If there is a divorce, who gets the church?
Weeks away from the 2019 General Conference, some of the dust has settled over what petitions delegates will vote on as they peer into the future for The United Methodist Church.
Five of those petitions contain proposals for a "graceful" or "gracious" exit that would put the church's trust clause on hold while churches and members decide whether they can live with the final decision of this special session.
The rationale for those petitions is that the Book of Discipline, the denomination's lawbook, should provide a graceful way churches and conferences can withdraw from the denomination depending on what is decided at the 2019 General Conference. General Conference is the only entity that can decide church law.
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One petition that calls for a new paragraph on disaffiliation was approved by its committee at the 2016 General Conference but was deferred by the motion for the creation of a Way Forward Commission. The petition never received a final vote.
"We should not use property as a weapon to force people to remain within a covenant they can no longer support," is offered as the rationale.
Petitions have come from those who support the Traditional Plan or the One Church Plan. They want to provide an exit plan from the denomination to allow congregations who don't agree with the final decision a way to separate without a long legal fight over the trust clause.
Lonnie Brooks, Anchorage, Alaska, said his petition is simple.
"We need to keep church separation out of the courts to the maximum degree that can be done," he said. He said having a graceful exit provision approved before entering into debate would prevent the decision being influenced by which plan is approved.
But the Rev. Lovett Weems, a senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, argues it should be hard for a congregation to withdraw from the denomination.
He laid out his arguments in "Should be hard to leave denomination." Weems points out that The United Methodist Church has dealt with many divisive issues before and has stayed together.
"Were it not for the property trust clause, virtually every white United Methodist church in Mississippi would have left the denomination in the 1960s. This is not hyperbole. It is reality. I was there. Today those churches are among 1,000 churches led by an African American bishop that contribute significantly to the rich diversity of United Methodism," said Weems, a former pastor in Mississippi and professor of church leadership at United Methodist Wesley Theological Seminary.
Petitions ruled "out of harmony" for the 2019 General Conference can be resubmitted for the 2020 General Conference.
Kathy Gilbert, multimedia reporter, UMNS
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