The United Methodist Church, the third largest denomination in the U.S., recently announced a proposal to split the denomination because of the conflict within the church over same-sex marriage.
The proposal will be decided at the national United Methodist Church General conference, which will take place in Minneapolis this May. Reverend Judy Zabel is a lead pastor in Minneapolis at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church (a reconciling church in support of gay marriage). Her church at 511 Hennepin Ave. is a large stone building built in 1916 with a tall, intricate steeple and stained-glass windows. But Zabel said it represents just one one of many diverse congregations in the Methodist fold.
“The United Methodist Church is 13 million people across the globe in thirty-five countries,” Zabel said during an interview in the church. “We have a difference in views on human sexuality across the globe.”
The denomination has grappled to find a solution for the disagreement of same-sex marriage for the past 47 years, according to an article from the Washington Post.
This topic finally hit a boiling point in February of 2019 during a session at a special conference. Three plans were brought to this special conference, and the traditional plan (a ban on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy, and the dismissal of the clergy who violate the ban) was voted in by 54 percent.
Allen Tennison, the dean of the college of church leadership at North Central, has a former student who became ordained in the denomination. For that former student, the majority vote for the traditional plan was “horrifying,” Tennison said.
Part of the reason why the vote was 54 percent for the traditional plan is because a majority of African branches are not in support of gay marriage.
After the traditional plan passed in February, the protocol for the split started to form.
“The Centrists really woke up and started aligning with the progressives, which created 70 percent of the United Methodist Church,” said Zabel.
For the protocol to be set into action, it would need to be approved at the 2020 General Conference in May. At the conference, the protocol will come in the form of several petitions that will address each paragraph on the matter of homosesexuality in the Book of Discipline. The Book of Discipline is a book of doctrinal statements and social principles the United Methodists follow. The social principles can be adapted every four years at the General Conferences. If the protocol is approved, then local churches can vote individually to join the new denomination. Those churches need 57 percent of votes in favor to leave and join the new traditionalist denomination. If the churches don’t vote, then they will remain a part of the United Methodist Church.
For Zabel, though the split would be sad, it is also an answer to prayer.
“It gives me the freedom to offer full pastoral care to all of my congregation, so I’m very hopeful it will pass,” said Zabel.
The 16-person committee that negotiated the agreements for the protocol stated on the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church website that “the best means to resolve our differences, allowing each part of the Church to remain true to its theological understanding while recognizing the dignity, equality, integrity, and respect of every person.”
When asked if there was another way to resolve the churches’ differences that would not involve a split, Zabel said, “I always think there is another way, and what I always think is that, if people come to General Conference or anything really in the world with an open heart and really seeking God’s leading, I really think God could do amazing things.”
However, given the fact that there have been many proposals in the past trying to deal with this issue, debated and fought over, Zabel thinks the plan is good overall, stating, “I think the protocol is a good plan. I don’t think it is perfect.”
Tennison expressed remorse for the proposed split, but understood why the leadership has made the proposal for a split.
“I am never for a church split,” he said. “As a Christian, there [are] three goals for every member: the maturity of every member, the ministry of every member (that they will learn to serve), and the unity of the church. Those three goals are what we always work for in every Christian community, and so every split of a church is tragic.”
Tennison also stated, “The more a church tries to fit into the greater culture that it is in, the less likely it grows in the next generations.”
Whether or not the proposed split will cause the United Methodist Church to because of its stance on homosexuality could rest on the number of churches that decide to transition to the new traditional denomination.
For now, the hope for Zabel is that the United Methodists put God first through all that is happening.
“Every day, I pray that we will love God first, that we will love our neighbors, and that we will have compassion,” said Zabel.