(AP) — A group of theologically conservative United Methodists plans to launch a new worldwide denomination on May 1, impatient to get started after yet another pandemic-related delay to a formalized divorce agreement with their denomination.
The creation of the Global Methodist Church, announced Thursday, was long in the making, organized by conservatives who were fed up with liberal churches’ continued defiance of the United Methodist Church’s bans on same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy.
Global Methodist Church organizers had originally expected to launch the denomination only after the next General Conference of the UMC. That legislative body is the only one that could approve a tentative agreement — unveiled in 2020 after negotiations between conservatives, liberals and centrists — to allow churches and regional groups to leave the denomination and keep their property.
But the General Conference, originally scheduled for 2020, was already delayed for two straight years by the pandemic. On Thursday, the United Methodist Church announced it was pushing off the next gathering yet again — to 2024 — due to long delays in the U.S. processing of visa applications. A little more than half of the denomination’s members are overseas, notably in Africa and the Philippines.
UMC officials said the visa process has been delayed as long as 800 days in some cases.
“The visa issue is a reality that is simply outside our control as we seek to achieve a reasonable threshold of delegate presence and participation,” said a statement by Kim Simpson, who chairs the denomination’s Commission on the General Conference.
But the delay is hastening the breakup of one of the largest religious bodies in the United States.
Already some conservative churches have left the denomination, and more are eager to do so, said a statement from the Global Methodist Church organizers.
“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 Transitional Leadership Council, which is organizing the Global Methodist Church.
“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,” he said. “We are confident many existing congregations will join the new Global Methodist Church in waves over the next few years, and new church plants will sprout up.”
Boyette, a Virginia-based Methodist elder, said he didn’t know how many churches would initially join the new denomination and “does not want to make any speculations.”
Under United Methodist law, church properties are held in trust for the larger denomination. “However there have always been avenues for churches to separate from the denomination,” said a statement from Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey of Louisiana, president of the UMC’s Council of Bishops. Churches can negotiate separation agreements with their bishops.
The organizers of the Global Methodist Church predicted some of its prospective members will reach amicable agreements to separate from their local conferences and that others would face more opposition.
The United Methodist Church claims 6.3 million members in the U.S. and 6.5 million overseas.
Differences over same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy have simmered for years in the UMC, and came to a head in 2019 at a conference in St. Louis where delegates voted 438-384 to strengthen bans on LGBTQ-inclusive practices. Most U.S.-based delegates opposed that plan and favored LGBTQ-friendly options; they were outvoted by U.S. conservatives teamed with most of the delegates from Methodist strongholds in Africa and the Philippines.
In the aftermath of that meeting, many moderate and liberal clergy made clear they would not abide by the bans, and various groups worked on proposals to let the UMC split along theological lines.
The most prominent plan, the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation, was endorsed by a wide spectrum of bishops and activists after it was reached through famed mediation lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, whose law firm has overseen the distribution of other massive legal settlements such as the 9/11 victims fund.
Under the protocol, conservative congregations and regional bodies would be allowed to separate from the UMC and form a new denomination. They would receive $25 million in UMC funds and be able to keep their properties.
Assuming a large exodus of conservatives, the remaining United Methodist Church would be poised to reverse its longstanding bans on gay ordination and marriage.
Reconciling Ministries — a pro-LGBTQ advocacy caucus within the United Methodist Church — said that while the pandemic-related delay was necessary, “we also lament this lengthening test of our patience.”
But it pledged to “continue to work for the fullness of life for God’s LGBTQ+ children no matter when the next General Conference is held.”