Monday night, members of Grandview United Methodist Church voted 174 to 5, with two abstentions, to begin disaffiliation talks with the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of The United Methodist Church.
The church, the first United Methodist Church in Lancaster County to declare itself open and affirming, had been contemplating such a move since February 2019 when delegates at General Conference voted to impose enhanced sanctions on member churches if they ordained LGBTQ pastors or performed same-sex marriages.
The Rev. Andrea Brown, the church’s lead pastor, said the decision does not change the church’s current status but was taken as a precaution as the denomination prepares to vote on the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation,” which likely would split the denomination. That plan is expected to be voted on at the denomination’s General Conference in Minneapolis in May.
“The congregation plans to vote again in June, after we see what General Conference does,” Brown said in an interview on Tuesday. “The results of this vote won’t be finalized until at least mid-June. So for now, we remain Grandview United Methodist Church, even as we continue to make our congregation more just.”
Grandview’s vote comes nearly one year after the denomination’s Judicial Council ruled that legislation adopted by the General Conference providing a path for churches to leave the denomination was constitutional. The Taylor Disaffiliation Petition created a process for exit that took effect immediately.
The Taylor plan amended an existing rule stating that the local church holds in trust property for the annual conference.
“So our property is not really our own property — not just the building but all of our assets are owned by the conference,” Brown said in a meeting ahead of her congregation’s vote. “The Taylor plan gives rules for how you break out of that if you have a disagreement of conscience.”
Although the Taylor plan makes it easier for churches to retain property and other assets, congregations still would have a hefty bill to pay for insurance and pensions.
Brown said in Grandview’s case that could cost as much as $700,000.
But she believes the Taylor plan may be amended at the General Conference to lessen the burden on churches that opt to leave the denomination.
“What I think will happen in May is there will be an even greater loosening of the Trust clause, but we don’t know,” she explained in a meeting with LNP prior to the vote. “So in the meantime, we know we may need to leave because we’re too much in conflict with the existing rules of the church.”
On Tuesday, Brown said in addition to the protocol, there are a number of other proposals.
“And it’s possible the denomination won’t pass anything, which will leave it as a traditional denomination.
“It’s virtually certain the some traditionalists will split off from the United Methodist Church, but it is also quite likely that some traditionalists will remain in the United Methodist Church, and some discrimination against LGBTQ people will continue within it.
“Therefore, some churches that want an end to such discrimination may also split off. Just as the denomination’s policy forbids discrimination against female clergy, Grandview United Methodist Church believes it is time, and long past time, to end discrimination against policies that discriminate against LGBTQ people.”
Regarding a name for a new denomination, Brown said it’s too early to say what that could be.
“There’s a gathering in Dallas in March that may clarify that," she said.
As for this controversy, Brown said, it’s healthy to have this conversation.
“It will make us a better congregation," Brown said.
The Rev. Darryl Stephens is director of United Methodist studies at the Lancaster Theological Seminary and worships at Grandview United Methodist Church. He said he is relieved that the congregation has freed itself to live out its mission.
“It has chosen debt over discrimination,” he said. “It will cost the church over half a million dollars to disaffiliate from the denomination. The congregation has chosen short-term financial debt over long-term moral debt.”
Stephens said the important part of what is next is that the congregation is continuing to fulfill its mission to be an instrument of healing and grace.
“‘To make gentle a bruised world’ has been the congregational tag line for more than 20 years,” he said.
Stephens is the author of several books, including “Out of Exodus: A Journey of Open and Affirming Ministry,” which he said is the witness of the Grandview United Methodist Church congregation, with personal testimonies, sermons and reflections on what it means to be Christian in the world.
The book, he said, tells through these personal testimonies the history of how the congregation came to be a reconciling congregation.
“Last night’s vote is consistent with what this congregation has been doing for the past 15 years…. Every congregation is unique, they have different personalities, like individuals," Stephens said.
The Rev. Peggy Johnson, bishop of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, said Tuesday evening that she celebrates Grandview’s “diverse and mission heart.”
“I’ve been here 12 years," Johnson said. "I know this church. I’ve been on the journey with them in discussions about sexuality. I understand their perspective, that this is a justice issue.”
But Johnson emphasized “that this is not a done deal. This is preliminary… It’s not like they are leaving, goodbye. It’s only step one.”
Johnson also noted the larger uncertainties surrounding the United Methodist Church's Feb. 2019 vote to strengthen its ban on same-sex marriage and gay clergy. The New York Times reported on several voting irregularities from the Feb. 2019 vote, including votes by ineligible individuals. The church's judicial council is currently reviewing the matter.
“If the Judicial Council, which is like our Supreme Court, finds the disaffiliation vote is null and void, out of order, it can’t be done," Johnson said. "But if they say okay, then we go forward.”
Johnson said she was hoping Grandview would not have voted Monday night, because it would be better to wait to see if it can be consummated.
“I respect their integrity, their commitment to justice and inclusivity,” she said. “But the final decision rests with the Judicial Council the end of April.”