ATLANTA —Five years ago, the Rev. Charles W. Savage II joined more than 80 other United Methodist Church pastors and theologians from around the nation in thoughtful conversations and prayer for an amicable separation between progressives and traditionalists.
The denomination had reached a crossroads years earlier over a number of issues; most divisive were human sexuality and same-sex marriage.
Savage, pastor-in-charge at Atlanta’s Sardis United Methodist Church and then president of the Georgia United Methodist Foundation, knew it would take a lot to bridge the schism. He also knew it wasn’t likely to happen.
On Jan. 1, a plan upholding —and actually strengthening —prohibitions against the ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ clergy and performing same-sex marriages is scheduled to take effect.
“Some churches are going to disaffiliate, whether we reach an amicable separation agreement or not,” Savage said. “If you look across the national landscape of what has already happened, you’ll find churches that have already disaffiliated with the UMC and several colleges have disaffiliated and others have put out statements of similar intent. We just have to wait until Jan. 1 to see what happens. My prayer is that we find an amicable way to allow people to go wherever they want to go. We can then spend our energy on sharing the good news of Jesus.”
United Methodists represent one of the largest mainline denominations with more than 12 million members worldwide, including nearly 7 million in the U.S. and more than 467,000 United Methodists in Georgia.
It’s not known how many United Methodists in Georgia have left the denomination over the issue. Some have vowed to stay and change things from the inside. Others are tired of years of contention.
“While this is important business in our denomination, the local churches and members of churches are busy with the even more important business of being the church,” said Sybil Davidson, a spokeswoman for the North Georgia Conference of the UMC. “A congregation recently opened as a cold-weather shelter on nights the temperature is below freezing, a small church just launched a dinner service in a low-income community, a church just paid off the layaway balance for 23 families this Christmas, so the work of ministry goes on.”
Some are waiting to see what happens on Jan. 1 and in the months leading up to and the days during the 2020 General Conference, which will be held May 5-15 in Minneapolis.
The General Conference, the top decision-making body of the United Methodist Church, is a global gathering and meets every four years.
There are 862 delegates to the 2020 General Conference from around the world. Half are laity and half are clergy. The North Georgia Conference has 22 delegates.
“Any United Methodist can submit legislation to be considered,” said Davidson. “Matters of human sexuality and the unity of the church will definitely be before this General Conference.”
In late February 2019, delegates at a specially called General Conference approved the strengthened Traditional Plan, and the United Methodist Church’s judicial arm largely upheld parts of the plan in April.
Anne Burkholder, associate dean of Methodist Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, doesn’t expect the strengthened Traditional Plan to hold.
“Some churches are leaving the denomination,” Burkholder said to emailed questions. “It hasn’t happened in great numbers because it takes substantial financial outlay up front in order to leave and a vote of the particular congregation’s members. There is currently still some controversy over whether this vote will be a simple majority or two-thirds. There is still a wait and see approach re(garding) the 2020 GC, concerns over the nature of the financial outlay and property rules, and a final decision as to whether or not to become an independent congregation or join another group such as the ‘WCA’ or Wesleyan Covenant Association.”
The Ohio-based WCA prefers the more traditional, conservative aspects of Methodism.
Just recently, in a warning shot of sorts, the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC —which includes churches in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Guam and other territory in the Pacific region —said it would not “yield to a plan that replaces grace with punishment and that abandons robust engagement of Scripture to biblical literalism.”
There are several plans for disaffiliation that are currently being studied, including the Indianapolis Plan and the UMNext plan, which calls for a way to repeal some of the restrictions but keep the denomination together and allow “for a graceful exit.”
“We should be about the business of telling people about the love of Christ and making disciples,” Savage said. “This is occupying too much of our energy.”
The Book of Discipline, which lays out laws for United Methodists to follow, considers homosexuality to be incompatible with Christianity and that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” cannot be ordained as ministers, appointed to serve or be married in the church. Currently, if a United Methodist pastor performs a same-sex marriage, charges will be brought against him or her within the church, and they would lose their credentials.
Under the plan going into effect Jan. 1, any clergy who perform a same-sex wedding will face a minimum one-year suspension without pay for the first offense and a loss of credentials for the second.