Trustees for the Alabama-West Florida Conference (AWFC) of the United Methodist Church (UMC) released an updated disaffiliation eligibility policy on Tuesday, which conservative Methodist leaders are calling a “nail in the coffin” for conservative churches in the conference who are seeking to leave the denomination while retaining church property.

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. 

Since December, over 500 Methodist churches have left the UMC in Alabama alone.

Vaughn Stafford, pastor at Cleabranch Methodist Church in Argo and a leader in the new traditional Global Methodist Church (GMC), explained to 1819 News in December that the traditional Christians in the UMC originally established rule 2553 in 2019 to create a window for progressive churches to separate while retaining 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.

However, as progressive forces grew more powerful in the UMC, many traditional Methodist churches started to use rule 2553 to exit the denomination themselves. Some have become independent churches, and others have joined traditional Methodist denominations like GMC.

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. 

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.”

Under the new AWFC policy, the “statement of eligibility” must be signed by all elders, deacons and local pastors.

Moreover, the AWFC Trustees claim the authority to use the statement to determine whether or not the church is eligible for disaffiliation. 

According to a press release from the AWFC, the UMC’s Judicial Council published a ruling (known as Judicial Ruling 1476) in April that “clarified the Annual Conference Trustees’ role in determining eligibility for disaffiliation, further clarifying the powers of the Trustees to set its exit and disaffiliation policy.” 

Specifically, the ruling states: “Annual conferences are free to require by policy that a local church seeking disaffiliation demonstrate its reasons of conscience ‘related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals' pursuant to [paragraph] 2553.1.”

The AWFC used the ruling as justification for now requiring that churches within its jurisdiction explain to the trustees the disagreements it has with the UMC’s current book of discipline.

Jeffery Rickman, pastor at Notwata Methodist Church in Oklahoma and host of traditional Methodist podcast “PlainSpoken,” suggested in a Thursday episode that the move limits churches seeking to disaffiliate to progressive churches who want the church to officiate same-sex marriage and take issue with the current Book of Discipline. 

This is even though the vast majority of churches seeking disaffiliation are traditional churches that fear progressives could make changes to the Book of Discipline in the future. And, as many traditional churches have already left the denomination, the progressive voting block is bound to be larger when changes can be made to the Book of Discipline at the next General Conference, now slated for 2024.

If traditional churches wait until those changes are made, they will have missed the timeframe established by rule 2553. This means they may not necessarily have a way to retain their property and would have to start from scratch. 

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. 

Though the issue of homosexuality has been central in the divide between traditional Christians and progressives in the UMC, traditional methodists have suggested the real divide lies even deeper. 

Stafford explained last year that social issues are only on the cusp of the debate. In reality, the UMC has become divided over theological disputes, such as the authority of scripture and the view of Jesus Christ as fully human and divine. 

Rickman accused AWFC Bishop David Graves of being unsympathetic to conservative churches and called the AWFC policy a method of “entrapping another 50 to 80 churches that want to leave.”

“The only stipulations for disaffiliating from the denomination are under the strict process here that very much flies in the face of what had been done before,” explained Rickman. “... It’s already been established that annual conferences boards of trustees do not need to question the reasons of conscience, why it is a local church wants to disaffiliate. For that reason, a lot of conservative churches have just said, ‘We want to disaffiliate,’ then the conference says, ‘OK, we don’t need to ask about that.’ Complete change here. What seemed to have been going on before. Now it’s over.” 

Rickman said that even if churches have started the disaffiliation process, they now have to go back to the beginning. 

The administrative boards of some churches, such as the First United Methodist Church in Montgomery (FUMCM), have already voted to enter discernment, a process of opening up the discussion around leaving the denomination to church members. Members can then vote to leave the UMC or not. To leave, at least two-thirds of a church’s members present at a church conference must favor disaffiliation.

A representative from the AWFC told 1819 News that churches currently in the discernment process won’t be required to start over, but they will be required to fulfill all the updated requirements. The churches that have already voted to leave the UMC will not be subject to the policy.

1819 News reached out to FUMCM pastor Jay Cooper to ask whether he intends to sign a statement of eligibility for his church. He did not respond.

Rickman suggested that the “inaction” of church leaders in the face of progressive defiance should be a key reason traditional churches should be allowed to leave the UMC under rule 2553. 

Since its formation, the UMC has officially condemned homosexual activity and supported laws that define marriage as the union between one man and one woman. It has ruled that pastors must not be “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” and has forbidden churches from celebrating same-sex weddings.

Despite the official stance, the issue of homosexuality has been widely debated in the UMC, and some progressive churches have openly defied the official church doctrine. 

“Actions or indications’ is the key phrase here,” Rickman said. “… When we have a connectional [UMC] framework, and we have parts of the church that are in open rebellion against the Book of Discipline, we have agents of the church responsible for protecting that discipline: bishops who are actually bishops of the whole church.”

“Other churches that were asked and told, ‘You have to state your reasons of conscious,’ and when they said, part of our reasons of conscience is that our bishop and our leadership have not corrected the rebellion of other parts of the church, they were flatly told ‘that reason does not apply,” he continued. “[You're] going to give us another reason, or we’re not going to let you go.”

Rickman expressed concern that the new rule would prevent traditional churches in the AWFC from leaving if they want to maintain their integrity.

“I think this has made it impossible for conservatives who take honest speech seriously to get out,” he said. “I think you have been effectively entrapped … In case it's not clear until now, I do not think lying is good for the soul of the church. I do not think the ends justify the means.”

He suggested that, meanwhile, the conference lost enough conservative churches before the implementation of the rule that the traditional methodist forced to remain would be dominated by progressives in the annual conference.

“They’re just entrapping the rest,” Rickman said. “I think what they’re counting on is conservatives just being cowed, voting with their feet and leaving. And then inheriting all these properties that they can liquidate and sell.”

Rickman pointed out that the new policy also prevents AWFC churches from entering the discernment process for another year after the church considers a motion to entertain the discernment process and it fails to receive a majority vote by the church’s board. Since the provisions expire after 2023, this means churches only have one chance to enter discernment.

Rickman suggested that conservative churches should join and file suit against the annual conference. 

Harvest Church in Dothan is currently in a lawsuit with the AWFC over a property dispute after it decided to disaffiliate. The UMC is accusing Harvest Church of not following the proper disaffiliation guidelines. A Houston County judge rejected a plea from the UMC in April to dismiss the suit.

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