A recent plan unveiled by a 16-member panel proposes to split the United Methodist Church and form a new conservative denomination in an effort to resolve an ongoing dispute over gay marriage and gay clergy.
The proposal, called “A Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation,” envisions an amicable separation in which conservative churches forming a new denomination would retain their assets. The new denomination also would receive $25 million.
The proposal has been the source of anxiety for Kenny Baskins, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Athens. He's also spoken on the proposal at recent church services.
“I started in the ministry part-time in 1988 and went full-time in 1989. I've never seen as much anxiousness in the ministry,” he said. “Nobody knows what's going to happen, and a lot of the publicity talks as if it's a done deal.”
Though the proposal has gotten widespread media attention, Baskins said the proposal is not a done deal. He also said it's likely it won't be considered at the church's General Conference in May because it isn't on the agenda, and the cutoff for consideration has passed.
“We're at the point where something has to give,” he said. “You have two sides, and neither wants to change their position. We're going to continue to preach the gospel, and we're going to continue to worship and love and care for people. We're going to continue to follow the word of God.”
Baskins said Athens FUMC has been in the community for 200 years, and if it's God's will, it will be around for another 200. When asked how his church members view the proposal, he said most he's spoken to “just want to do church.”
“There are people who are adamant on both sides, but the majority just want us to be a church at this time,” he said.
In addressing the reason for the proposal, Baskins said it would be hard for him to predict what North Alabama Methodist churches would do.
“Most of us have our opinions, but there's no guarantee,” he said.
He explained the answer may simply lay in what the Bible says.
“God hasn't called us to hate anyone, but he's also called us to preach the gospel,” he said. “There's the story about the woman who committed adultery. Jesus said, 'I don't condemn you, but don't do this anymore.'”
No matter what happens, Baskins is hopeful the church will continue to make a positive impact on the local community, state, nation and world. He added the United Methodist Church has only been around since 1968, so the church is familiar with change.
An attempt to get comment from Friendship United Methodist Church in Athens was unsuccessful prior to The News Courier's Thursday deadline.
About the proposal
The proposal was signed in December by the panel, which worked with a mediator and began meeting in October. The panel was formed after it became clear the impasse over LGBTQ issues was irreconcilable.
Members of the 13-million-person denomination have been at odds for years over the issue, with members in the United States leading the call for full inclusion of LGBTQ people.
The rift widened last year when delegates meeting in St. Louis voted 438-384 for a proposal called the Traditional Plan, which affirmed bans on LGBTQ-inclusive practices. A majority of U.S.-based delegates opposed that plan but were outvoted by U.S. conservatives teamed with delegates from Methodist strongholds in Africa and the Philippines.
Methodists in favor of allowing gay clergy and gay marriage vowed to continue fighting. Meanwhile the Wesleyan Covenant Association, representing traditional Methodist practice, had already been preparing for a possible separation.
Concern over the future of the church pushed members, led by Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone, to convene a group to share ideas across the theological spectrum.
New York Bishop Thomas Bickerton said that turned into the final panel, made up of moderates, progressives and traditionalists from Africa, Europe, the Philippines and the United States.
Bickerton, who heads 438 Methodist churches in New York, said while he thinks it is an amicable solution, “there is a degree of heartbreak within me because I never thought we would reach this point. However, we are at this point. The differences are irreconcilable. This is inevitable.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.