You may have seen recent stories about the United Methodist Church (UMC) getting ready to split over fundamental differences regarding beliefs on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ clergy. Although the split has not yet occurred, it’s highly likely it will start that process to separate following the UMC’s General Conference in Minneapolis this May. At that conference a “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation” will be submitted for consideration and approval.
UMC is a mainline Protestant denomination with over 12 million members worldwide. There are over 1,500 Protestant denominations with over 1,000 in North America. The present UMC denomination was formed in 1968 in Dallas, Texas when the Methodist Episcopal Churches and Evangelical United Brethren Churches merged. In Sonoma County there are eight UMC congregations from Windsor south to Petaluma and from Forestville to Sonoma. This includes St. John’s UMC located at 5150 Snyder Lane in Rohnert Park.
Although most of us are not impacted by this separation proposal, knowing what is happening with our neighbors is of interest. In addition, inclusion of LGBTQ individuals has caused tension between progressive and conservative members of many Protestant denominations not just the UMC. Finally, the concept of division or separation is not unique to UMC or Protestant religions. Many religions have had them at some point in their history. Often called a “Schism,” the reasons for these divisions usually are for one of three reasons.
For example, theological differences such as disputes over baptism, salvation or other tenets of a religion. Remember King Henry VIII formed the Anglican Church in England because the Pope would not grant him a divorce from his first wife. Likewise, Martin Luther broke away, forming the Lutheran Church over disagreements with the Catholic Church. Another reason has been disputes over church organization. It could be about church leadership, conduct of religious services, or whether authority stems from a single individual, a conference of bishops, or from each congregation. Finally, a division may stem from strongly held moral or personal beliefs. These have included the issue of slavery or race, the ordination of women into the clergy, and more recently inclusion or exclusion of the LGBTQ community within a denomination.
That brings us to this current proposal which is centered around the inclusion of “all God’s children” from the progressive perspective to include the LGBTQ community whereas the conservative view does not accept same sex marriage or LGBTQ clergy. After many years of trying to reconcile the differences, UMC is attempting to allow “traditionalist churches to form a new denomination while preserving The United Methodist Church” according to a statement on the Protocol from Bishop Carcaño. She is the Bishop of the California-Nevada Annual Conference of which Sonoma County congregations including St. John’s.
The proposal was discussed by Pastor Diana Bell-Kerr with her congregation after services at St. John’s on Sunday Jan 5th. She read Bishop Carcaño’s statement and answered questions about the proposal. Pastor Bell-Kerr explained, if approved, the proposal would allow the UMC to amicably divide and allow LGBTQ affirming churches and pastors to remain in the UMC. Approval of the protocol would also allow for creation of conservative churches as a new denomination. Further it would establish guidelines for distribution of Church assets for things such as pensions, church property, or other funding issues.
St. John’s welcome message reads “The people of St. John’s UMC are grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ that calls us to be a people of inclusion, justice and love. We believe all are created in God’s image and are of sacred worth. We welcome all to full participation in the life and ministry of our church regardless of age, race, ethnic background, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical or mental health condition, marital status, family situation or economic standing. In our quest to follow the example of Jesus, we commit ourselves to loving acts of invitation, welcome, forgiveness and reconciliation.” Pastor Bell-Kerr believes that the vast majority of UMC congregations in America are inclusive and will remain with the UMC. In addition, the separation will not impact efforts to include LGBTQ community here locally at St. John’s.