calling for an amicable split of the denomination, saying differences over homosexuality and other issues are irreconcilable.The group describes itself as traditionalist and says its ranks include more than 80 members, including pastors of some of the larger United Methodist congregations.“Are we not at a point where we can acknowledge, after years of dialogue and debate, the depth of our differences and together, progressives and traditionalists, give each other the freedom to pursue our understanding of God’s will?” the group said in its statement.

The group makes clear its support for the church’s current official positions on homosexuality, including that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, but says its disagreements with “progressives” go farther, including to whether the Bible is the infallible word of God.

“I don’t think we will ever agree on the issues that deeply divide us,” said the Rev. Chuck Savage, president of the Georgia United Methodist Foundation, in a press release accompanying the statement. “However, it is my hope that we will agree on a plan of separation that will serve both traditionalists and progressives well. My opinion is that if we can reach agreement on such a plan both progressives and traditionalists will emerge stronger.”

Talk of a breakup of the United Methodist Church is not new, and discussions at the 2004 General Conference led to passage of a unity resolution.

But the Rev. Tom Harrison, part of the group releasing the new statement, said recent clergy defiance of church law by performing same-sex unions convinced him that going forward as one denomination isn’t realistic.

“You can’t play that way,” said Harrison, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Okla., in a phone interview. “It’s chaos. My argument really is rooted in the violation of our covenant together, the Book of Discipline.”

Initial reaction to statement

The group’s statement has just begun to circulate, but was met with dismay by the Rev. James Howell, pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C.

“We manage to disagree on a great many things, as we do within our very own families, and we can still love and stay together,” said Howell, who offered an unsuccessful “agree to disagree” measure at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. “No such division will be a win-win. The fissures will be within congregations, and we will thus be irreparably weaker.”

The Rev. Scott Campbell, an outspoken advocate of changing the Book of Discipline regarding homosexuality, also expressed reservations.

“While I appreciate the tone of their statement, I am saddened that we have not tried every alternative that is available to us,” said Campbell, pastor of Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church in Cambridge, Mass. “Several proposals to restructure the church to allow greater autonomy within differing ministry contexts will be coming before General Conference in 2016.  I believe these are worth seriously considering and perhaps even attempting to implement before we take the drastic step of separation.”

The group calling for a split has had conference call talks, but has chosen no name and elected no leaders. Some members of the group are currently unwilling to be identified, but one who is, the Rev. Larry Baird, said he hopes a list of participants will be published this summer.

Baird thinks the next step is for the group to meet in person to begin to talk about how an amicable split might happen. He said he hoped that would lead to discussions with the other side.

“I, for one, would like to avoid the kind of situation that some of our other sister denominations have gone through — the bitter splits,” said Baird, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Grand Island, N.Y. “We’ve got to be able to do better than that, in my opinion. At least, I pray so.”

But the Rev. Bonnie Beckonchrist, board chair of Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial caucus which favors full inclusion of LGBT persons in the United Methodist Church, said even an amicable breakup would be costly.

“I believe people, individuals and congregations, will be hurt by such a split,” said Beckonchrist, a retired United Methodist pastor. “The differences we are talking about are located not only in our denomination, but within individual families and congregations. Sitting in the same pew are folks who differ on many things, but in healthy families and congregations grace abounds and love is what ultimately unites them.”

The group advocating a split has turned to Good News, an unofficial caucus that supports the church’s current stance on homosexuality, for help with communications.

But the group is not part of Good News and does not carry its endorsement, said the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, Good News’ vice president and general manager.

“We are definitely intrigued by the whole process,” Lambrecht said. “We’ve heard from various sectors of the church express the sentiment that separation may be the only way to resolve the deep division that’s in the church today.”

The group’s statement notes that division over homosexuality extends to the Council of Bishops.

San Francisco Area Bishop Warner H. Brown, Jr., president of the Council of Bishops, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the group’s statement.

Bishop Mike Lowry of the Central Texas Annual (regional) Conference, said, “We are struggling with transformation into a new form of connectionalism. All of us would do well to remember the promise ofJeremiah 29:11. I respect the integrity of those who have issued the statement as well as those who disagree. I call on all of us to prayerfully seek God’s guidance in matters of deep division.”

*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org

4 COMMENTS

  1. The comparison with how we deal with conflict in our “birth” families is very helpful. Lots of disagreements, but the family continues to stay connected. I had one brother who “gasp” became a Southern Baptist. For awhile, he thought that this denomination was perfect and all Methodists (with the exception of his mother) were wrong, wrong, wrong. Eventually, he learned that not all Southern Baptists were perfect and he became a bit easier to live with, as a brother, though I didn’t mind that we lived in different states and we didn’t have to talk theology very often. He died young, but when his Southern Baptist spouse died, she left instructions that I was to be asked to say a few words at the graveside service. So that tells you something about living “with grace” in our differences.

    I will be very disappointed if this denomination divides again over these issues. I would rather stay and study the issues together. But it does amaze me that educated United Methodists still hold to an infallible Bible. There needs to be lots of talking on that issue. I can’t remember what I said to my sister-in-law when one of her leaders said: “God does not listen to the prayers of Jews”. The only good thing that came out of that episode is that I decided to start preaching and teaching what I believed. The first month, an elderly woman came out of my congregation in Hana, Maui, Hawaii and said to me: “Young man, you just preached me back into the church.”
    That sustained me (being honest) for several years.

    And now, in retirement, I am able to say: “Sometimes, the Bible is just plain wrong”.

    And sometimes, the Bible was self-corrective and all of my eunuch friends are grateful.

    And one of the first converts, if not the first one, started the church in Ethiopia. And he was an eunuch. He knew “good news” when he heard it. Why does so-called “Good News” turn it into “bad news”? “Eunuchs and homosexuals” can’t come into the “holy of holies”. They have to listen at the door. They did it in Bible times and they do it today. I wonder why?

    Probably, if I were an eunuch or a homosexual, I would be long gone, as far as The United Methodist Church is concerned. But being who I am, I am going to stay around and keep the conversation going for awhile longer. And be supportive for those who feel forced to being silent for whatever reason.

  2. Now it is two years later and we are still together and having some of the same disagreements. A Lutheran Church in my town voted 80% to 20% to be exclusive and yet, after open discussion for one year, the United Methodist Church in that same town voted 98.04% to 1.06% to be inclusive of ALL persons. The difference?: the leadership! So if the United Methodist Church loses congregations and/or the entire denomination, it will come down to the leadership. Fortunately, at the 2016 General Conference, a majority of the delegates asked the Bishops to lead! It is a positive move and we have yet to see what the result will be.

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