2023 has been a divisive year for Methodists around the state of Alabama. 

Since November 2022, over 500 congregations have disaffiliated from the two United Methodist Church (UMC) conferences in Alabama — the Alabama-West Flordia Conference (AWFC) and the North Alabama Conference (NAC) — as traditional churches pursued disaffiliation.  

This occurred in response to 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.

The schism has not only resulted in new Methodist denominations but has torn apart congregations, as church members disagree about whether their church should've remained in the UMC or parted ways. 

As the new year approaches, let's look back on this contentious split by reviewing some of the most important stories about the issue on 1819 News.

January: By January of this year, nearly 200 churches in the NAC, which once included over 600 denominations, had already seceded from the UMC. Traditional Methodist leader Vaughn Stafford discussed the issues spurring the movement away from the UMC by many more conservative congregations last December. He said that beyond surface-level issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, factions in the UMC disagree about more fundamental concepts such as the authority of scripture and the divinity of Christ.

Stafford said that traditionalists initially pushed for a rule in the UMC, known as Rule 2553, in 2019, which created a window for churches to separate while retaining their church property. 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.

Under rule 2553, seceding churches can retain church property by paying a substantial fee to the UMC, which helps pay for unfunded pension liabilities and two years of apportionments. The rule expires at the end of 2023.

May: Fast forward to May 2023, another almost 200 churches left the UMC, this time through the AWFC. The AWFC covers nearly all of South Alabama, alongside Florida's Panhandle. And almost 150 more churches left the NAC. 

After voting to leave the UMC, Harvest Church in Dothan engaged in a lawsuit against the AWFC over a property dispute. Houston County Circuit Court delayed the case that month pending a review by the Alabama Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, large churches like First Methodist Church Montgomery (FUMCM) debated whether to consider leaving the UMC. FUMCM narrowly voted to enter discernment, which is the process of evaluating whether or not to disaffiliate and, afterward, allows members to vote to arrive at a final decision. 

June: The following month, the AWFC hosted its annual conference. However, shortly before the conference began, the AWFC released an updated disaffiliation eligibility policy, which conservative Methodist leaders called a "nail in the coffin" for conservative churches in the conference who are seeking to leave under rule 2553.

Reverend John Blount of St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Panama City, Fla., questioned the integrity of the AWFC leadership after the rule change. Before departing for the annual conference, Blount delivered a sermon in which he shared his thoughts with his congregation and described himself as an "ambassador in chains."

The AWFC used the wording of the rule and an April ruling from the UMC's Judicial Council to justify requiring churches within its jurisdiction to explain to the trustees the disagreements it has with the UMC's current book of discipline.

Rule 2553 requires that the members have "reasons of conscience" about issues of homosexuality either in the current Book of Discipline or in the actions or inactions of its annual conference.

The Judicial Council ruling permitted conferences to require churches to demonstrate reasons of conscience "related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals."

During his opening remarks at the conference, AWFC Bishop David Graves said he was exhausted by the infighting and expressed hope for the divided denomination. 

As the conference went on, a leaked email showed a newly elected delegate to the UMC's General Conference congratulating other clergy within the AWFC for moving forward with the updated disaffiliation policy. In the email, the delegate admitted that the purpose of the rule change was to "halt the harmful 'discernment' process and end harm to" the United Methodist Church, "its members and clergy." He even proclaimed that the "days of mass and easy disaffiliation, under false pretenses, are over."

At the end of the annual conference, AWFC Board of Trustees President Olivia Poole defended the updated policy. She refused to specify whether, if the new policy had been instituted earlier, some churches who had already disaffiliated would not have been allowed to disaffiliate. However, she said churches that had already started the disaffiliation process but had not yet completed it would not have had to start over. Instead, they just would've had to meet the new requirements.

Also during the conference, the AWFC elected to approve a rule clarification by its Board of Trustees, which would prevent over 200 disaffiliating clergies from receiving retirement benefits, sparking harsh criticism from some delegates. 

In the NAC, one of the largest Methodist churches in Alabama, Mountain Brook's Canterbury United Methodist, voted to remain in the UMC after its discernment team recommended the church stay. 

During its annual conference, the NAC voted in favor of a resolution to remove language regarding restriction on homosexuality from the Book of Discipline. One delegate moved to postpone the resolution, arguing that the issue should be handled by the General Conference in 2024. Nevertheless, the motion failed, and the resolution passed 236 to 151.

October: Conflict continued into the fall as members of the Auburn United Methodist Church (AUMC) filed a suit in Lee County against the UMC, claiming that the AWFC used a "trust clause" in the UMC Book of Discipline to "seize assets" and prevent congregants from using church property. The lawsuit asked the court to compel a disaffiliation vote among the AUMC congregants.

November: A Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge dismissed a lawsuit in November brought against the AWFC by 45 Alabama Methodist churches over the summer's rule change. The court argued that it could deliberate on church doctrine, which would be necessary to intervene in the conflict. 

Also in November, the Alabama Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments in the case of Harvest Church. The arguments are expected to be heard next year.

Nevertheless, by the end of the month, Alan Beasley, president pro tem of the Global Methodist Church, a large traditional Methodist denomination formed in the wake of the schism, indicated that it was already too late for more churches to leave while retaining church property outside of legal action.

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, told 1819 News the GMC was doing everything it could to help churches and individuals who wanted to leave the UMC.

December: Earlier this month, 1819 News talked to GMC leaders who helped form new congregations from churches that decided to stay in the denomination. Most insisted the division had been hard on the congregants but expressed hope for traditional Methodism going forward.

To connect with the author of this story or to comment, email will.blakely@1819news.com or find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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