(RNS) — Graduations, funerals, college reunions and weddings have all been delayed or otherwise impacted by the yearlong pandemic, adding to the emotional roller coaster those events can be.
But imagine the spiritual wear and tear for United Methodists, who for more than a year have been dealing with a looming church schism.
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“These are extraordinary times, and then you layer upon all of that the uncertainty of our denomination,” said Bishop LaTrelle Easterling of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church in her “State of the Church” address, given Tuesday evening (March 16) to members of her conference. “If we weren’t a people of deep prayer and trusting God, it would be overwhelming.”
Easterling described the past year as a “liminal season” as United Methodists around the world make sense of recent announcements about protocols, postponements and a proposed Global Methodist Church.
Because of COVID-19, the United Methodist Church has postponed its quadrennial meeting of delegates from around the globe twice, as of last month — from May 2020 to August 2021 to August 2022.
The postponements have delayed a widely anticipated vote by some of the longest-serving delegates in history on a proposal to split the denomination over the inclusion of LGBTQ members, such as the ordination of gay clergy. The proposal would allow churches and conferences, as United Methodist regional bodies are called, to vote to create new Methodist denominations.
The church’s plan to split would commit $25 million over the next four years to form new, conservative “traditionalist” Methodist denominations. In recent weeks, one group has unveiled its plans for such a denomination: The Global Methodist Church.
Easterling assured her listeners that she would not pursue any charges made against clergy who are in same-sex relationships or who perform same-sex marriages in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, which spans Washington and parts of Maryland and West Virginia and includes about 150,000 members across 615 churches.
In her address, she described other unexpected impacts the pandemic, postponements and potential split have had on United Methodists.
For one, the Northeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church —which includes the Baltimore-Washington Conference — has put off electing new bishops. That’s because it’s unclear what the denomination will look like post-General Conference or how many bishops it will need (or can afford), according to the bishop.
“What does it behoove us to have elected individuals who will then be told, ‘We don’t have anywhere for you to serve?’” Easterling said.
The delay could leave the Northeastern Jurisdiction with a shortage of bishops as some retire in the interim. To address this, the Baltimore-Washington Conference is considering affiliating with the neighboring Peninsula-Delaware Conference, allowing them to share leadership, she said.
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In the meantime, Easterling counseled patience. “I invite you to take some deep breaths. Read the information that is available to you. Ask questions so that you might be able to get the best answer that we can give you in that moment in time,” she said.
Saving her best advice to the end, she concluded, “Pray, beloved.”