CHICAGO — The United Methodist Church — one of the largest religious denominations in the United States — announced Friday that it is expected to split up over longstanding disagreements over LGBTQ inclusion.
A group of UMC bishops, as well as progressives and traditionalists within the worldwide denomination of 12.5 million, signed a proposal that outlines the separation. It is expected to be formally approved at a general convention in May.
"I think there is a broad agreement across the theological spectrum that, unfortunately, we have come to an impasse that cannot be bridged," said Rev. Douglas Damron, Senior Pastor at Epworth United Methodist Church in Toledo, Ohio.
LGBTQ issues came to the forefront last year after the UMC's highest judicial body met in Evanston and upheld strict prohibitions against same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy. The controversial measure, known as the "Traditional Plan," was passed at a special meeting of the global delegation in February last year.
"I really do think that the church as we knew it died in February 2019," said the Rev. Alka Lyall, pastor at Broadway United Church in Chicago.
UMC members began working on the plan this summer after meeting in Chicago, according to the Council of Bishops. Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone commenced the process and invited representatives from the church's traditional, centrist and progressive movements to participate.
The separation plan calls for the creation of a "traditionalist Methodist denomination" that will be distinct from the UMC. Under the agreement, the UMC will give the new denomination $25 million to help with its establishment. The amount of was determined based on a "review of the financial health of the church" and discussions with stakeholders, according to the Council of Bishops. The traditionalist denomination would continue the ban on gay marriage and clergy.
The Rev. Dr. Maidstone Mulenga, a spokesman for the UMC Council of Bishops, said the resolution is "amicable," and will allow for the church to set aside this divisive topic.
"Our hope is that we'll move on and spend more time doing what we've been called to do, which is to tell people about Jesus Christ and transform his world through our work in ministry," he said.
In Illinois, the Rev. Chris Ritter says the future of his traditionalist church isn't clear yet. Ritter, who leads a congregation in Geneseo, Ill., said he expects the majority of his parishioners will want to break away from the UMC if the separation plan is approved.
"I hate we reached this point," he said. "It's best we disengage from all this and figure out how we move forward with like-minded parties."
Sixteen UMC representatives met for several months to craft the agreement, with the help of attorney Kenneth Feinberg, a nationally recognized mediation expert who served as Special Master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. Participants from Europe, Africa and the Philippines signed the agreement.
In the document, called "Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation," signatories agree that separation is 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."
If the proposal passes, local congregations wishing to separate from UMC and affiliate with a new denominational would have to take a vote. For churches remaining in the UMC, the denomination is planning to remove language in its bylaws banning LGBTQ marriage and the ordination of gay clergy.