A leaked email shows a newly elected delegate to the United Methodist Church's (UMC) General Conference congratulating other UMC clergy within the Alabama-West Florida Conference for moving forward with a rule that makes it more difficult for traditional churches to disaffiliate from the denomination while retaining church property.

Rev. Dr. Geoffrey D. Lentz is a pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Pensacola. He was elected on Monday to serve as a clergy delegate to the UMC's General Conference at the AWFC's annual conference, which is being held in Mobile at the University of South Alabama Monday through Wednesday.

The UMC is currently undergoing a significant 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. 

Since December, over 500 Methodist churches have left the UMC in Alabama alone. The churches used a provision in the Book of Discipline known as Rule 2553, which established a process for churches to disaffiliate while retaining church property.

Under Rule 2553, churches have until December of this year 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.

Traditional Methodists initially pushed for Rule 2553 to allow progressive churches to disaffiliate as tensions grow between the two factions around social issues and underlying theological disagreements. 

However, as progressives grew more powerful in the UMC, traditional Methodists feared the progressives might be able to make changes to the Book of Discipline during the next General Conference in 2024, potentially threatening orthodox doctrine surrounding same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, among other theological disputes such as the divinity of Christ or the authority of scripture. 

This year's AWFC annual conference follows the release of an updated disaffiliation eligibility policy last week, which conservative Methodist leaders call a "nail in the coffin" for churches seeking to leave the denomination through rule 2553 but have not yet completed the process. 

The updated policy now requires that 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."

Traditional Methodists have suggested that the policy, in effect, limits Rule 2553 disaffiliation to progressive churches seeking to leave the denomination and prevents traditional churches acting in good faith from leaving out of concern that the UMC has grown too theologically liberal.

As traditional churches have made up the vast majority of churches that have already disaffiliated, this could mean the progressive faction in the General Conference would be much more prominent in proportion to the number of overall members.

Methodist blogger Chris Ritter shared the email on his website on Tuesday morning. 1819 News reached out to Lentz about the email and did not receive a response.

In the email, Lentz 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." 

"I believe that the June 5 update to the AWF Trustee policy effectively gets us to that point," Lentz wrote. "Providing accountability to the eligibility requirements of the BOD for instance means that likely few if any churches in our conference are truly eligible. The good faith requirements mean that coercion, threats, and slander against the UMC will no longer be tolerated. Finally, the more clearly structured discernment process means that no church will be bullied or forced into leaving, especially over lies about doctrine or promises of property."

"The days of mass and easy disaffiliation, under false pretenses, are over," he continued. "I hope and pray that this year's Annual Conference will be a fresh new start for our connection, where we can focus on our mission of making new disciples of Jesus Christ by growing our churches and planting new communities of faith."

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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