Arkansas United Methodists work towards amicable split as national denomination splits
HOT SPRINGS — As United Methodists in Arkansas kicked off their annual conference Wednesday, traditionalists and progressives banded together, trying to devise a plan to ease an amicable parting.
The goal was to come up with a proposal that would satisfy both factions, as well as their advocates, so that the language could be introduced, debated and voted on later in the day.
In an interview after the morning session of the conference, Bishop Gary Mueller called the negotiations productive.
“We’re trying to sort everything out and get a consensus bill,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of work. I feel very positive. We’re just sorting out a few details.”
Mueller stressed the importance of collaboration from both parties. A deal, he said, would be “to witness to what Christ can do with people who come from very different perspectives.”
“If we get a high percentage of [the] vote, it will be a visible reminder that there is something that is greater than differences,” he added.
With 6.3 million American members, the United Methodist Church is the second largest Protestant denomination in the country.
It is also the second largest Protestant denomination in Arkansas, with 117,440 members and an average attendance of 43,765 in 2020.
Overall, there are approximately 630 Methodist churches statewide.
With the national denomination deeply divided, some of the largest United Methodist congregations in the state are debating whether to leave.
Jonesboro First United Methodist Church, with an average attendance of 1,577, is one of 35 that have officially begun the disaffiliation process. Others include Searcy First; Heber Springs; Mutt; Thanks to Conway and Heritage to Van Buren, a conference official said.
Leaders of Fayetteville Central United Methodist Church, the state’s largest congregation, recently voted to begin “a period of prayer and discernment regarding the current state of The United Methodist Church and the place of Central within the Body of Christ,” according to Senior Pastor Carness Vaughan.
Disputes over homosexuality have dominated recent meetings of the denomination’s General Conference, which normally meets every four years to conduct church business.
So far, theological conservatives have repeatedly prevailed at these rallies, saying the denomination continues to define “the practice of homosexuality” as “inconsistent with Christian teaching”.
They have, however, struggled to get some church officials to adhere to the provisions of their Book of Discipline, which prohibit “self-proclaimed practicing homosexuals” from being ordained to the ministry and which prohibit the performance of “same-sex unions” by Methodist clergy. or inside. Methodist churches.
Conservatives are frustrated with the disregard for church discipline in some of the US church’s 54 regional bodies, known as annual conferences.
Progressives are tired of denomination-wide positions they see as unfair.
In his annual Episcopal address on Wednesday, Mueller urged Methodists to “stay calm and trust in the Holy Spirit,” adding, “It will be all right. We will be amazed at what will happen when Jesus is in the house.”
The presence of the Lord is needed, he stressed, noting a decline in church attendance and growing skepticism of religious institutions.
“Public opinion poll after public opinion poll shows that respect for Christianity is rapidly declining,” he said.
Infighting, he suggested, has the potential to alienate people.
“They watch us. They observe. They note how our message matches what we say we believe,” he added.
The Book of Discipline, as amended in 2019, allows congregations to “disaffiliate” from The United Methodist Church “on matters relating to human sexuality,” including “the practice of homosexuality” and “the ordination or marriage of practicing self-proclaimed homosexuality”. “
But the provision, called paragraph 2553, has financial stipulations that would be difficult for many congregations to meet and it expires on Dec. 31, 2023. Its wording expressly prohibits its use after that date.
Compromise language, unveiled in January 2020, would have made it easier for the two parties to separate. But the proposal, which was backed by many traditionalists as well as progressives, needed the backing of the church’s quadrennial General Conference.
Due to covid, the 2020 gathering was pushed back to 2021 and then 2022 before being postponed, yet again, to 2024, ensuring that no voting can take place until paragraph 2253 expires.
On Wednesday, church leaders were reviewing another section of the Book of Discipline: Paragraph 2548.2.
It allows a congregation to change to another denomination with the consent of the presiding bishop and the annual conference, among others. It is important to note that it offers more latitude in determining the separation conditions and does not contain any sunset clause.
With Mueller now 68, conference members had predicted that he would soon retire. Church law governs when a bishop should retire, but timings are uncertain due to covid-related cancellations and delays.
Mueller learned Wednesday morning that he will be able to remain a bishop until 2024, a timeline that would allow him to help lead the conference through its current challenges, assuming the church’s jurisdictional conference reassigns him to Arkansas.
Traditionalists welcomed the news on Wednesday that Mueller’s retirement would be delayed.
“We were really upset that he could leave in September,” said John Miles, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Jonesboro.
No one would know what to expect with a new bishop in place, he added.
“It could be a lot worse,” he said.
With Mueller, “we have a fair process, a fair deal, and a fair bishop,” he said.