COURT HOUSE – A national trend of liberalizing social beliefs in the United Methodist Church is making its way to Cape May County. Some say it’s forcing local churches to decide if they want to change with the times or stick with tradition.
At least one local congregation has had discussions about trends in the denomination and how the changes would impact the local church. One long-time member of the congregation said the church is primarily a traditional church that doesn’t want a liberal agenda forced on them. They are afraid failure to adopt new, progressive standards will result in them losing their church.
Another congregation member who asked not to be named for fear of backlash said she was married in the same church. She shared that interested members are sharing information about changes in the UMC and the new Global Methodist Church (GMC), a traditionally minded offshoot. The GMC wants to adhere to traditional teachings as they are laid out in the UMC Book of Discipline and the Bible.
“A lot of us are very upset – it’s a very upsetting issue,” she said. “What concerns me is that people – and it is coming from people, not coming from God – want to change the interpretation of the Bible and the wording of the UMC Book of Discipline.”
She said the Book of Discipline only sanctions marriage as a gift from God between a man and woman, yet some liberal pastors are marrying gay couples in their churches. She said she doesn’t think it’s right that those who conform to traditional teachings and beliefs are the ones being punished – being forced to make the decision to leave the UMC.
“You know, all the churches are suffering after Covid. They were shut down, now their attendance is down, their revenues are down, everything is down, and then you take a big conflict like this – some people are actually angry over it,” she said.
That anger has shown up across the country. Some churches have already disaffiliated from the UMC and have joined the newly formed GMC. They say progressive topics are not the only reason for their dissatisfaction with the largest Methodist denomination.
“There is a concern as to how we treat human sexuality, but that is just a surface issue,” said Rev. Beth Caulfield, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association in New Jersey.
Keith Boyette, the connectional officer, CEO and administrative officer of the GMC, echoed Caulfield’s statement.
“It’s a presenting issue,” he said of the discussion around human sexuality. “The deeper issues are how to understand the doctrine of the church, God’s design for propagation, how we understand sin, what is the Bible and its place in authority…”
Janet Lord, a GMC organizer in western Pennsylvania, said there has been a lot of concern over the non-enforcement of rules laid out in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.
“Efforts to reform from within the denomination have failed for the last 20 years,” Lord said.
Boyette said there have been issues of disagreement ever since the UMC formed in 1968.
“Almost immediately the church faced conflict about how to define marriage and ordination standards,” he said.
The UMC’s Book of Discipline currently says that marriage is between one man and one woman. To be ordained as clergy, the person must be a faithful heterosexual, Boyette said. The actual language is that the clergy member “must not be a self-avowed, practicing homosexual,” who has expressed this to church leadership. Boyette said the UMC leadership wants to change the definition of marriage to two people and to ordain so-called “practicing homosexuals.”
“They have consistently raised these issues at conferences,” Boyette said.
There are 57 conferences in the United States, with the United Methodists of Greater New Jersey (GNJUMC) being one.
According to Boyette, the denomination has historically affirmed the traditional view of marriage but said the progressive or liberal members ignore the Book of Discipline and have been disruptive at general conferences when topics such as marriage were being discussed.
“Church leaders and bishops have been refusing to enforce the Book of Discipline,” Boyette said.
The GNJUMC’s Resident Bishop John Schol said there is no divide in the UMC, but said it is a matter of some churches leaving over theological differences. Some are becoming independent, while others are joining other Wesleyan denominations.
“The primary concern is a ministry with and by LGBTQ persons,” Schol said. “There is a range of beliefs within United Methodism, and we recognize that LGBTQ persons and all people are of sacred worth.”
Boyette said Schol has advocated for a plan that churches in the GNJUMC ignore the Book of Discipline and traditional standards. He said at the last general conference, in 2016, the church was so divided the conference delegates instructed the bishops to find a way going forward to preserve the unity of the church.
He said there was a special conference in 2019 where the delegates considered a “one church plan” that would allow every conference to do whatever it wanted. However, the traditional plan was adopted, and it resulted in more conflict, Boyette said.
“There was more outrage from liberals and the church became ungovernable. Discipline was not being upheld by the leadership,” Boyette said.
He said the traditional position is that the Book of Discipline is clear on the role and authority of Scripture and that it sets parameters for living out a Christian life.
“That’s at the core of the conflict,” Boyette said. “The leadership is in rebellion and there is no way to hold them accountable.”
However, there is another issue that is at stake when considering disaffiliation. The UMC holds in trust all properties used for its ministry and mission.
To quit the UMC denomination, a local congregation would have to purchase the property. This could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, or in the case of some large churches, millions. The UMC is also requiring churches to pay two years’ apportionments – money paid to the national church to support the activities of the denomination – and to assume some liability for clergy pensions.
“Churches that disaffiliate are required to pay for the cost of disaffiliation,” Schol said.
He said the UMC suspended that trust clause until Dec. 31, 2023, to allow churches to leave the denomination if they pay the cost of disaffiliation, which includes pension and other benefit payments, all loans and past due payments, legal and property transfer costs and any other administrative costs.
Caulfield said the annual conference can add more costs, such as charging churches $3,500 if they want a representative from the UMC to come and explain what is involved in disaffiliation. She said the GNJUMC has added more costs than any other conference.
Mark Tooley, a UMC member and president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy said this issue could result in litigation by some churches.
Schol said he is saddened that people want to leave the United Methodist Church. He cited the global reach of the church and the multitude of charitable work done by the denomination in the United States and around the world.
“The United Methodist Church will continue as a strong church for many years to come,” Schol said.
That may be, but some congregations face tough decisions about what comes next.
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