United Methodists (UMC) in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have begun the process to leave the mainline Protestant denomination as a wave of congregations in the United States have recently voted to disaffiliate amid a schism over homosexuality. Delegates of the UMC Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference voted 40-20 in an online meeting to allow regional church bodies to take the first steps toward departing from the second-largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. They voted to allow regional bodies of Central Russia, Northwest Russia and Belarus Provisional, the Eastern Russia and Central Asia Provisional, and the South Russia Provisional annual conferences to become self-governing entities. All four of those conferences — with 66 churches in total across Russia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Estonia — are led by Bishop Eduard Khegay.
Additionally, the delegates voted down a proposal to allow regional bodies within the Central Conference to change their rules to allow the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of openly gay individuals. “It is not necessarily a decision that is received with the same joy or appreciation by all members of the conference,” said Nordic and Baltic Area Bishop Christian Alsted, as quoted by UM News. “Nevertheless, this is the decision that we were able to make together.” Over the past several years, the UMC has been embroiled in a divisive debate over whether to change rules outlined in its Book of Discipline prohibiting the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals. Although efforts to amend the rules at General Conference have failed, many progressive leaders within the UMC have refused to follow or enforce the standards for marriage and ordination.
For example, last November, the UMC Western Jurisdiction voted to make the Rev. Cedrick D. Bridgeforth of the California-Pacific Conference a bishop, even though he is married to a man. In January 2020, a theologically diverse group of United Methodist leaders came together and proposed a measure in which the UMC would allocate money to form a new denomination for churches opposed to changing the rules, allowing them to join that entity as a way to end the debate. Known as the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation,” the original plan was to have the measure passed at the 2020 UMC General Conference. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, General Conference was postponed multiple times. Last year, the UMC announced that it would postpone the conference until 2024, prompting many churches to disaffiliate without the measure.
In May 2022, the Global Methodist Church was launched as a conservative alternative to the UMC, with over a thousand churches already joining the new denomination. In 2022, over 1,800 churches had disaffiliation votes approved by their respective UMC conferences. Elsewhere in Europe, the UMC Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference voted to leave the UMC and join the Global Methodist Church last year. Some congregations have faced pushback from their conferences to their quests to disaffiliate from their congregations. Some disaffiliation votes have been rejected by regional conferences, while other churches have sued their conferences for what they consider to be unfair requirements for them to leave the UMC. Most recently, a group of 38 congregations has filed a lawsuit accusing the UMC Baltimore-Washington Conference of requiring “payment of a financial ransom” as their properties are “encumbered by an irrevocable trust for the benefit of the UMC.”
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