Two pieces of news broke, almost simultaneously, within the United Methodist Church that will have seismic implications for the future of the global Methodist movement.
First, the Commission on General Conference, the agency responsible for the planning and administration of the quadrennial gathering of the United Methodist Church, postponed for the third time the 2020 General Conference. The Commissioned moved the gathering to 2024. Its reasoning was understandable, if not disappointing. The ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic has produced issues for some delegations to get vaccinated and meet visa requirements. The lack of visas prevents as many people as possible from gathering in person.
Second, the leadership responsible for forming the Global Methodist Church announced plans to become a legal entity on May 1. It had previously announced plans to begin this year but moved up its planning in response to the delay in the 2020 General Conference. Its reasoning was understandable, if not disappointing. The failure for General Conference to meet to approve a separation agreement, which would provide start-up funding for the new denomination, had been a point of frustration for the Global Methodist Church and its supporters.
Both pieces of news sent shockwaves into an already stressed and exhausted denomination. Years of fighting followed by a global pandemic have weakened the very bonds of connection that have kept the fellowship together through various trials and difficulties. We are no longer one body, and to presume we are is to ignore the realities before the global Methodist movement.
Separation is inevitable at this point. It is a reality that is understandable, if not disappointing.
I remember hearing a pastor once describe schism as a sin. The committed sin is the inability to talk with one another as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. While we might face the temptation to claim one group is more righteous than the other, often in alignment with our desires within the schism, we have to recognize the sin of how we have failed to communicate with one another over the years. We have been more interested in winning an argument than being the church. The result is a stagnant movement that has failed to reach people with the love of Christ.
A connection within the body of Christ known as the Methodist movement is breaking apart, and that should not be a moment of celebration. It will be for some. It should be a moment for tears, reflection, and, yes, repentance.
What comes next is anyone’s guess. The Commission on General Conference and Council of Bishops need to determine whether it considers the 2020 General Conference canceled. This is important with the next regularly scheduled conference scheduled for 2024. It will need to consider how it will respond to questions regarding how the church will move forward for the next two years while living within the Book of Discipline. It will also need to deal with requests from both pastors and congregations that will want to leave and join the Global Methodist Church or some other body.
As well, the Global Methodist Church will need to announce how it plans to welcome and accept both clergy and congregations into its movement. While the Global Methodist Church, and its supporting groups and individuals, have been open about its working Discipline and guiding principles, it will need to be transparent about its process and separation plans moving forward.
What is clear is that both the global Methodist movement will not be the same moving forward. Yes, it has dealt with separations and disagreements before and often in times of cultural and societal unease. Separation harms the body and hinders the movement in its mission and ministry. That will be the case for the global Methodist movement in whatever form it takes post-schism.
In the coming weeks and months, we will learn how various groups will respond to this schism. We will hear of pastors who will decide to stay in the United Methodist Church. We will hear of pastors who will leave, both for the Global Methodist Church and other denominations. We will hear of congregations who will stay in the United Methodist Church. We will hear of congregations who will decide to leave, both for the Global Methodist Church and other denominations.
All of it is understandable. All of it is disappointing.