UMC top court clarifies disaffiliation process ahead of likely schism over homosexuality

View of the stage during the United Methodist Church's special session General Conference inside the Dome at America's Center in St. Louis, Missouri, on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019.
View of the stage during the United Methodist Church's special session General Conference inside the Dome at America's Center in St. Louis, Missouri, on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019. | United Methodist News Service/Kathleen Barry

The United Methodist Church’s highest court has issued multiple decisions centered on clarifying the process of disaffiliation for congregations in advance of an expected schism over homosexuality.

On Wednesday, the United Methodist Judicial Council released six rulings centered on clarifying the rules for congregations planning to disaffiliate from the UMC.

A central issue was a measure passed at the 2019 Special Session General Conference in which delegates approved a more gracious dismissal process for churches planning to leave the denomination over the LGBT issues debate.

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Decision 1420 confirmed that an annual conference can only give an up or down vote on a disaffiliation agreement, while Decision 1422 concluded that an annual conference does not need to question the reasons for why a congregation wants to leave. 

In Decision 1421, the Judicial Council ruled that an annual conference cannot close sale on a church property before conference voters ratify the disaffiliation agreement, but a conference board of trustees can have a nondisclosure agreement as part of a negotiated settlement, when local law permits it.

Decision 1423 affirmed that clergy in good standing could move a disaffiliation motion on behalf of a local church, but declined to address whether people not belonging to the conference could speak on a particular disaffiliation request.

In Decision 1424 and Decision 1425, the court ruled that annual conferences can develop additional measures provided they are consistent with ones created by the General Conference.

Mark Tooley, president of the theologically conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy, told The Christian Post in brief comments that the the rulings showed that the high court “validated church law allowing church departures.”

Tooley added that he felt it “confirms that churches will keep dribbling out before” a gracious separation proposal for the mainline Protestant denomination “is passed.”

John Lomperis, a United Methodist General Conference delegate who is also part of the IRD, told CP on Friday that some of the decisions "came in direct response to how several annual conferences have acted in a rather mean-spirited fashion" toward churches trying to disaffiliate. 

"By broadly upholding such additional requirements, the Judicial Council has effectively made it much less of a viable option for congregations considering disaffiliation to use existing church law," Lomperis said.

"This makes it all the more urgent for the next General Conference to adopt the Protocol on Reconciliation and Grace through Separation if we are to avoid the devastation seen in other mainline denominations from scorched-Earth fighting and millions of dollars spent on property lawsuits." 

Over the past several years, the UMC has been embroiled in a divisive debate over whether to change its official stance on LGBT issues, namely the ban on noncelibate homosexual clergy, the ban on the blessing of same-sex unions, and the labeling of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Many within the denomination believe that the next General Conference, scheduled to be held Aug. 29-Sept. 6 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, will lead to an official schism within the UMC.

Since 2020, there have been about 130 congregations who have sought disaffiliation from the UMC out of approximately 31,000 UMC congregations in the United States, according to UM News.

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