Sight Magazine – More than 100 Florida churches file lawsuit to leave The United Methodist Church
- EMILY MCFARLAN MILLER
More than 100 churches are suing the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church to immediately disaffiliate from the denomination.
The lawsuit comes amid a slow-running schism in The United Methodist Church, largely over the ordination and marriage of its LGBTQ members.
And, according to the leader of a new theologically conservative Methodist denomination that recently split from The United Methodist Church, it likely won’t be the last.
United Methodist bishops and delegates gather to pray at the front of the stage ahead of a key vote on church policies regarding homosexuality Feb. 26, 2019, during the UMC General Conference Special Session in St Louis. PHOTO: RNS/Kit Doyle
“Florida is the first of what I anticipate could be a number of similar lawsuits,” said Keith Boyette, Transitional Connectional Coordinating Officer for the conservative World Methodist Church.
In the lawsuit — filed Thursday, July 14, in Bradford County, Fla., by the National Center for Life and Liberty — 106 churches allege that disaffiliation requirements approved by a special session of the United Nations General Conference United Methodist Church are “expensive, and in many cases, prohibitively expensive”.
This disaffiliation plan allows churches wishing to leave the denomination over its position on sexuality to take their assets with them until 2023 after paying distributions and pension obligations. It was added to the Book of Discipline by General Conference delegates in 2019 alongside legislation called the Traditional Plan that strengthened denominational language by banning LGBTQ United Methodist ordination and marriage.
The annual conference uses the denomination’s Disaffiliation Plan and Trust Clause to “hold for ransom the real and personal property of plaintiff churches,” according to the lawsuit, while previously existing provisions in the Book of Discipline allow churches to simply hand over their properties to other evangelical denominations.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit alleges that the Council of Bishops and its former president — Bishop Ken Carter, who leads both the Florida and western North Carolina conferences — are not adhering to the same discipline book. Among other things, he said they did nothing as the California-Nevada Annual Conference elected the denomination’s first openly LGBTQ bishop, Illinois’ Great Rivers Conference certified its first drag queen as a candidate for the ministry and the western jurisdiction had declared itself a “safe harbour”. for LGBTQ clergy.
In a written statement in response to the lawsuit, Carter said the Florida Annual Conference was “deeply saddened by this, as we seek to be one church united in love and in mission.”
The Florida Annual Conference has committed to the “gracious exit” provided for in the Book of Discipline and has tried to engage churches in the process, according to its bishop’s statement.
Leaving abruptly without making the payments required by the disaffiliation plan approved in 2019 could hurt the benefits and pensions of retired pastors, he wrote. Allocations support camps, campus ministries, natural disaster response, overseas missions and United Methodist Children’s Home.
“We ask that, despite their haste, those groups seeking to separate live up to the responsibilities established by General Conference in 2019, and that they do not cause pain, damage or disparagement to other Methodist churches. other members of their churches or other pastors, or the Conference,” Carter wrote.
Florida has emerged as an early indicator of what the schism could look like as it begins to unfold in The United Methodist Church.
Days after the launch of The World Methodist Church in May, the Florida Chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association announced that 107 churches were disaffiliating from The United Methodist Church and planning to join the new denomination. The WCA has confirmed that most of these churches are participating in the retrial.
At the Florida Annual Conference meeting this summer, delegates reportedly rejected a list of 16 people on track to become ordained elders or deacons because two of them were openly gay.
They also approved 14 disaffiliations.
Boyette, leader of the World Methodist Church, said he expects those numbers to rise this fall when a number of United Methodist Church annual conferences are scheduled to hold special sessions regarding disaffiliation.
“Most of these churches are heading into the Methodist World Church,” he said.
That includes “virtually all” of the churches named in the lawsuit against the Florida Annual Conference, according to Boyette, who said he was not involved in the lawsuit.
The World Methodist Church was launched this year after a third postponement of the United Methodist Church’s 2020 General Conference, which was to consider a proposal to split the denomination, allowing churches to disaffiliate from their properties to form new conservative expressions of Methodism. It now has several hundred clergy and nearly 100 churches around the world, Boyette said.
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In recent weeks, moderate and progressive leaders who helped broker the proposal, called the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, have rescinded their support. The bishops who were on the negotiating team, including Carter, issued a statement affirming the work that had been done on the proposal and handing it over to delegates who could still consider it at the next General Conference, now scheduled for 2024.
Meanwhile, Boyette said, some annual conferences require long periods of discernment and additional financial obligations that were not outlined in the 2019 disaffiliation plan for churches wishing to leave.
“It all took a situation that could have been and amicably moved toward resolution to make it a very contentious and divisive situation,” he said.
“So in my mind, it’s no surprise that churches feel like they have no recourse but to resort to litigation at this point, and that’s basically what I believe The leaders of The United Methodist Church have invited taking the action they have taken,” Boyette added.