Recently at least eleven liberal United Methodist congregations in five different states, from the Deep South to the far North, have publicly announced that they are taking at least initial steps towards leaving the United Methodist Church. These moves are all being made directly in protest over our denomination’s continued official traditionalist policies on marriage and sexual morality. Eight of these eleven congregations are formally affiliated with the LGBTQ-liberationist Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN).
On September 8, members of Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church in Savannah, Georgia, voted by a whopping 309-7 to disaffiliate from the UMC.
Then on September 17, the church council of Central United Methodist Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina reportedly issued statements indicating its intentions to not remain affiliated with a denomination that maintains the UMC’s traditional biblical standards on marriage and sexual morality.
Then on September 26, nine New England congregations, located across Maine, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, announced that they have all begun a process of discerning whether or not to disaffiliate from our denomination, based on having thus far decided “that their understanding of human sexuality and God’s inclusive love is in direct and potentially irreconcilable conflict with the policies and practices of The United Methodist Church.”
Will Green, a prominent gay activist and provisional elder in the New England Conference currently serving one of these congregations, issued a press release on behalf of this group of nine, and the United Methodist News Service promptly published its own report.
Each of these eleven congregations has in various ways indicated that these matters will not be finalized before the May 2020 session of General Conference. However, there are plenty of indications that their resolve is much stronger than the church equivalent of blustery guys insincerely mouthing off in a bar.
The official announcement of Asbury Memorial UMC in Georgia makes clear that this was a formal vote taken of their congregation, that their district superintendent was there to facilitate the meeting, that over 97 percent of the voting members of this good-sized congregation voted “to become an independent church” rather than “remain United Methodist,” and that this was in direct protest over the 2019 General Conference’s adoption of the Traditional Plan.
This was much more than a rash, spur-of-the-moment decision. This congregation’s newsletter outlined how this step was taken in a rather deliberate manner in a formal “church conference” apparently convened per ¶248 of the UMC Discipline. Members were informed of the coming church conference and vote in an August letter. The church newsletter issue published before the vote dedicated five pages to preparing for it and provided contact information for the district superintendent for any concerned members to share questions or comments. Before the big vote, Asbury Memorial held multiple “informational sessions” and “discussion group opportunities.” Congregational leaders also counted the cost, openly telling members ahead of the vote that the price of their disaffiliating from the UMC would be $280,000, “due in the spring of 2020.”
For his part, Asbury Memorial UMC’s pastor, Billy Hester, admitted to his flock, “It became clear at the 2019 General Conference that due to the large number of delegates from overseas, this inclusion [he desired on LGBTQ liberation] will not happen as the denomination exists presently.”
So the lifelong Methodist declared, “I cannot in good conscience continue pastoring in a denomination that does not fully include LGBTQ people” and announced his intention to personally quit our denomination in June 2020. But he also expressed willingness to continue as the congregation’s pastor if they followed him out of the UMC, as they have now voted to do.
The New Englanders also appear to be pursuing this in a deliberate manner. Their press release reported that pastors as well as key laypeople from these nine congregations “have been meeting almost weekly since April 2019.”
One key factor for them is that at its 2019 annual conference session, the New England Conference added a harsh new policy of imposing heavy burdens, on top of those already specified in the 2019 General Conference’s Gracious Exit policy, to make it much more difficult for any congregation to leave. (These New England burdens are presently being appealed to the Judicial Council.) Perhaps this group of nine would have been joined by a larger number of other like-minded congregations if it were not for this heavy-handed New England Conference policy, which includes requiring congregations considering disaffiliation to first “undergo a discernment process of not less than eight months.” While these congregations have made clear that they have not finalized any decisions, their willingness to take the first steps in the disaffiliation process even knowing all the barriers thrown in their way suggests a genuine depth of commitment to their values that may be even more important to them than keeping the “United Methodist” name.
The New England congregations shared in their press release that their goal is “to embody the values and commitments articulated in a proclamation entitled ‘Loved and Liberated,’ released in May 2019 by a group called UM-Forward.” This “Loved and Liberated” manifesto, about which we have previously reported, features talk of “the Queer Christ,” stating “The greatest threat to queer liberation is centrism, not conservatism,” and making it very clear that it is “non-negotiable” for this manifesto’s signers in which there is no room for clergy and congregations who are not affirming of homosexual practices.
With such commitments, Green told United Methodist News Service that these congregations were coming to see that “we might have irreconcilable differences and it’s time to go.” We previously reported on Green’s calling for his liberal-dominated annual conference to boycott the 2020 General Conference by refusing to send delegates.
As for Central UMC in South Carolina, this congregation’s leadership is not emphasizing potential disaffiliation as much in the forefront.
Pastor Tom Norrell, expressed hope to one media outlet that the 2020 General Conference would result in “adopting the ‘One Church Plan,’” the plan rejected at the 2019 General Conference which would have liberalized the denomination’s policies on homosexuality to a significantly greater degree than the liberalizing changes which split apart the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Presbyterian Church (USA).
However, Central UMC’s lay leader, Dr. John Simmons, made clear, “If the General Conference does not reverse the decision made in February 2019,” then the congregation “will seek affiliation with a more affirming, more welcoming connection.”
The Central UMC church council as a whole reportedly declared, “If great progress is not made in eliminating hurtful language toward LGBTQ+ people and if the United Methodist Church doesn’t move dramatically toward more inclusion of LGBTQ+ people at General Conference 2020, the Church Council of Central United Methodist Church will recommend that the congregation vote to ‘disaffiliate’ with the U.M.C” (emphases added). While acknowledging a range of possibilities, this same statement continued, “Whatever the mechanism, the Church Council wishes for Central to follow the most inclusive option available at the close of General Conference 2020.”
In another recent interview, Norrell observed “a feeling of urgency” among some liberal United Methodists, such that “a lot of the progressives are going to be leaving as institutions or individuals” if the denomination does not officially liberalize its sexuality standards soon. Norrell described the Traditional Plan as provoking a “crisis” in his own congregation, in which “we had some progressives tell us if we didn’t make a statement they would consider leaving.” While acknowledging reluctance about leaving the United Methodist Church, Norrell cited liberals following their conscience with regard to standards on marriage and sexuality as ultimately a greater value.
These are just eleven liberal United Methodist congregations of which there have been recent, confirmed public reports that I have personally seen. While I am generally not invited into private discussions among liberal activists, I expect that no one has a precise statistical measurement on the extent to which such conversations are happening in other liberal congregations. The aforementioned UM Forward group now has an online survey for liberal United Methodist individuals and congregations considering leaving the UMC. But it is not clear how much of the intended audience is even aware of this survey.
Some annual conferences, including South Georgia and Michigan, have recently moved to adopt their own policies for congregations disaffiliating from the denomination. The core of such policies may remain in some annual conferences, regardless of what happens with recent questions about the legal status of the Gracious Exit legislation passed by the 2019 General Conference.
I have previously reported on how ten of our denomination’s most liberal U.S. annual conferences, including New England, have recently begun exploring leaving the denomination as entire annual conferences. In that article, I begged readers to take a gracious attitude, and avoid such ugly loveless rhetoric as telling adherents of potentially departing churches “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” – whether it is liberals saying that to departing traditionalists or vice-versa.
As we continue to move toward a parting of ways, the same caution against being ugly to each other, and horrible witnesses to a watching world, applies just as much here.