By CYNTHIA ROBERTSON | La Mesa Courier
The headlines in the news about the big Methodist church split has made quite a few heads spin. “Where do we go? What do we do?” church members ask among themselves.
Elbert Kim, pastor of the La Mesa First United Methodist Church, says the news is really not as grim as what people suppose.
“Unfortunately, many of the news [sources] have been misinformed. The United Methodist Church, as you and I know it, is not splitting,” he stated.
So what is going on? What’s the deal?
“Many of the news media are reacting to two events that recently occurred. One is that the decisions from last year’s General Conference officially went into effect on the first of January,” Pastor Kim clarified.
That decision was a proposal made last year by a diverse, 16-member group of United Methodist bishops and other leaders. The proposal would preserve the United Methodist Church while allowing traditionalist-minded congregations to form a new denomination.
California has always been of the more progressive bent and will not be a part of this Traditionalist separation. In effect, the Methodist churches in San Diego and the La Mesa congregation will remain the same and preserve their buildings.
And the reason for this proposal in the first place?
It has to do with the mindsets of people on the issue of homosexuality — in particular, one line in the Book of Discipline that states: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The conflict over this is in no way new. It has always been just under the surface since 1972, explained Pastor Kim. Just four years before that, in 1968, the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Episcopal branches united to form the current United Methodist Church. Still, the division over the homosexual issue repeatedly came up in the General Conference, which takes place every four years.
The conservative influence of the Evangelical United Brethren branch had the church put in the line about homosexuality being incompatible with leadership of Christ into the Book of Discipline. That’s when the conflict ramped up.
In the last 20 years, it has become a difficult matter for conference members because of all the demonstrations and angry people on both sides. In 2016, things came to a head and a special conference was called just to answer the question of how the United Methodist Church would deal with the issue.
Pastor Kim explained that the second event the news is now reacting to is the proposal put out by a group of leaders from both sides of the debate. Conservative and liberal leaders of the United Methodist Church met during these past months to come to a compromise.
The new proposal is to allow the extreme conservative churches, those in the Southern states, Africa, and the Philippines, who did not want the church to include any liberal theologies, to go and create their own denomination. The rest of the church members would remain as the United Methodist Church. Of the 13 million members of UMC, this could be as much as 6 million people leaving to form a new denomination.
“So essentially the church is splitting 60/40,” Pastor Kim said. “However, this would be the worldwide UMC and not the UMC that we’re mostly familiar with in the United States. Of the 7 million Methodists in the United States, maybe half a million folks will decide to become part of the new denomination. The remaining 90% would still be the United Methodist Church. As far as the church that we’re familiar with in California and San Diego, we will still be the United Methodist Church that we’ve always known.
“The decisions from General Conference 2019 came as a surprise to many, especially in our conference, because of the punitive penalties imposed on anyone who practiced progressive theology on the issue of homosexuality.
“You will see in the history of the Methodist church that it has always responded to the social culture of the times, the issues of the age,” Kim said, citing the confusion and conflict over the issue of slavery in the 1800s.
“In our United Methodist Church, there is a wide range of theological stance from very liberal to very conservative. But most Methodists, whether they lean right or they lean left, believe that we can have differing opinions and still be one church. The decisions from last year created a rift because of mandated penalties.”
However, due to the controversies of this matter, those penalties have been put on hold even as it officially went into effect Jan. 1.
Kim said that the congregation of the La Mesa First United Methodist Church and all concerned can rest assured that the church will remain as it has since nearly its beginning — diversified but united. This premise is clearly stated in the church’s mission statement, which the church officially adopted last November, stating that it is welcoming and affirming as a diverse community.
“We may not all think alike, but we can all love alike,” said Kim, explaining that this was the overarching thought of John Wesley, considered the father of Methodism. “And we will definitely all be in ministry together, just as always.”
Some of the ministry projects of the church include those of United Methodist Women as well as the quilting ministry of Prayers and Squares; Interfaith Shelter Network; Fresh Start Saturday for persons experiencing homelessness and the Guatemalan Mission Project.
This year is an especially important one for La Mesa First United Methodist Church. It will commemorate its 125th year.
“We were the first church established in East County,” said Kim. “We will have quite the celebration.”
— Cynthia Robertson is a San Diego-based freelance reporter and author. Her most recent book is titled ‘Where You See Forever.’