Oklahoma Supreme Court blocks congregation's vote to leave UMC

View of the stage during the United Methodist Church's special session General Conference inside the Dome at America's Center in St. Louis, Missouri, on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019. | United Methodist News Service/Kathleen Barry

An Oklahoma congregation seeking to leave the United Methodist Church through a disaffiliation process is temporarily disallowed from holding another vote on the matter after earlier votes failed, the state's highest court has ruled.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court issued an emergency stay on Monday, deciding that the Church of the Servant of Oklahoma City can't hold another vote until after the litigation with the UMC Oklahoma Conference is resolved.

Earlier this year, the Church of the Servant filed suit against the conference, demanding that it be allowed to hold a new disaffiliation vote after two votes held last year failed to approve leaving the denomination.

The court's stay means that an earlier lower court ruling by Oklahoma County District Court Judge Aletia Timmons in favor of the congregation cannot be enforced, reported The Oklahoman.

"The Oklahoma Annual Conference is grateful that the Supreme Court of Oklahoma granted an emergency stay today, stopping the district court-ordered interference in our disaffiliation process," stated conference leadership, as quoted by the newspaper.

"We believe the lower court's decision on Aug. 21 took away the rights of the Church of the Servant members who have twice voted to remain a part of the United Methodist Church, representing an unconstitutional intrusion into religious self-governance in violation of the First Amendment."

On Sept. 11, 2022, the Church of the Servant held two rounds of votes to determine if the congregation would disaffiliate from the UMC amid a nationwide schism over the denomination's stance on same-sex marriage and the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals. Both votes narrowly failed to approve disaffiliation.

Although the UMC Book of Discipline prohibits the blessing of same-sex marriages and the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals, some leaders within the denomination have refused to enforce those rules, which has driven thousands of theologically conservative-minded churches to disaffiliate in the last two years. 

In March, church leadership considered holding a new vote on disaffiliation, and the board approved it with the hopes of scheduling it for Aug. 13.

Church of the Servant filed suit against the conference in July, asking an Oklahoma court to compel the conference to allow for the new vote to take place.

Last week, Timmons ruled in favor of the congregation, with the UMC district superintendent initially scheduling a church conference on Sept. 5.

But now that the state Supreme Court put a stay on the lower court ruling, the district superintendent has canceled the Sept. 5 church conference.

According to an FAQ document released by the congregation leadership, if it succeeds in disaffiliating, the Church of the Servant intends to join either the Free Methodist Church or the Global Methodist Church.

"The Church has been considering other denominations that would be a good match for Church of the Servant and that fit with the Church's core beliefs and rich Wesleyan heritage," stated the FAQ document.

"The Church's goal is to retain the classic Wesleyan model of congregational connectionalism, that is, moving together in the direction of growth and renewal not as individual congregations, but as a network of churches that are theologically and socially aligned."

In April, during a special session, the Oklahoma Conference officially approved the disaffiliation votes of 55 congregations, representing more than 10% of their 425 member churches. 

In July, Judge Timmons ruled in favor of First United Methodist Church of Oklahoma City. The church filed a lawsuit, claiming that the conference wrongfully delayed the congregation's process of disaffiliation discernment.

Timmons ruled that the conference committed several actions that prevented the congregation from joining 55 other churches in disaffiliating during a meeting in April. Timmons ordered the conference and delegates to consider and vote on the church's disaffiliation by Aug. 6. Earlier this month, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a stay of Timmons' First UMC ruling. 

"I believe strongly that the judge's original ruling against the Oklahoma Annual Conference overrides our holy covenant and our Book of Discipline," Bishop James Nunn wrote in a statement. "And I know that it is my responsibility to represent the best interest of the entire Oklahoma Annual Conference in following the procedures and processes for disaffiliation. I know we have followed the process for 84 churches that have disaffiliated. And we have followed it with First United Methodist Church of Oklahoma City."

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