By Lindsay Peyton – En Español
Recent events have signaled an uncertain future for the United Methodist Church. Bishop Scott Jones explained that many questions have been raised in the minds of members of the Texas Annual Conference. While navigating the challenging waters ahead, he will seek to lead with clarity, fairness, and transparency.
Jones forecasts that the denomination will have a schism in the months to come, much to his regret. “A split is coming,” he said. “And it’s breaking my heart.”
The Bishop has worked to avert this division for almost 18 years. “I do not welcome this,” he said. “But it has been a long time coming. It appears to be reaching a crescendo, a tipping point, soon.”
Jones explained that forces are at work to make the split inevitable. “The main question all leaders – both lay and clergy, both local church and Conference – have to face is how we lead our church in the coming months so that we emerge on the other side with as much vitality and clarity as possible,” he said.
“I am a committed, connectional Christian,” he said. “I believe that is the best way to serve Jesus. Maintaining the most unity possible is paramount.”
Jones explained that the current debate rocking the UMC traces its roots to the General Conference of 1972. Around that time, the movement advocating for gay rights in America was gaining strength, and progressive leaders sought to support those developments.
The General Conference, however, rejected their proposal and established social principles teaching that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings. In the Book of Discipline, ministers are not allowed to conduct same-gender marriages and may not conduct ceremonies in their churches. In addition, self-avowed practicing homosexuals cannot be ordained or appointed as clergy.
Jones said that, at the same time, the General Conference declared that homosexuals have sacred worth and that all people are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured.
The issue was debated in the church for the next 50 years. Still, UMC doctrine and discipline remained consistent.
Then, in 2015, the United States Supreme Court legalized same-gender marriage in all 50 states. Again, this resulted in pressure for the UMC to adapt its rules, but the General Conference said no, Jones explained.
There have been progressive leaders who violated the Book of Discipline to pursue justice for LGBTQ people. A few Conferences even made moves in this direction. Others advocated for change, while refraining from violations.
The position of the Texas Conference is to follow the Book of Discipline, and no clergy have broken the rules of the Book of Discipline. “But our neighbors are choosing to violate it,” Jones said. “Our general church apportionments have supported people who are disobedient to the Book of Discipline, who have done so without any accountability.”
Many hoped that this year’s General Conference would resolve the ongoing debate. The event, however, was postponed until next year. In fact, this meeting has been on hold since 2020 because of the pandemic.
Jones explained that the term “postponed,” however, is problematic, as the delegates could change in the fall. That would mean new representatives could be deciding the future.
A recent announcement discussed the formation of a new denomination, the Global Methodist Church (GMC). Local churches and annual conferences have been invited to join starting May 1.
Jones outlined options, as churches prepare to make decisions regarding the split.
The Texas Conference’s Future Discernment Task Force is now at work to gather information and clarify options. Members will share information on the Texas Annual Conference’s website and hold educational district meetings before votes are taken. The Conference’s Council on Finance and Administration will also examine financial implications of proposals.
Moving forward, congregations will undergo a discernment process. Churches can then hold a conference under the leadership of the District Superintendent.
If the church votes to leave the UMC, payment of the previous year’s and current year’s apportionments are due in full, as well as the congregation’s share of the Conference’s unfunded pension liability. Certain legal documents will also be required.
During the 2019 General Conference, rules for disaffiliation were established for churches opting to leave the UMC in the midst of this discussion. “Our principles of disaffiliation are gracious and aim at blessing everyone as they discern how best to serve Christ in the future,” Jones said.
Three local churches have already followed that path to exit the Texas Annual Conference. One joined the Free Methodist Church and the second, the United Church of Christ. The third chose to become independent.
There are currently two denominational options: remaining in the UMC, as it moves in a more progressive direction, or joining the new GMC. The GMC has published a transitional Book of Doctrines and Disciplines and plans to hold its convening General Conference in 2023.
Entire annual conferences are permitted to leave the UMC, Jones explained. The Council of Bishops has asked the Judicial Council to rule on necessary procedures to follow in that case.
The Judicial Council will also rule on whether it can hold a regular session of the Jurisdictional Conference, the body that elects and assigns bishops, before the General Conference meets. A date in early November is being scheduled for that event.
“If given approval and if the Conference meets, I will have to retire and a new bishop will be assigned to the Texas Annual Conference,” Jones said. “I have advised the delegates that they should be evaluating which candidates for bishop deserve election and which bishop should be assigned to serve our Conference.”
He explained that there is also a possibility that the Judicial Conference will declare that the meeting cannot happen or clarify rules in the meantime.
Jones said that while the process can be confusing, he hopes to provide as much clarity as possible. Regardless of what churches decide, he blesses them on their journey.
He is committed to keep the Texas Conference together as much as possible. “If we can’t stay 100 percent together, let’s try to maintain as much togetherness as possible,” he said.
Jones pointed to John Wesley’s sermon about the “Catholic Spirit,” which calls for love and goodwill between all Christians, across denominational lines. The Bishop asks, “If we cannot continue united in one organic church, can we embody Christian unity as separate denominations that respect and love each other?”
It is inevitable that the Wesleyan movement will have different expressions going forward, Jones added. He takes heart in the Wesleyan version of Christianity and prays the movement will emerge as strong as possible from this split.
Jones recommends starting the discernment process by watching the webinar on the Conference’s website. There is also an FAQ online, which will have links to more information. “We want to provide resources so that people who have to make a decision are as informed as possible,” Jones said.
He advises against churches becoming independent. “Wesleyan Christians believe in staying connected to others. That’s why we’re a Conference. That’s why we are part of a global denomination,” he said.
Jones added, “We need each other. It’s for Biblical reasons, as Christ commanded us. And it’s for practical reasons too. We’re better off together.”
The Bishop is convinced that churches in the Conference can move forward with grace and mutual respect. He quoted John Wesley:
Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”
To hear the recent webinar on this subject, hosted by Bishop Jones go to www.txcumc.org/webinars.
By Lindsay Peyton – En Español