The United Methodist Church, the nation’s third-largest religious denomination, is expected later this year to split into two denominations in an attempt to settle a contentious fight over same-sex marriage — a clash that just months ago forced an Iowa City pastor to step aside.
Leaders of the church announced Friday they had agreed to spin off a “traditionalist Methodist” denomination, which would continue to oppose same-sex marriage and to refuse ordination to LGBT clergy, while allowing the remaining portion of the United Methodist Church to permit same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy for the first time in its history.
The plan would need to be approved in May at the denomination’s worldwide conference.
The writers of the plan called a potential split “the best means to resolve our differences, allowing each part of the Church to remain true to its theological understanding, while recognizing the dignity, equality, integrity, and respect of every person.”
The United Methodist Church is the United States’s largest mainline Protestant denomination. The church has fought bitterly about LGBT inclusion for years, and leaders often feared the fight would lead to a schism.
It is an issue that has been playing out for years in Iowa. Three times in three years, the Rev. Anna Blaedel of Iowa City was charged with “being a self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy member in violation church law.
In November, Blaedel took an indefinite leave of absence under a settlement with the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Blaedel was director of the Wesley Center campus ministry in Iowa City, but stepped down in May. Under the settlement, which avoided a church trial, they — the pronoun Blaedel prefers — retained pastoral credentials and continued as leader of the Wesley Center’s Table Tuesday conversation program.
The Rev. Tyler Schwaller, who has served as Blaedel’s legal counsel, Friday said Blaedel was not available for an interview.
Blaedel is on the leadership council of UM-Forward, an organization of United Methodists dedicated to “people of color, queer, and trans liberation.” Schwaller, who is also part of the group, said UM-Forward would release a statement next week.
There are 10 churches listed by the Iowa Conference in Cedar Rapids, three in Iowa City and numerous others in towns around the region.
Even if the church splits, some local pastors were hopeful the resolution could help with healing after the dispute.
“Today may be the day that United Methodism had the courage to appreciate the real and genuine faith people have that see issues differently and bless each other, rather than dissolve into legal battles over property, pensions and assets. Expanding into more than one expression of Methodism may be the healthiest thing for our congregations and our communities,” said the Rev. Mike Morgan, lead pastor at First United Methodist Church in Marion.
“We haven’t had any church conversation since this new release today, but it certainly seems as though our global leaders have come to the table with a possible way forward,” said the Rev. Sherrie Ilg of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids in an email.
Friday’s announcement came as new sanctions were set to go into effect in the church, which would have made punishments for United Methodist Church pastors who perform same-sex weddings much more severe: one year’s suspension without pay for the first wedding and removal from the clergy for any after that.
Instead, leaders signed an agreement saying they will postpone those sanctions and vote to split at the May general conference.
The proposed agreement pledges $25 million to the new “traditionalist” denomination.
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Any church that wants to join the conservative denomination would have to conduct a vote in a specified time frame. A church would not need to vote to remain United Methodist.
The Washington Post and Alison Gowans of The Gazette contributed to this report.