A total of 574 congregations have disaffiliated from the two United Methodist Church (UMC) conferences in Alabama since November 2022, as a rule permitting churches to leave while retaining church property is set to expire.
The UMC is currently undergoing a major division as traditional churches are pursuing disaffiliation in light of a growing faction of progressive Methodists pressuring the church to change its Book of Discipline, which sets forth the law and doctrine for UMC churches.
There are two UMC conferences in Alabama: the Alabama-West Flordia Conference (AWFC), which also includes parts of Panhandle Florida, and the North Alabama Conference (NAC).
On Monday, 1819 News spoke to leaders in the Global Methodist Church (GMC), a new Methodist denomination that many of the churches that have left the UMC have joined.
From the AWFC, 244 churches have thus far disaffiliated. From the NAC, that number is 330.
Eight of these churches disaffiliated from the AWFC earlier this month. This included Mobile’s Christ Methodist Church, which has nearly 5,000 members and was the last scheduled disaffiliation vote for this year’s conference.
Traditional Christians in the UMC originally established rule 2553 in 2019 to create a window for progressive churches to separate while retaining church property in light of growing polarization and theological disagreements.
Church property has been an issue for seceding churches in other denominations, such as the Anglican churches that left the Episcopalian Church over the last few decades.
However, as they came to believe progressive forces were growing more powerful in the UMC, many traditional Methodist churches started to use rule 2553 to exit the denomination themselves.
Under rule 2553, churches have until December 31 to disaffiliate. If they do not break away by then but decide to disaffiliate in the future, they could be forced to surrender church property, which, in the case of some churches, is over 200 years old.
Almost 350 churches that left the UMC in Alabama have joined the GMC. President Pro Tem of the GMC’s Alabama Emerald Coast Conference, Lester Spencer, said the GMC is doing everything it can to help churches and individuals who want to leave the UMC.
“The [GMC] now has over 4,000 churches worldwide,” he explained. “Over 24% of the [UMC] Churches have now disaffiliated … Plus, that’s not counting all the churches that are dying. It’s also not counting the people who are just leaving in droves, the churches that did now leave, the church that did not disaffiliate or were not allowed to disaffiliate … They’re voting with their feet.”
Immediately before its annual conference in June, the AWFC updated its disaffiliation eligibility policy. The updated policy requires the Church Council of churches in the AWFC which seek to enter the disaffiliation process, “adopt a statement of eligibility that demonstrates the current and specific disagreement(s) that the local church has with the changes in the Book of Discipline made in 2019.”
Conservative Methodist leaders called this a “nail in the coffin” for churches in the conference seeking to leave the denomination while retaining church property.
According to Spencer, 60 churches applied to leave the conference after the rule change. Only eight of them received approval.
In response, some churches denied disaffiliation under rule 2553 filed a lawsuit against the AWFC. However, a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge dismissed the case earlier this month. The Alabama Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments in another lawsuit against the UMC next year brought about by Dothan’s Harvest Church.
Alan Beasley, the GMC’s North Alabama president pro tem, said that outside of legal action, there is no way more churches can leave the UMC under rule 2553. The NAC had its last conference in September, which is necessary to disaffiliate.
“As far as 2553, there’s no indication that it’s going to be allowed after the first of the year,” he said. “... I know several others who would have liked to [leave under the rule], but they missed the deadline, so they can’t.”
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