by Chris Ritter
Church leaders sometimes contact me for contextual information on the current state of play in UMC separation. Here is a brief timeline that traces the long and winding journey we have travelled since General Conference 2016. (For a longer history of the human sexuality debate within the UMC, see “The Fifty-Year Fight over Scripture & Sexuality in the #UMC (1972-2022)“.) Let’s consider this a work in progress. I will update this post as needed for the sake of clarity and accuracy. Comments welcome.
About Version 1.3: I added a few additional links and corrected the date for the first announced delay of General Conference.
The quadrennial General Conference of The United Methodist Church convened in Portland. During the first week of work, it became clear that church teachings on marriage and human sexuality were on track to be upheld and strengthened in spite of orchestrated protests. Amidst rumors of denominational breakup, General Conference narrowly approved a plan to table all legislative action on human sexuality and empower the Council of Bishops to form a commission to study divisions in the denomination and bring back a plan.
The Western Jurisdiction of the UMC elected Karen Oliveto, a partnered lesbian, as a bishop in the UMC. This was in clear defiance of church rules. The Judicial Council later ruled that the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops must take appropriate action to remove her. They refused and she continues to this day. It later came to light that the church she served for eight years, Glide Memorial in San Francisco, ceased celebrating holy communion and baptized people only “in the name of Glide.”
The Wesleyan Covenant Association, a membership-based advocacy group for United Methodists seeking to uphold church teachings, held a convening meeting in Chicago.
Three plans emerged from The Commission on a Way Forward and were widely debated. The Connectional Conference Plan would have re-organized the church into two separate but connected expressions. The One Church Plan, endorsed by the Council of Bishops, would allow conferences, clergy, and local churches to make their own decisions on same-sex marriage. The Traditional Plan, initially left in outline form, would uphold church teaching and enable exit to those who could not tolerate this.
Books were published, new caucuses were formed, and resolutions were passed on the future of the UMC.
A specially-called General Conference was held in St. Louis to consider recommendations by The Commission on a Way Forward and other relevant legislation. Bishops were dismayed to find their preferred plan ranking low among delegate priorities. Amid bare-knuckle politics, the Traditional Plan upholding church teaching was approved, but without the planned gracious exit provision for those who disagreed. A separate disaffiliation process was also approved for churches that wanted to become independent.
Blame and recriminations abounded in the wake of General Conference 2019. Several U.S. conferences passed resolutions in resistance to the decision of General Conference. In elections for General Conference 2020 delegates, more progressive delegates were elected in the U.S.
A group of progressives, centrists, and traditionalists met in Indianapolis to negotiate a plan for denominational separation. The result was “The Indianapolis Plan” that allowed centrist/progressives to control the UMC in exchange for a gracious exit path for conferences and congregations to leave with their properties and assets.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association began pulling together plans for a new denomination.
Bishop Yambasu of Sierra Leone assembled a group of top bishops and advocacy group leaders to solve the UMC crisis. Noted attorney Kenneth Feinberg donated his services to create a plan for separation.
The “Feinberg Separation Protocol” was announced as legislation coming to General Conference 2020 in Minneapolis. Like the earlier Indianapolis Plan, it ceded control of the UMC to centrist/progressives in exchange for a gracious exit for traditional conferences and congregations to leave with their real estate and assets. The ultimate fate of the growing African majority in the UMC continued to be an open question.
A global pandemic caused the postponement of General Conference until 2021. This was later changed to August/September 2022.
Large congregations began to negotiate out of United Methodism, including the largest churches in the California-Pacific Conference, the Indiana Conference, the Texas Conference, and the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.
Bishop Yambasu, the convener of the Protocol Team, died tragically in an auto accident. Africans honor his leadership amid mixed feelings about the agreement he helped to broker.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association invited a wider group of UM traditionalists, including bishops, to help form a Transitional Leadership Council for the new denomination envisioned by the Protocol.
The UM Council of Bishops released a Narrative for a Continuing United Methodist Church.
It came to light that members of the Transitional Leadership Council for the new denomination met over several months with representatives of the UMC Council of Bishops to draft a Comity Agreement for transfer of churches leaving the UMC for the new denomination. A draft of a plan was distributed to COB member but never officially approved.
Plans for an ultra-progressive Methodist denomination, The Liberation Methodist Connexion, fizzled.
A second delay in General Conference was announced. This time, until 2024. Traditionalists strongly objected to this decision and speculated it was made for political reasons. At least one member of the Commission on General Conference resigned and wrote about the deliberations leading up to the further delay. The formation of the Global Methodist Church was announced on that same day.
The Global Methodist Church officially formed and began receiving congregations.
The Judicial Council of the UMC ruled that annual conferences cannot leave the UMC unless General Conference meets and approved a process for that.
Five Centrist/Progressive Protocol negotiators withdraw their support for the formal separation plan.
The Judicial Council ruled that congregations cannot use long-standing ecumenical practices to transfer directly from the UMC to the GMC. This means disaffiliation is the only workable course of action for those seeking exit from the UMC. The disaffiliation provision sunsets on December 31, 2023 and all disaffiliations, including annual conference approvals, must be completed by then.
Reporting surfaced that a group of former United Methodist mega-churches is forming The Foundry Network for large congregations who want to be more autonomous.
Annual conference hold regular and specially-called sessions to approve local church disaffiliations. Not without controversy, conferences have mixed approaches and price tags for disaffiliation.