A regional body of The United Methodist Church based in Eastern Europe has voted to leave the mainline Protestant denomination and join a newer, more theologically conservative church.
The Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference voted unanimously earlier this month to leave the UMC and join The Global Methodist Church, which is set to officially launch in May.
Bishop Patrick Streiff, head of the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe, which oversees the conference, said in a statement last week that he resisted the effort, arguing that it went against church law.
“As presiding bishop, I explained to the Annual Conference that there is no other legal basis in church law for a separation. Therefore, a vote would not be possible. The members of the Annual Conference did not agree,” stated Streiff.
“[T]he members then continued the meeting without my presiding, elected Superintendent Daniel Topalski as their presider, discussed the resolution, and finally voted unanimously in open vote in favor of it.”
Streiff added that with “the UMC in Romania, I will continue to work for a mutually respectful way of leaving The United Methodist Church.”
“I deeply regret that the church in Bulgaria was not willing to follow the church order for leaving The United Methodist Church and decided to cut all ties towards the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe,” he said.
For their part, the Bulgaria-Romania Annual Conference released a statement arguing that “an annual conference has a basic right to vote to withdraw from the United Methodist Church.”
“It is true that the General Conference has not defined the procedures and conditions of how such a vote can be exercised but this cannot be an obstacle for the annual conference to not take advantage of this possibility,” it added.
According to the conference, congregations within its territory have the option to remain with the UMC, but they must announce those intentions before May 1, 2023.
Although the Bulgaria-Romania Conference has less than 1,500 members, according to UM News, “its move to disaffiliate may be seen as a harbinger, given the uncertainty and tumult facing the 13-million-member United Methodist Church.”
For the past several years, the UMC has been dealing with increasingly divisive debate over whether to change its official stance on homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
According to the UMC Book of Discipline, homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” with the denomination's rule book prohibiting clergy from blessing same-sex unions, as well as barring the ordination of people in same-sex romantic relationships.
The UMC had originally planned to consider a measure aimed at allowing theologically conservative churches to amicably leave the denomination in order to end the debate at its 2020 General Conference; however, the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the gathering to the fall of 2022.
In March, the UMC announced that it would once again postpone the General Conference to 2024, citing ongoing travel issues related to pandemic lockdown as a reason.
Organizers of the Global Methodist Church denounced the decision, with the latest postponement leading them to decide to launch their conservative denomination in May rather than their previous plan to launch after General Conference.
“Many United Methodists have grown impatient with a denomination clearly struggling to function effectively at the general church level,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, chairman of the GMC Transitional Leadership Council, in the March announcement.
“Theologically conservative local churches and annual conferences want to be free of divisive and destructive debates, and to have the freedom to move forward together.”