by Chris Ritter
I thought I would share what I wrote to the congregation I am appointed to serve this past Friday night amidst the news of the separation protocol.
Dear Church Family,
Grace and peace to you in the strong name of Jesus.
Our denomination is certainly in the news today. Here are examples:
Christianity Today Magazine Coverage
Wall Street Journal Coverage
New York Times Coverage
Washington Post Coverage
Quad Cities Dispatch and Chicago Tribune Coverage with quote from me.
I thought it might be helpful to offer some information, clarification, and context about what is happening and what it might mean for us.
A plan for the separation of The United Methodist Church was announced today through the Council of Bishops website. The proposal was the result of months of negotiation with key bishops and leaders of caucus groups. The process was aided by Kenneth Feinberg, a noted attorney and mediator. The separation plan builds on negotiations I participated in last summer.
Our bishop, Rev. Dr. Frank Beard, issued a brief statement reminding us that the plan is only a proposal that will come to General Conference 2020 in Minneapolis this May. But it does seems to have the prominent support needed for approval.
Talk of division has become necessary because of significant differences of opinion about the role of Scripture in the life of the Church. One branch of our church believes we should offer same-sex weddings and appoint non-celibate gay clergy and bishops. The other side believes this to be contrary to Scripture and affirms human sexuality expressed within the context of marriage, defined as an enduring union between a man and a woman. The names “Progressive” and “Traditional” are often used to describe the two approaches. (This is not to be confused with matters concerning traditional vs. contemporary worship styles). Both sides agree we should love, protect, and minister to all.
The interwoven design of our denomination makes it difficult for two different visions to coexist. The properties of each congregation are tied to the conference which appoints and holds clergy accountable. We are inextricably connected… not just a voluntary association. Designed to make us more effective, this connectedness has also kept us in conflict for over forty years. The “pot boiled over” last February at a special General Conference called to settle the matter once and for all.
I was one of 865 delegates to a specially-called General Conference 2019 in St. Louis. We voted by a 54% margin to uphold church teaching on marriage. Here in America the decision set off a firestorm of resistance. It has become clear that General Conference no longer governs the denomination. Something has to give. The debate is distracting us from mission, depleting us of resources, and providing a poor Christian witness to the rest of the world. Although the church is growing worldwide, here in the U.S. we have experienced fifty years of unbroken decline.
Geneseo First Methodist is a founding congregation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a group of like-minded United Methodists with a vision for an orthodox, vibrant Christian faith in the Methodist tradition. We desire to uphold Scripture as we love and minister to all. I am a founding member of the WCA Global Council. First Methodist operates as a vital, traditional United Methodist congregation and is blessed to be an exception to the prevailing trend of numerical decline.
In the announced proposal, Traditionalists agree to leave The United Methodist Church to start a new denomination. It seems strange that the majority would be required to leave while the minority stays! But the denomination has become so broken and leadership representing the other view is so entrenched that many feel this is the only option. Traditionalists see no way to restore order and the denomination would need a major overhaul under any circumstances.
The new traditional Methodist Church (name to be determined) will be streamlined and relational as opposed to top-heavy and bureaucratic. A draft Book of Doctrine and Discipline has been prepared which describes key features. The emerging church aspires to be warm-hearted, Spirit-filled, and orthodox in belief… in keeping with the highest ideals of the heritage handed down to us from John Wesley. The cost to the local church for participation will be much lower than the apportionments currently paid to the UMC, freeing up funds for local ministry. Congregations will also have a bigger voice during the selection process when pastors are named. Each church will have ownership of its own property. I don’t deny that I am excited about the possibilities. But until General Conference offers a choice, I am foremost a United Methodist pastor ordained and serving in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.
I do not presume to speak for our congregation with regards to future choices. I have asked our Church Council Executive Team (Church Council Chair [name], Finance Chair [name], SPRC Chair [name], and Trustees Chair [name], and Executive Director [name]) to begin planning for a season of prayer, fasting, information-sharing and discernment. If the separation plan is approved in Minneapolis in May, we may need to hold a church conference… a special meeting chaired by the district superintendent where each member has a vote. Under the announced plan, the Church Council will determine if a simple majority or 2/3 majority will be required to leave the UMC and join the newly forming denomination. It is possible, if somewhat unlikely, that our annual conference may vote to leave the UMC as a unit. This decision may eliminate the need for a local church vote to re-affiliate.
It is my sincere desire that we all move into the future together. Geneseo First Methodist Church has been part of several denominational expressions over the years. We were launched by the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1850. In 1939 the northern and southern branches of Methodism reunited after 95 year split to become The Methodist Church. We became United Methodist in 1968 with a merger with the Evangelical United Brethren denomination. We can continue to be First Methodist Church of Geneseo regardless of affiliation. Like many growing churches today, we tend to wear our affiliation rather lightly as most people want to learn to follow Jesus and are not that interested in loyalty to a denominational institution.
I chronicle every development in the UMC schism on my blog. You can find over 1,000 articles, commentaries, and news items at PeopleNeedJesus.net.
You will want to check out these key links on the announced plan of separation:
The Plan of Separation
The Frequently Asked Questions Document
The United Methodist News Story about the Separation Plan
WCA’s Article on the Separation Plan
The next step for our church will be a briefing of our elected leaders at an officer’s orientation on January 11. Your leaders, I am sure, commit to keep you informed every step along the way. I envision informational sessions being held prior to any vote or decision.
Would you join me in prayer and fasting for the future of Methodist Christianity? 2020 will no doubt be a remarkable year.
Because People Need Jesus,
Rev. Dr. Christopher Ritter