By Keith Boyette
A theologically diverse group of West Ohio Annual Conference clergy and laity recently issued an open letter to the 2019 United Methodist General Conference delegates. The letter, issued on September 17, called on delegates to adopt a “gracious and equitable process for exit which can be used by any [local UM] congregation.” The sixteen signatories each identified their respective theological category – progressive, centrist, or traditional.
“We perceive that The United Methodist Church has come to a critical juncture in our life together,” the writers say. “Our divergent understandings of biblical interpretation and theology underlie our disagreement on human sexuality. We regretfully recognize that our divisions continue to impede our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
The leaders candidly declare, “The reality of our circumstances convinces us that any decision made at the 2019 Special Session will likely lead to congregations and pastors deciding they are no longer able to remain in The United Methodist Church.”
The letter’s authors have formed a group, United Methodists for a Gracious Exit, and developed a web site, www.um-gracious-exit.com, where persons are invited to add their names to the letter. Hundreds of persons from many annual conferences have already done so.
Other denominations that have engaged in conflict around their sexual ethics, definitions of marriage, and ordination standards, have endured expensive legal battles in the aftermath of major decisions. For example, the Episcopal Church (USA) has spent over $40 million in secular courts litigating over ownership claims regarding local church property and assets, and denominational properties.
The Book of Discipline of the UM Church provides a way for local churches to withdraw from the denomination; however, its property and assets are held in trust for the benefit of The UM Church. The scope and validity of such a trust clause depends on the law of each state. A gracious and equitable process for exit, as outlined by United Methodists for a Gracious Exit, would suspend the enforcement of or release local churches from the terms of the trust clause. Adoption of the proposal would allow local churches to depart the denomination without the fear of having to litigate for their property and assets.
The current trust clause is a creation of the General Conference; it has the power under the Book of Discipline to release or amend the clause. There is no constitutional barrier preventing the General Conference from adopting a gracious and equitable process for exit.
The letter issued by United Methodist for a Gracious Exit is encouraging. For the first time in the long and acrimonious conflict persons from widely divergent theological positions have agreed to a common position. We hope their number increases. Rather than one side bludgeoning the other through deployment of political power, a gracious and equitable process for exit ensures that those who cannot subscribe to the outcome of the special General Conference will be treated fairly and can act with integrity.
The good faith of those who have launched United Methodists for a Gracious Exit is underscored by their request that a process for exit be adopted prior to consideration of any of the proposed plans before the special General Conference. By adopting a gracious exit path first, persons from all perspectives have an equal stake in ensuring consistent guidelines are adopted and applied to churches that determine that they cannot go forward with the UM Church. Without a gracious and equitable process for exit, congregations in different annual conferences may be treated very differently and be subject to arbitrary and even punitive actions. The existence of a gracious and equitable process for exit ensures that churches which cannot support whatever decision is made by the special General Conference are treated with integrity.
Dr. Jeff Greenway, chair of the WCA Council and one of the signatories of the letter, has observed, “The issues that divide the United Methodist Church are so significant that our inner squabbling does more harm than good to our witness to the world. We use the same words, pledge fidelity to the same Book of Discipline, cite the same John Wesley sermons, and quote the same scriptures, but we are practicing very different expressions of the Christian faith. Those differences almost make us unrecognizable to each other. I do not question the sincerity of the faith expressed by those who differ with me. I do not dislike them. I simply do not agree.”
Greenway goes on to say, “Like the denomination in general, the West Ohio Conference is deeply divided. I believe it is time to allow those who cannot abide by our agreed upon covenant to be able to leave the denomination. The future of Methodism needs to be composed of the committed, not the constrained. This letter asks the delegates of the 2019 General Conference to guarantee that possibility in a gracious and generous way.”
A number of WCA leaders have already added their signatures in support of the letter issued by United Methodists for a Gracious Exit. We urge you to do so as well by clicking here.
Keith Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an ordained elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.