(RNS) — “Let our people go!” reads a statement shared over the weekend by the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a network of theologically conservative United Methodists.
While the phrase might be borrowed from Moses in the Book of Exodus, the WCA is not exactly calling for a series of escalating plagues.
Nevertheless, the outcry is not without threat.
The organization is calling for churches to stop paying dues, or apportionments, to regional annual conferences it believes are making disaffiliation for churches difficult to impossible amid the United Methodist Church’s slow-moving schism, largely over the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ members.
Those apportionments, determined by each annual conference, fund bishops’ salaries and support the work of the mainline Protestant denomination around the world.
“I think as long as a church continues to send money to the people who are holding them captive and not allowing them to disaffiliate under fair terms, they’re continuing to fund the misbehavior — and it’s time to stop doing that,” the Rev. Jay Therrell, president of the WCA, told Religion News Service.
Therrell announced Friday (Aug. 12) that the association was calling on conservative members of United Methodist churches to lead their church councils to immediately begin withholding apportionments from 19 of the denomination’s 53 annual conferences.
Those conferences include Baltimore-Washington, California-Nevada, California-Pacific, Eastern Pennsylvania, Florida, Greater New Jersey, Illinois Great Rivers, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Mountain Sky, New England, Northern Illinois, Oregon-Idaho, Peninsula-Delaware, South Carolina, Susquehanna, West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania.
Members of other annual conferences wishing to show their solidarity should consider withholding their apportionments to the denomination’s episcopal fund, which pays its bishops, according to Therrell’s statement.
The WCA president wrote that the 19 annual conferences are adding “onerous and punitive requirements” to disaffiliation provisions in the denomination’s rulebook, the Book of Discipline. He told RNS such efforts range from requiring churches to pay more than two years of apportionments to requiring them to complete a six-month discernment period before they can move to disaffiliate.
“We would simply ask them to follow the golden rule: to treat these churches that wish to disaffiliate the way they would want to be treated if they were trying to disaffiliate,” Therrell said.
The Book of Discipline allows through 2023 for churches wishing to leave the denomination over its stance on sexuality to take their properties with them after paying two years of apportionments and pension liabilities. Those provisions were added to the Book of Discipline by General Conference delegates in 2019 alongside legislation called the Traditional Plan that strengthened the denomination’s language barring the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ United Methodists.