Reverend John Blount of St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Panama City, Fla. questioned the integrity of the United Methodist Church's (UMC) Alabama-West Florida Conference (AWFC) leadership at this week's annual conference.

Blount's criticism follows a rule change that the AWFC Board of Trustees released last week. The new policy makes it more difficult for churches in the AWFC seeking dissociation from the UMC to retain 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, more than 500 Methodist churches have left the UMC in Alabama alone.

The new policy adds additional requirements on churches seeking disaffiliation through paragraph 2553, a rule in the UMC's Book of Discipline that establishes criteria for churches in the UMC to disaffiliate while retaining church property.

Churches have until the end of the year to complete the disaffiliation process before the rule expires.

Traditional methodists fought to establish Rule 2553 in 2019 to assist churches that refused to abide by the UMC's official traditional stance on marriage and homosexuality to leave the denomination. However, traditional churches began to take advantage of the rule last year, fearing the growing progressive faction might try to change the Book of Discipline during next year's General Conference.

One of the requirements in the AWFC policy requires that churches seeking disaffiliation provide the trustees a "statement of eligibility" explaining why they want to disaffiliate. It limits a church's reason for disaffiliation to 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 Trustees will review this statement to determine whether a church is eligible for disaffiliation under Rule 2553 in the first place.

"I've been telling my church to trust, trust the bishop," Blount told 1819 News on Tuesday at the annual conference. "The bishop told us, we're going to get you where you need to be … Basically, with this new shift of power with the last round of 193 churches disaffiliating, the trustees seized that opportunity, and it's really just an abuse of power. It's really just unfair to the churches that did trust the clergy, that did trust the bishop."

Blount said that individuals in larger churches in the conference, such as First United Methodist Church Montgomery (FUMCM) and Auburn First United Methodist Church (AFUMC), have a had "kind of a system of silencing their congregations" to prevent those with conservative views from voicing their perspective. 

"That silencing that's happened at those large churches is now being enforced on the small churches like mine," Blount explained. "I've been telling my people, 'Let's keep talking. We're going to have difficult conversations, but we're going to have them. That's how we're going to get through this together."

Blount said he hoped the trustees would take a step back and return to the policy that has been in place since churches first started disaffiliating from the AWFC through Rule 2553. 

Though trustees made some minor changes before the annual session concluded on Wednesday, churches are still required to submit a statement of eligibility and meet other requirements that make disaffiliation more difficult.

"It's just sad that what's happening now on the conference level is being forced down on all the clergy and really on the local congregations," Blount said. "The congregations, they built those churches. My church, we're a hurricane church. We built it numerous times. The conference didn't do it. The conference gave me $28,000 have Hurricane Micheal."

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." 

"Pray that I may declare boldly as I must speak," Blount said. "God has been preparing us for this time … Some moves have been made against us in the past couple weeks that have turned me into a liar. I said 'trust me, we're going to be alright.' And then they tried to take my voice away and they tried to take your voice away."

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