Bishop Kenneth Carter, leader of one of Florida’s largest Christian denominations, believes that the United Methodist Church should serve as a “big tent,” encompassing churches on a wide doctrinal spectrum.
Carter and other church leaders are now confronted with the reality that the tent might simply be too big to suit some members.
More than 100 churches joined a lawsuit filed last week seeking to accelerate the process of departure from the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, which is based in Lakeland. The legal action intensifies long-simmering tensions between the congregation and some conservative churches, mainly over policies on sexuality and gender.
Among the 106 churches participating in the suit, three are in Polk County: First United Methodist of Fort Meade, First United Methodist of Frostproof and Lake Gibson United Methodist Church in Lakeland.
“My faith has always led me to the conviction that we are not enemies with each other,” Carter said Friday in an interview with The Ledger. “And we are seeking a charitable, graceful way of exit for those who want to depart.”
The pastors of the three Polk County churches did not respond to interview requests.
Though he refrained from discussing details of the lawsuit, Carter showed that he is pained by the potential departure of about 15% of the conference’s approximately 650 churches.
“My strong encouragement all along the way is that we are a big tent church, and there's a case for all of us in that,” he said. “That's just become harder the last few years. Some of that has to do with society. Some of that has to do with polarization in our politics. Some of it has to do with the stress of the pandemic. And it's simply become more difficult to do that. But that's been my calling, to seek to try to unify us and for us not to do harm to each other.”
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The churches filed the lawsuit in Bradford County, home of the lead plaintiff, Grace United Methodist Church in the town of Lawtey. The suit seeks to force a more abrupt separation than the gradual process proposed in 2019 by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the global denomination.
In the suit, the churches are challenging the denomination’s policy that all church properties are held in trust by the conference. Grace United Methodist alleges that the Florida association is requiring a “large lump sum” payment for it to depart and retain its property.
The lawsuit names Carter and the board of trustees of the Florida Conference as defendants. Five executives of the conference are also listed as defendants, along with eight regional superintendents.
The dispute, which has built for years, centers on disagreements over the denomination’s approach toward same-sex weddings and the role LGBTQ leaders. The lawsuit accuses Carter of flouting the conference’s official doctrine by allowing a lesbian bishop to serve and not disciplining a St. Petersburg pastor whose Pinellas County church focuses on such issues as “LGBTQ liberation,” USA TODAY-Florida Network reported.
The United Methodist Church has not changed its official doctrine, confirmed 50 years ago, that declares homosexuality to be “incompatible with Christian teaching.” But tolerance of churches that conduct same-sex weddings, along with discussions of potential changes to doctrine, have led some more conservative churches to seek separation.
The lawsuit says differences arose between Grace United Methodist and the conference over its “conscious and significant theological change.” Most of the churches seeking to leave reportedly wish to join the newly formed Global Methodist Church.
The leadership approved the departure of 14 churches during its annual state gathering, held last month at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.
In a “frequently asked questions” section on its website, the Florida Conference says that it is not aware of any official votes for departure held by the congregations of the 106 churches involved in the lawsuit.
“I believe in the frequently asked questions, we say that we have discovered that there were pastors who are not aware that their church was on this list,” Carter said, “and that there are lay leaders who are not aware that their churches were on this list.”
The lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, David Gibbs III, is president and general counsel of the National Center for Life and Liberty, based in Clearwater. Gibbs gained fame for representing the parents of Terri Schiavo, the subject of a 2005 lawsuit over the removal of life-support equipment for a woman in a persistent vegetative state.
He has appeared on Fox News and is the author of such books as “Keeping Christ in the Workplace.”
Jonathan Bailee, the NCLL’s chief operating officer, provided a written response to the conference’s statement about the lawsuit.
Bailee said boards of trustees are legally able to act on behalf of the churches in the lawsuit. He said church councils have the authority to make decisions for the church in periods between annual meetings of the church leadership, known as charge conferences.
The trustees or councils of the 106 churches passed joint resolutions, and their corporate officers signed litigation agreements, Bailee said.
"The Bishop and the Trustees are demanding sums of money as a precondition to leaving the Conference that are not required by The Discipline, not supported by any audited financials, and are far in excess of what the smaller churches could possibly pay," a statement from the NCLL says. "This tactic is designed to make it impossible for these churches to leave the Conference. Bishop Carter and the Conference have flatly rejected every alternative method of resolution offered by the churches, further evidencing the oppressive purpose of these actions."
The lawsuit symbolizes the difficulties of preserving a mainline Protestant denomination with a widely diverse array of member churches. The Florida Conference includes small churches in conservative, rural areas, as well as large congregations in more progressive cities.
Another mainline denomination, the Presbyterian Church, has also seen splintering over the decades. At least two churches in Polk County left the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the main denomination, to join the more conservative ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, in 2017.
United Methodist Church leaders proposed a “disaffiliation” plan in 2019 to establish a process for churches to depart. The plan must be ratified at the church’s General Conference, which has been postponed three times during the pandemic and is now scheduled for 2024.
“I would say once we were made aware of the lawsuit, we are responding with integrity on behalf of the mission of our Conference, which we believe is important, and we want that mission to thrive and preserve,” Carter said. “And so we take the lawsuit seriously and have taken steps to respond. When a person takes someone else to court, you simply need to be prepared and respond. And we did not initiate the lawsuit.”
Without discussing the details mentioned in the lawsuit, Carter said he has not abandoned church doctrines during his decade as leader of the Florida denomination.
“I have also, as a bishop, sought to strengthen churches across the labels of conservative or centrist or liberal,” he said. “And I don't like the labels, but I've sought to be fair across the spectrum of kinds of churches. And while I believe in our traditional, orthodox faith that's rooted in the Scriptures, I also have always believed that we have to adapt our doctrine and our Scriptures to changing life circumstances that people have.”
Carter made it clear that he sets inclusiveness and openness to all as priorities for the Florida Conference and its churches. He said the denomination is “on a journey” toward being more accepting of what he called the LGBTQIA community – an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex and asexual.
“This is not so much ideological as it is about the families in a local church,” Carter said. “It is about the kids in a youth group. And so, this is what our church and every church denominational and nondenominational, every church is seeking to do this very thing. And it's not abandoning our historic faith. It is applying that faith to the real lives of people in our churches. And that's our present work. And I believe we can we can do that together. We do not need to separate in order to do that.”
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: 3 Polk churches among 106 suing to leave United Methodist denomination