The decision was taken at a special online session with 40 votes in favour, 20 against and 2 abstentions. It won’t be finalized until 2025.
Amid an ongoing church separation, United Methodists from Russia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Estonia, have started the process to leave the mainline denomination.
The proposal was voted by delegates of the United Methodist Church (UMC) Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference at a special online session on March 18, by 40 votes in favour, 20 against and 2 abstentions.
With that vote, they allowed church regional bodies of the Central Russia, the Northwest Russia and Belarus Provisional, the Eastern Russia and Central Asia Provisional, and the South Russia Provisional annual conferences “to become autonomous using a yearlong process in the church’s law book”.
Delegates also approved a process for churches within Estonia “to disaffiliate from the denomination while also providing care for churches in that Baltic nation that opt to remain United Methodist”.
The exit of those conference still requires the approval of General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly which will take place on April 23-May 3, 2024, so that it won’t be finalized until 2025.
“That means delegates from those conferences will be among those voting at the coming General Conference”, explains the UMC.
Meanwhile, the process approved for the Estonia District just requires a vote in each Estonian congregation. The district pointed out they aim to confirm the final separation “in June this year, if at least two-thirds of the congregations have voted for withdrawal”.
That will change the name of the Estonia Annual Conference to Baltic Annual Conference, because it also includes UM churches in Lithuania and Latvia.
Furthermore, a majority voted not to allow regional bodies within the Central Conference to lay down their own rules regarding ordination and marriage.
“It is not necessarily a decision that is received with the same joy or appreciation by all members of the conference. Nevertheless, this is the decision that we were able to make together”, said Nordic and Baltic Area Bishop Christian Alsted at the end of the online meeting.
The withdrawal vote comes as the United Methodist Church is undergoing a separation, due to an intense debate in the last years over whether to change rules of the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, bans the officiation of same-sex weddings and the ordination of “self-avowed practising” gay clergy.
United Methodists in the U.S. and western Europe have been working to eliminate those restrictions, while many United Methodists in eastern Europe identify as traditionalist and want the bans to remain unchanged.
In January 2020, conservative leaders of UMC announced a plan to formally split the church and create a new “traditionalist Methodist” denomination for those who hold to a conservative-Biblical view on marriage.
Due to the pandemic, General Conference was postponed to 2024, but last year theologically conservative Methodists launched the Global Methodist Church. Over a thousand churches already joined the new denomination.