UMC congregation forcibly closed before it could disaffiliate sues to reopen

Fifth Avenue United Methodist Church of Wilmington, North Carolina. | John S. Lerma

A North Carolina congregation shut down by a United Methodist Church regional conference just as it was considering disaffiliating from the mainline denomination is suing to keep its doors open. 

Fifth Avenue United Methodist Church, a congregation based in Wilmington that has operated for over 170 years, filed the lawsuit after the congregation was locked out of the building in late March before it could hold a vote on whether to disaffiliate from the UMC.

The congregation wants to remain open and continue with the disaffiliation process just as thousands of other UMC churches nationwide have been able to do in the last couple of years amid a longstanding debate over the denomination's stance on sexuality.  

"This lawsuit was a last resort," attorney Gavin Parsons said in a statement released last week. "Fifth Avenue gave the Conference every opportunity to do the right thing, but they refused."

"Hundreds of churches have voted on disaffiliation. Some chose to stay, some chose to leave, but all were given a vote. The Conference chose to seize Fifth Avenue's property instead of allowing a vote. We look forward to restoring Fifth Avenue's historic church to its members and allowing them to pursue a vote on disaffiliation as promised by the United Methodist Church."

In March, the UMC North Carolina Conference announced that it would shut Fifth Avenue UMC, citing declining attendance as the reason.

"Membership and missional activity of Fifth Avenue has recently declined, and the Church has a current membership of 205 and average weekly attendance of approximately 20 members," said the Rev. Tara Lain, superintendent of the Harbor District, which includes Wilmington, in an earlier email to The Christian Post.

"The North Carolina Annual Conference wants all our churches to thrive and make disciples of Jesus Christ. We believe this closure leads to rebirth, and we plan to use this space to meet the local community's clear, present, and pressing needs."

Lain said that the conference has other plans for the property, such as possibly turning it into a senior living facility, and "members of Fifth Avenue will be transferred to a local UMC congregation."

Jim Seay, an attorney first hired by the church to help them through the disaffiliation process, told CP in March that the congregation was "still exploring all of our alternatives."

"I was there the night they closed them down. I thought it was going to be an informational session," Seay said. "It's an absolute shame that this dispute couldn't have been kept between us at the local church and the bishop at the greater church."

Since last year, over 6,000 congregations across the United States have voted to leave the UMC.

Although the denomination officially prohibits the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals in the UMC Book of Discipline, theological progressives within the UMC have often refused to follow or enforce the rules.

The open defiance by some of the UMC Book of Discipline has prompted about 6,100 congregations to leave the UMC, including over 300 congregations in the North Carolina Conference, according to numbers compiled by UM News.

Many of these departing congregations have opted to affiliate with the Global Methodist Church, a theologically conservative denomination launched last year.  

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