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State’s Conference Lets 62 More Leave United Methodists

The Arkansas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church voted overwhelmingly Sunday to let 62 more of its congregations leave, joining more than 100 others that had already departed over the past 11 months.

Lay people and clergy voted 317 to 56 (85% to 15%) to ratify the latest batch of disaffiliation agreements, approving them as a bloc, rather than individually.

The special session, which was held via Zoom, took less than an hour.

Highlands Church in Bella Vista, with average Sunday attendance of 170 in 2021, was the largest of the 62.

It was joined by Arkansas City, Bethel (Jacksonville), Bethel (Sheridan), Bull Shoals, Carlisle First, Center Grove (Gurdon), Center Grove (Sheridan), Danville, DeWitt First, Diamond City, Dumas First, Ebenezer (Stephens), Fountain Hill, Glenwood, Gravelly, Green’s Chapel, Harmon, Harrell, Hermitage, Hickory Plains, L’eau Fraiz, Lacey, Marmaduke, Marshall, Maynard, Midland, Midway, Mount Ida, New Edinburg, Oak Grove (Searcy), Ola, Pleasant Grove (DeWitt), Philadelphia, Rock Springs (Wilmar), Rockport, Roe, Rushing Memorial, St. James (Mountain View), Silver Hill, Springfield, Sugar Hill, Taylor, Trinity (Warren), Unity, Wagnon, Warren First, Watson, Winslow, Yellville, Campground (Paragould), Cornerstone (Pleasant Plains), Gentry, Hartford, McGehee First, Mount Tabor, Pruett’s Chapel, Quitman, Rhodes Chapel, St. Paul’s (Harrison), Tillar and Warren’s Chapel.

Thus far, at least 6,572 of the country’s roughly 30,000 United Methodist congregations have departed since early 2019, including 169 in Arkansas.

Congregations in Jonesboro, Searcy and Cabot split after the conference declined to ratify their disaffiliation agreements, with majorities in all three instances opting to leave the denomination anyway and start their own independent Methodist churches.

Paragraph 2553 of the denomination’s Book of Discipline, approved in 2019 at a special session of the denomination’s General Conference in St. Louis, allowed local churches to disaffiliate if they were dissatisfied with the denomination’s handling of issues such as same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy.

A supermajority vote by a congregation — two-thirds or more of those present — is required before it can pursue disaffiliation.

Churches that leave are required to pay any outstanding tithes owed to the conference, plus an additional year’s tithes as well as money to cover unfunded pension liability.

The deadline is Dec. 31.

Most of those departing agree with the denomination’s existing stand, that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” should not be ordained as ministers or appointed to serve.

But the provisions have been ignored in some parts of the country, and efforts to remove that language from the Book of Discipline have intensified in recent years.

Bishop Laura Merrill, who replaced retiring Bishop Gary Mueller, in January, had asked those participating in Sunday’s meeting to approach their work “with a spirit of patience and cooperation.”

She told Sunday’s session that this “Arkansas adventure is a gift of God in my life, challenges notwithstanding.”

“By the grace of God, the days that lie ahead of us, I know they’re going to bring mercy and grace and reconciliation, service and joy. In and through us, God will do this,” she said.

Before adjourning, she also thanked members of the board of trustees and Chancellor Michelle Ator “for their wise leadership, their sacrificial gift of time and their discernment.”

“They have done this work prayerfully and with integrity,” she said.

Elizabeth Fink, former associate children’s director at Central United Methodist Church in Fayetteville and secretary of the pro-disaffiliation Wesleyan Covenant Association Global Council, said Merrill has been “gracious” as she’s dealt with the divisions.

“The few conversations I’ve had with her and have been around, she has made it clear that she’s not here to divide and upset [people], but to let people go where they feel called to go and rebuild,” she said.

Once Paragraph 2553 sunsets on Dec. 31, there’s no guarantee that congregations will be given another opportunity to exit, she noted.

The United Methodist Church, which was the nation’s largest Protestant denomination as recently as the 1960s, is now less than half the size of the 13.2 million-member Southern Baptist Convention.

It listed 5.71 million members in 2021, including 113,133 in Arkansas, with average attendance of 1.36 million, including 25,882 in the Natural State.

In 2021, the Arkansas Conference reported 612 churches. Once disaffiliation is complete, there’ll be fewer than 450 congregations remaining in the Natural State.

Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative ecumenical Washington think tank, welcomed Sunday’s vote.

“I’m glad that 160 churches have exited Arkansas, which will be a good core for replanting traditional Methodism in Arkansas after nearly 60 years of decline, in a national religious culture that is now largely post denominational with a Baptist ethos,” he said in a text message. “USA Christianity will be stronger with a vibrant Methodism.”

Jay Clark, a representative of Arkansans Staying United, a pro-United Methodist group, said the recent divisions have been “painful on both sides.”

Rather than looking backward, he is encouraging those who remain to look ahead.

“I just hope that we can come together as United Methodist Christians and move forward into a faithful and fruitful future that glorifies God and gives witness to the love of Christ for everyone and that we let the Holy Spirit guide us,” he said.

At Highlands Church, there’s enthusiasm about what lies ahead.

“As we look to our future we are excited to continue with our mission to worship passionately, love like Jesus, and witness boldly to advance the Kingdom of God in our world,” said Jean Galloway, vice chair of the congregation’s administrative council.

Source : Banner News