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Court rulings escalate talk of church split

This is an overview of the  plenary hall and stage of the Feb. 24 opening worship service for the special  called 2019 United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis.
This is an overview of the plenary hall and stage of the Feb. 24 opening worship service for the special called 2019 United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis.

Whatever happens next, it's clear significant changes are coming to the 12.5-million-member denomination that just celebrated its 51st anniversary and remains deeply divided over the church issues.

The Judicial Council ruled that parts of the Traditional Plan are in line with the denomination's constitution and struck down other parts.

The church court, modifying an earlier decision, also upheld legislation that in effect suspends the denomination's trust clause and opens the way for congregations under certain conditions to leave with their property. The Judicial Council stressed that annual conference approval is among those conditions.

The church-disaffiliation legislation takes effect immediately. The constitutional parts of the Traditional Plan will take effect on Jan. 1, 2020, in the United States, and 12 months after the 2020 General Conference in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.

 "This is a significant step forward in restoring the accountability of our covenant," said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, one of the primary authors of the Traditional Plan.

Among those thinking about next steps is the Rev. Tim Bruster, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. He is the General Conference delegate who made the motion for the Judicial Council review of the Traditional Plan, and had filed a brief urging the court to void the entire plan.

He said for many in his congregation, the Traditional Plan's punitive measures are intolerable. He is among the church leaders who plan to discuss the denomination's future at a May 20-22 meeting in Kansas.

"There are many people who are moderates and progressives who are trying to find a way forward," he said. "I think for the vast majority of us, we don't just want to disaffiliate. We have to have somewhere to go."

In any case, he said, "it appears our differences are irreconcilable."

Ahead of General Conference 2019, the strongest calls for disaffiliation came from supporters of the Traditional Plan. The Wesleyan Covenant Association, an unofficial advocacy group, had made contingency plans to possibly form a new denomination if the rival One Church Plan had prevailed. That plan would have left questions of marriage up to individual churches and clergy, and ordination up to conferences.

Now the tables are turned. The Wesleyan Covenant Association, which represents 1,500 churches and 150,000 United Methodists, has no plans to leave.

However, the Revs. Keith Boyette, group president, and Jeff Greenway, chairman, say the group "remains eager to engage in good faith conversations with others with the goal of birthing new Methodist expressions as the best way to resolve our irreconcilable differences so that we might bless one another rather than being at war with one another."

The full implications for the denomination's global connection remain unknown.

The Rev. Jerry P. Kulah, who leads the unofficial advocacy group Africa Initiative that championed the Traditional Plan, said he supports the disaffiliation for United Methodist churches and conferences that won't abide by General Conference.

"The results of General Conference 2019 have given me much hope for a brighter future of the global United Methodist Church," said Kulah, who was also a General Conference delegate from Liberia.

Audun Westad, a delegate from the Norway Conference, doesn't see any reason to celebrate. He said the new enforcement mechanisms, specifically those aimed at clergy who violate church law, appear to violate labor laws in Norway.

David Field, a United Methodist in Switzerland, said even if some form of institutional division is inevitable, "we will be able to continue working together in mission."

Still, there are United Methodists who at least for now plan to stay and resist the Traditional Plan.

Heather Hahn, multimedia news reporter, UMNS, Eveline Chikwanah, Zimbabwe, E Julu Swen, Liberia and Sam Hodges, UMNS

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