Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
Summer is winding down, and the fall looms before us. With the fall will likely come a series of new developments within The United Methodist Church (some already underway) related to major questions about the future of the denomination. Here are five such story lines to follow this fall.
There have already been several recent developments in the increasingly acrimonious fight over disaffiliation from the UMC by congregations in the United States. There have been lawsuits and threats of lawsuits by those seeking to leave the UMC. The WCA has called on US Traditionalists to withhold at least some apportionments and to resume charges against those disregarding Book of Discipline provisions around gay ordination and gay marriage. Both those seeking to leave and those seeking to stay have been waging an information and PR campaign among local churches in the US, with those planning to remain in the UMC asserting that those leaving are spreading falsehoods.
Moreover, the Judicial Council just yesterday ruled on the use of Book of Discipline Paragraph 2548.2 as a means of disaffiliation. That paragraph allows the transfer of congregational property to another "evangelical denomination" with whom the UMC has a "comity agreement." Exiting Traditionalists would have preferred to use its provisions over those of Paragraph 2553, but the bishops requested a Judicial Council ruling on whether 2548.2 is applicable in this case. The Judicial Council answered that the paragraph only applies to property, not members, and only for denominations with which the UMC already has an General Conference-adopted agreement. This ruling precludes its use for transfer of congregations to the Global Methodist Church and represents a significant blow to Traditionalists.
In addition, many annual conferences have scheduled special sessions to act on requests for disaffiliation. These sessions will be a test of the numbers of departing congregations, the terms on which they will depart, and the atmosphere in which they will do so.
Plans for General Conference 2024
When the Commission on General Conference announced its decision to further postpone General Conference to 2024, it acknowledged that "the further postponement raises a number of additional questions not specifically addressed in The Book of Discipline 2016." The Commission left it up to the Judicial Council to determine "which preparations and processes are based on the postponed 2020 General Conference and which would need to be enacted should this be seen as a new 2024 General Conference."
Should that ruling come this fall, it will set the direction for the UMC relative to General Conference on issues such as which delegates will attend the next General Conference and what legislation will be before it, both questions that may well shape what happens at that meeting.
Proposals for the future of the UMC
With General Conference 2024 possibly coming into greater focus this fall and disaffiliation well underway, there is an opening for new proposals about the future of the denomination to emerge. In his address to the Council of Bishops earlier this week, Bishop Thomas Bickerton spoke of the UMC needing to pivot towards "a conversation about what it is we want and dream about as a church moving forward." Look for new proposals to emerge this fall from those intending to stay UMC about what they envision the denomination to look like beyond the current conflict over disaffiliation.
While some of these new proposals for the future of the denomination may come from episcopal leaders or US Centrists and Progressives, it is also quite likely (indeed, it should be expected) that leaders from the central conferences will contribute to this debate, even if it is just to reiterate the principles of regionalization embodied in the already-proposed Christmas Covenant.
There are episcopal elections currently scheduled for late this year in the United States and the Philippines. The results of these elections will be an indication of what sort of direction leaders from the US and the Philippines want to see the denomination take. Especially with new proposals for the future of the denomination likely to emerge earlier in the fall, episcopal elections will serve as a stand-in referendum on these various visions of the church.
Earlier this year, Methodists in Bulgaria became the first to leave en masse to join the Global Methodist Church. At the time, Bishop Patrick Streiff of the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference ruled that the vote by the Bulgaria-Romania Annual Conference to do so violated the Book of Discipline. The Judicial Council just released its ruling in the case: While the Council agreed that it did not have jurisdiction in this instance, members clearly expressed their opinion that Streiff had been right and that the Bulgaria-Romania Annual Conference had indeed disregarded the Book of Discipline.
The church in Bulgaria has already made its departure effective. What remains to be seen is what routes the churches in Romania and in Estonia, which has also voted to leave the denomination, will take. While both have indicated that they will leave, they are not doing so immediately. Romania expects to leave by the end of the year. Both have chosen to work with their supervising bishops to follow some sort of process. The question remains to be answered this fall what that process will look like.
The larger significance of questions about European disaffiliation is what sorts of precedents it will set that could be influential if branches of the church in Africa or other branches of the church in Europe choose to disaffiliate as well. Traditionalist African leaders have indicated that they will not leave before General Conference 2024, but it remains unclear what will happen at that point, and developments in Europe this fall may well have an influence on those decisions.