An Amicable Divorce
When you hear a friend talking about going through an amicable divorce, be prepared to hear a few caveats. In many cases, an amicable divorce is an oxymoron.
The second largest Protestant denomination in the United States is uniquely positioned to undergo an amicable divorce. The (not so) United Methodist Church (UMC) has been debating the pros and cons of homosexuality for nearly half a century. In 1972, key verbiage was added to the Book of Discipline stating “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
This statement laid the foundation for debate, division, and discord in the ranks of the UMC. If, in fact, the various parties’ impending divorce is amicable, their marriage has been anything but. Families have split, congregations have created factions, and pastors have had their clergy credentials withdrawn. It became evident over the last couple years that when a pastor is silent on the matter, some church members will undermine his or her ministry simply because they know the pastor supports equality and is welcoming to all.
The voices of those supporting and advocating for acceptance of the LGBTQ community has grown much stronger in the last few years. The “Reconciling” movement, as it is called, has seen many more congregations and groups within churches declare themselves to be reconciling. Currently, there are 1,255 such groups across the country.
In the UMC, the world-wide body of delegates is called the General Conference and meets every four years. At its 2016 gathering, it was anticipated that a critical debate and vote would take place that could have led to Reconciling action. However, early on in its deliberations, a motion passed to set aside this issue and schedule a special General Conference to act on this issue alone. It was scheduled for February 2019.
At this subsequent deliberation, debate was intense, and much to the surprise of many, the conservative agenda was adopted. This meant that effective January 1, 2020, not only would the restrictive language remain in the Book of Discipline, but additional punitive actions would be enacted against any clergy who dared to officiate a same-sex wedding. While the passing vote belonged to the Traditionalists within the UMC, it created an outrage and outreach that galvanized the Reconciling demographic.
Beginning in the summer of 2019, a new, diverse group of 16 church leaders met to negotiate a very amicable divorce. These people came from around the world and represented the constituencies of the different doctrinal groups within the UMC. These 16 people hold high offices in the denomination or bear the title of Executive of various lay groups.
There was no reason to expect that this group of leaders could find enough common ground to lead to an amicable divorce for this church body. They sensed the need for a professional mediator, someone who had proven skills that might bring the fringes together in a mutually beneficial agreement.
The person who met those expectations is a Jewish attorney renowned in conflicted situations. Kenneth F. Feinberg has a resume that is unmatched in the legal community. He was the Special Master for the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund, and also served as the government-appointed counsel for the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Compensation Fund.
What made Mr. Feinberg even more desired as the mediator in this religious setting was that he was donating his services. He led this Methodist group through months of strategic planning and negotiations pro bono. He was fully committed to the UMC in seeing it through to an amicable divorce. Many compromises were agreed upon among the parties, and they are currently of one mind. They want to move forward, permitting those who desire to be welcoming of the LGBTQ community to do so, while allowing those who see these lifestyles as sinful to continue their own path of faith.
There is an interesting—and relevant—twist to this story. Our local Epworth United Methodist Church, known as a beacon of advocacy and acceptance of the LGBTQ community for decades, has a new pastor. Effective January 1, 2020, the Rev. Dr. Vicki Gordy-Stith became Senior Pastor of Epworth. A vocal advocate and ally of the LGBTQ community, she also happens to be the primary clergy delegate to General Conference in May. She is well-suited to lead the local delegation to the next meeting of that body, which will meet May 5-15, 2020, in Minneapolis.
Forty-eight years after the UMC took on an anti-gay agenda and platform, the time has come for it to gently and prayerfully split into separate entities. These factions will celebrate the freedom they each claim as their rightful mantle as followers of faith. What joy will come with the many same-sex weddings being held in the church where those persons worship. These are the times when an amicable divorce brings forth the celebration of new love. ▼
David Garrett is a straight advocate for equality and inclusion. He is also the proud father of an adult transdaughter.
Disclaimer: David Garrett is a member of Epworth UMC.