Local United Methodist church leaders said a new proposal announced Friday to split America’s second largest Protestant denomination over opposing views about Scripture and human sexuality may carry more weight than previous ones.
According to the United Methodist Church’s official news agency, a group of 16 bishops and other church leaders from around the globe signed the proposal, titled “Protocol Of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation,” and vowed to work together to support its adoption by the denomination’s top legislative body at its annual conference in May.
“The United Methodist Church and its members aspire to multiply the Methodist mission in the world by restructuring the Church through respectful and dignified separation,” the proposal states. “The undersigned will continue to work together to develop legislation to implement the Protocol, to be voted upon and adopted by the 2020 General Conference of The United Methodist Church.”
The Rev. David Wiggs, senior minister at Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in downtown Tulsa, called the new proposal “a positive step forward” that would remove many of the existing barriers keeping traditionalist congregations from leaving and forming a new denomination as they wish.
“Previously, there were financial penalties in terms of leaving and whether or not you could retain your assets and buildings, so it would be very difficult to leave. This proposal eliminates the financial penalties. I think that makes it a much more likely process that would actually work for churches,” said Wiggs.
He said the fact that a diverse group of bishops came together to make this proposal sets it apart from other proposals that have emerged.
“That will carry a good deal of weight, I believe, above all of the other proposals that have come from other people, because of the fact that it has support from across the theological spectrum. What they are asking is it be given a priority place at the General Council in May, and I believe that will happen.”
Two of Tulsa’s largest and most influential churches have found themselves on opposite sides of the deep divide over the issue of human sexuality.
The Rev. Daniel Dennison, executive pastor at south Tulsa’s Asbury United Methodist Church, issued a written press statement on Friday saying “it is highly likely that at this year’s General Conference our denomination will officially split into two or more denominations.”
“This means that later this year Asbury will most likely be forced to make a decision on which direction we want to go,” Dennison stated. “We are considering several options, the most prominent of which would be to join a new expression of Methodism with other theologically orthodox Methodist churches. Other options include joining another theologically Wesleyan denomination or becoming an independent church. Our hope would be to remain with other Orthodox UMCs, but we plan to be thorough and look at all options.”
In November, Asbury hosted a global meeting of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the key organization fighting to retain so-called “traditional” values in the church. More than a thousand people attended the daylong gathering simulcast to 86 other sites around the world.
The global United Methodist Church has long struggled with differing views on Scripture and its implications for people of diverse sexual orientation in church leadership roles.
At a special meeting of the church’s top legislative body in February, delegates voted by a narrow margin to approve the “Traditional Plan,” which essentially leaves unchanged the church’s position on sexuality. It states: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
The Traditional Plan, which took effect Jan. 1, also provides penalties for clergy who perform same-sex wedding ceremonies, including a one-year suspension without pay for the first offense.
Wiggs has spoken out against the Traditional Plan, saying he is not only concerned about its effect on people of diverse sexual orientations but also on church leaders who do not abide by its requirements. He said he thinks the plan’s penalties violate the Methodist tradition of due process and strip pastors of their long-held authority to determine whose wedding ceremony they will conduct.
Boston Avenue has invited its members to attend a special worship session at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 1442 S. Quaker Ave., to “resist the Traditional Plan.”
“There are many things to celebrate and to look forward to in this new year. Unfortunately, as of January 1, we also have a new barrier to full inclusion in the church, as the policies of the Traditional Plan go into effect,” the church’s Facebook post states. “In this year, how will you be a part of resisting the harm of the Traditional Plan? How will you listen to the voices and testimonies of our LGBTQ friends? How will you be open to God’s love and step up in your faith?”
Similar worship sessions are planned for Sunday evening at 5:30 p.m. at Mosaic United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City and at 7 p.m. at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Lawton.
Meanwhile, Bishop James Nunn of the Oklahoma Conference of The United Methodist Church responded to the news Friday by issuing a written statement saying “the local church does not need to worry about division just yet.”
“The agreement itself is not an official plan included among the business of the 2020 General Conference. Several steps need to be taken before it can be considered for a vote,” Nunn said.
The Rev. Jessica Moffatt, lead pastor at downtown’s First United Methodist Church, sent church members a message on Friday echoing Nunn’s sentiments and accusing national and other local news outlets of inaccurately portraying the new proposal.
“‘The church’ did not release any such plan. A group of 16 people did. Only the General Conference of the United Methodist Church can vote on and release plans for the denomination. Our General Conference will not meet until May 2020. The ‘plan’ referred to in the articles has not been presented in any form to the voting body of the General Conference. The plan referred to in these articles and news stories will go through the voting process along with at least nine other suggested plans at General Conference in May. I know that you will keep our United Methodist Church in your prayers.”
In a statement to the Tulsa World, Moffatt, who will be a voting delegate to the General Conference meeting in May, said the proposal released Friday “was written by a small group of diverse people and is one plan among many plans that will be considered.”
“Because it was not submitted by the petition deadline, it will not even be in the pre-printed material sent to delegates,” Moffatt said. “It will have to be introduced to the floor of the General Conference by a parliamentary procedure action.”
She declined to comment about which side of the issue her church might come down on “until after the vote of the General Conference and after any vote is taken by our congregation.”