United Methodist Church expected to split over proposal

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A long-brewing debate over same-sex marriage and LGBT+ clergy in the United Methodist Church may finally conclude following the announcement of a proposal to split the church earlier this year. 

The proposed separation, which was signed on Dec. 17 by 16 church leaders from around the world, would divide the United States’ third-largest religious denomination into one traditionalist sect, and one that is more progressive and centrist, according to Michael Cartwright, University of Indianapolis vice president for university mission and associate professor of philosophy and religion. University Chaplain Jeremiah Gibbs said that since UIndy is an UMC-affiliated institution, the university is a part of this debate. 

The traditionalist sect would oppose same-sex marriage and continue to refuse the ordination of LGBT+ clergy. In contrast, the progressive and centrist sect would, for the first time in the church’s history, allow same-sex marriage and LGBT+ clergy, he said.  

“Treasured values are in conflict with one another. We have a strong tradition about what marriage is, and we have a strong tradition about what citizens’ rights are, and those are coming into conflict,” Cartwright said. “I think we don’t always know how to make sense of that.”

Every four years since 1972, the UMC has held a general conference to discuss and determine rules and regulations for the church. The proposal for the split, according to Gibbs, will be voted on at the church’s 2020 general conference in May. 

If approved, the traditionalist sect would separate from the UMC. Gibbs said as more time had passed, the more split the church became on the issue. In the last eight years, the UMC has had roughly a dozen proposals that have tried to resolve the dispute, he said. 

“This most recent one got a lot of publicity because it probably was the most truly negotiated compromise,” Gibbs said. “If there’s ever been a proposal that could get passed that would split the United Methodist Church, this is probably it.”

The official proposal, titled “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace through Separation,” was signed on Dec. 17, but was not released publicly until Jan. 3. According to the agreement, $25 million would go to the new “traditionalist” denomination. In exchange, the new denomination would drop any claims to UMC assets. In addition, the agreement said that $2 million would go to any other new denomination that wishes to split from the church. Furthermore, the agreement calls for $39 million to ensure that communities “historically marginalized by the sin of racism” can still be supported. 

Despite tensions within the church, senior pastor at University Heights United Methodist Church David Nouen said he has hope for the future. 

“To hear the word ‘United’ and then to go through something where it’s breaking apart … there’s some grief, of course,” Nouen said. “You’re grieving, but at the same time … there’s a little bit of optimism. Regardless of what side you are on the issue, both sides see the future with hope that they can really invest in what they want to.” 

The proposal’s announcement came amid new sanctions in the church that would have punishments for UMC pastors who officiate same-sex weddings harsher. These sanctions went into effect on Jan. 1 and included a one-year suspension without pay for the first wedding and total removal from the clergy for any wedding thereafter.

Predictions about how UIndy could be affected by this potential split are dangerous, considering there is no solid guarantee of how the vote will turn out in May, according to University President Robert Manuel. He said that regardless of whether the split happens, the university will have to take a look at its values and the decisions in thoughtful and inclusive ways. 

“We’ll be brought to the table for us to look at [those decisions] and say, ‘Are these the values that we relate to—the values that drive and motivate our history and our tradition? And where do we find our connections in whatever pieces come out of the end result of the congregation?,’” Manuel said.

The university decided a long time ago that it would be an “inclusive institution,” according to Gibbs. For Gibbs, if the split does not happen, the university will have to grapple with its policy on inclusivity and how that falls in line with traditionalist beliefs. If the split does happen, Gibbs said, he sees the university having no trouble heading toward a more progressive route. In any case, he said, there will be some growing pains. Gibbs said that 10 years down the road that there will be a new normal and that UIndy will have to figure out how to operate in that new reality.

Regardless of the university’s policy on inclusivity and acceptance, however, one thing is clear for Cartwright, Gibbs, Nouen and Manuel: the split is a deeply polarizing issue, one that may leave church members at a crossroads between faith, friends and moral values.

“No matter how this is going to go, some colleagues that I respect and appreciate are going to end up in a different place than I am,” Gibbs said. “There’s some grief in that. I do think, in the end, the result is a church that … will be able to have more healthy, clear directives about who they are and what they want to be.” 

According to Cartwright, there are four different types of church-related colleges: orthodox, critical-mass, intentionally pluralist, and accidentally pluralist. From about 1945 to 1970, UIndy was considered a critical-mass institution, meaning the school was more heavily influenced by the religion that founded it. However, over the past 40 years, due to shifting university presidents and educational programs, the university has become a more intentionally pluralist institution, with a more diverse set of influences. 

For faculty and staff who may require support as the UMC continues to grapple with LGBT+ inclusion, one major source is the Bridge-Builders Group. According to Cartwright, the group fosters conversations between the LGBT+ community and people in the UMC. For Cartwright, these conversations are important because of the overarching message that a split like this could send to the LGBT+ community. 

“Those of us like myself … who have been deeply disturbed about this over the years are in particular concerned about … somebody in a youth group [telling] a 14-year-old kid that homosexuality is an abomination,” Cartwright said. “There are kids who have committed suicide because they’ve internalized that. Churches really do need to take care of business with making sure that people are not recklessly quoting the Bible in a way that leads people to draw conclusions that they aren’t worth living.”

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