Amid a potential denominational split aimed at resolving the church's years-long divide over LGBTQ rights, United Methodist Church leaders in South Carolina are praying and urging members to have meaningful discussions around human sexuality.
Faith leaders steered clear of gauging any impact that a schism would have on South Carolina, noting that the recent proposal to divide the 13 million member denomination isn't a final decision.
The Rev. Erik Grayson, who pastors Aldersgate UMC in North Charleston, said a split should not be discussed lightly. But after decades of disagreement, many United Methodists have come to name the divergent theologies at work within the church, he said.
"Splitting the church can be thought of like a cell undergoing mitosis," Grayson said. "Once the church multiplies into two or more bodies, then the efforts and resources spent on this ongoing discussion can be better spent on missions and ministry."
United Methodist Church leaders from across the globe and different ideologies unveiled a plan last week that would allow a new, conservative denomination to split from the mainline group to resolve an impasse over same-sex marriage and ordination of gay clergy.
Under the proposal, called the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation, the new group would retain its assets and receive $25 million from the main denomination.
An additional $2 million would be allocated for potential new Methodist denominations that may emerge from the UMC.
Acknowledging the historical role of the Methodist movement in systematic racial violence, exploitation and discrimination, the plan also calls for the allocation of $39 million to communities that have been marginalized by racism.
S.C. Bishop L. Jonathan Holston, who oversees Methodist churches in South Carolina, noted in a statement released last week that no final decisions will be made until May, which is when the protocol is expected to come before the church's General Conference for a vote in Minneapolis.
The bishop called on S.C. Methodists to pray for the delegates who'll be voting on the decision, and urged believers to have conversations with people of different points of view.
"Keeping focused on our mission — making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world — must remain our priority," Holston said.
The divide in the UMC over homosexuality spans several years.
Things intensified last year during a special session of the General Conference, when the church’s top lawmaking body voted 438-384 to approve the Traditional Plan, which maintains the church’s prohibitions against self-avowed practicing gay clergy and same-gender weddings.
A majority of U.S.-based delegates opposed that plan, but U.S. conservatives teamed with delegates from Methodists in Africa and the Philippines to pave the way for the plan's approval.
Some Charleston-area Methodists vowed to remain inclusive of LGBTQ worshippers, while others cited that the church's decision reaffirmed biblical teachings.
Concern over the church's future led to the formation of a 16-member panel of Methodists from Africa, Europe, the Philippines and the United States, who drafted the current proposal.
In coming up with the plan, the group sought assistance from prominent attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who served as special master of the U.S. government's September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and administrator of the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Compensation Fund.
The Rev. Susan Leonard, who pastors Bethel UMC on Pitt Street, expressed sadness over the fact that human sexuality could separate the denomination, which has found ways to remain united in spite of disagreement over other hot-button issues, like abortion and gun control.
"The United Methodist Church has long been the middle way church," she said. "But I understand this issue is so polarizing."
Leonard, who views the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation as "an offering meant to prevent further disruption and harm," said she knows most of the people who drafted the proposal and believes they have good intentions.
"I think their motivation is one meant to help the church," she said.