The United Methodist Church, careening toward a breakup over the issue of homosexuality, could undergo a more amicable separation under a new plan.
But it would be a divorce nonetheless. And the breakup would be messy.
The plan, hammered out by an ad hoc group of United Methodist bishops and other leaders, would preserve a smaller United Methodist Church, while traditional-minded congregations that oppose LGBT ordination and marriage would be free to form a new congregation.
Many leaders see the schism as a disaster, but one that is nearly unavoidable at this stage.
"It's a fence that is not going to be mended, as far as interpretation of Scripture," said The Rev. Elizabeth Macaulay, pastor of United Methodist Church in Rochester, which supports gay ordination and same-sex marriage. "We're at an impasse."
Yet leaders have also been concerned at the unhealthy tensions unleashed as debate over LGBT issues have intensified within the 13 million-member global denomination.
The break-up plan is seen by many leaders as being "softer" and more "gracious," because churches would be able to leave with their property and assets. The separating churches also would have access to $25 million in United Methodist funds.
But some pastors see the plan as a recipe for creating more division within the church. Under the plan, annual conferences within the church would be free to leave and join the traditional group. Congregations within the breakaway conference could still choose to stay with the existing Methodist church.
"It absolutely could be (divisive)," said the Rev. Mark Rader, pastor of the Evangel United Methodist Church in Rochester. "I think that's a real fear that every local pastor has."
Rader said his church has held meetings to apprise members of the situation, but has yet to have the kind of conversations within the congregation that would clarify a collective attitude toward LGBT issues.
"Most congregations are probably very mixed. I know that we are a mixed congregation," Rader said.
Rader says media reports have given a false impression that the proposal is already a foregone conclusion, when in fact it is one of more than a dozen plans under consideration. And opposition to the new protocol is emerging from different quarters of the church. The more progressive, "liberationist" wing of the church in the U.S. opposes it.
It is also important to remember that the United Methodist Church is a global body, he said. The proposal will likely be taken up at the church's General Conference this May in Minneapolis.
"That's the reason that the United Methodist Church hasn't followed other mainline denominations in liberalizing the position on human sexuality already, because we have congregations around the world," Rader said. "At this point, I'm uncertain that the African delegates will support any plan for dissolution. The United Methodist brand means a great deal in Africa."
Methodism is Minnesota's second-largest Protestant denomination, with about 60,000 members and 360 churches. There are about 7 million members nationally and 13 million globally.
The UMC division over human sexuality mirrors schisms in other Protestant denominations. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church lost traditional congregations after voting to allow churches to perform same-sex marriage and ordain gay clergy.
The language at the heart of the dispute, introduced in 1972 when same sex marriage was illegal in the U.S., states that "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." Over time, as attitudes and laws over homosexuality have liberalized, UMC added more restrictions against allowing gay clergy and permitting same-sex marriage.
At the UMC General Conference last year, a plan that would have given pastors and churches more freedom to perform same sex marriages was rejected. Instead, traditionalists voted to impose tighter sanctions on LGBT ordination and marriages.
A minister who performed a marriage between two men could be suspended for a year without pay for one incident, and stripped of clergy status for performing two.
The move was cheered by the traditionalist wing of the church, but it appalled the progressive Methodists, leading them to conclude that the differences were irreconcilable.
"What this does is it provides a vision for how we can part in ways that maintain respect," Macaulay said.
Bishop Bruce Ough, who oversees the Dakotas-Minnesota conference, said the result of the division, if it does happen, may mean fewer traditionalists in the continuing UMC church. But he does not believe all will leave, because the new rules will not force traditionalist pastors to perform same sex marriages.
"I think it's really important that people understand that in the continuing United Methodist Church, everybody is going to be welcome," Ough said. "We've always been a big denomination, and that's not going to change."