The Chilmark Community Church is starting its new year as an independent church, severing its ties to the United Methodist Church earlier this week. 

On New Year’s Eve, the up-Island congregation signed an agreement with the overarching denomination allowing the Chilmark church to leave the United Methodist Church in exchange for an undisclosed amount of money. The Chilmark church will retain its land and the parish building, and will have no affiliation with the United Methodist Church.  

“This really was the best possible scenario that we could have hoped for,” said Chilmark Community Church interim minister Rev. Dr. Charlotte Wright. “We walked away with what we wanted, and they walked away with a little cash in their pocket.” 

The Chilmark Community Church had been trying to leave the Methodist church for years, largely over disagreements with the overarching organization’s stance on theology and the acceptance of LGBTQ people within the church. The Vineyard church sought to be more inclusive than the larger denomination, which doesn’t allow for gay marriage or for LGBTQ people to be ordained.

In August, the Chilmark Community Church filed a lawsuit in the state Land Court to stake its claim to the 1.6-acre church grounds on Menemsha Crossroad. 

The New England Conference of the United Methodist Church had contended the property was held in trust under the Book of Discipline, the governing text of the church. The book states there is an “implied trust,” where properties are held by local churches but are actually owned by the entire denomination.

The Chilmark church asked the Land Court to confirm that the title is only in the name of the Chilmark Community Church and not controlled in any part by the New England Conference. 

The two parties were scheduled to go into mediation on Dec. 15, but the New England Conference offered a settlement prior to the mediation. On Dec. 20, the court reported that the two had come to an agreement, and the paperwork was signed on Dec. 31, according to Ms. Wright.

The terms of the settlement were not included in the public court record and Ms. Wright declined to say how much the church agreed to pay the United Methodist Church in the settlement. But she considered the terms of the agreement fair and amicable. 

“We were expecting a big showdown,” she said. “Basically, they said 'here’s our number.'” 

In a statement Tuesday, a spokesperson for the New England Conference confirmed the settlement released the church from its obligations to the United Methodist Church in exchange for financial compensation that would cover a portion of the conference’s legal costs. 

Now that it is independent, the Chilmark Community Church is in the process of setting up its own governance structure and drafting bylaws. Ms. Wright said members won’t see much of a difference in the day to day running of the church, which aims to be an inclusive community hub. 

“This church has always felt it was a community church,” Ms. Wright said. “There really will not be much of a difference.” 

There will be some organizational changes, though. The church will be able to determine the future of its own property. This had become a major concern for the congregation after the United Methodist Church sold a sister church on Lambert’s Cove in 2001. 

“There was always that threat that the denomination could put the locks on the door and close you down,” Ms. Wright said. 

The church will now also be able to pick its own pastor, and will no longer have to give a portion of its funds to the United Methodist Church.

“By being an independent church, we can take those funds for local mission and local needs,” Ms. Wright said.