by Chris Ritter
2020 dawns with a new reality for The United Methodist Church… a high profile plan of separation with the endorsements needed for passage. Unlike the UMCNext, Bard-Jones and N.E.W. Plan, the Protocol Negotiations were reached at a diverse negotiating table. Unlike the Indianapolis Plan, the group featured top U.S. episcopal leaders, including the incoming and outgoing president of the Council of Bishops. It is the only plan brokered by someone from outside the United States, thereby immunizing it against the charge of the U.S. dictating the fate of our global connection.
Any day when you have the Executive Director of Reconciling Ministries and the President of WCA agree on a plan, it is newsworthy. The Way Forward process did not align commissioners like Pat Miller and Tom Berlin, but the Protocol process did. More significantly, the people in the room represent the political machinery necessary to actually get this plan done.
Time to uncork the champagne? No. The road ahead is fraught with peril.
No one will be completely happy with the Separation Protocol. It is the fruit of a hard-fought negotiation with those with whom we viscerally disagree. It was not clear until the last meeting on December 17 that an accord would even be reached. The fact that only two traditionalists were at the table has not escaped notice. That is not so much a problem of negotiating power. The traditionalists were treated as their own “team” when side-bars were held, giving them equal weight in negotiation. The problem is a matter of representation with the divergencies of UM traditionalism. Almost all the diversity in the UMC is on the Traditionalist side of the table in terms of race, economics, geography, culture, education, and language.
The Separation Protocol calls for Traditionalists (a majority of the global membership) to leave the UMC or become a minority in a much more progressive denomination. This option, not surprisingly, hits differently for some than others.
Who Likes It
There are significant numbers of U.S. churches that just want out. WCA is mostly comprised of churches who are aligned on the topic of Scriptural authority. If you are a U.S. evangelical mega-church, the Separation Protocol gives you millions of dollars in local church properties free and clear. It frees you from the dysfunction of the denomination and puts you in charge of your own pastoral succession (assuming the new Discipline produced by WCA is approved.) You care not a whit for the general program agencies and are happy to lose whatever services they thought they were providing you. You still get access to Wespath for pensions. Win, win, win. “See you later, UMC.”
But there are significant other points of view.
Africans are already noting that there was only one African in the room (a denominationally-salaried bishop) to represent 5,000,000+ souls and the fasting growing segment of the UMC. Africa is a big continent! The United Methodist name and logo are extremely important to Africans, and the The Indianapolis Plan contained explicit permission for groups breaking away to retain these. The protocol contains no such assurances.
Africans wonder: Are African bishops preparing to sell a regionalized UMC to their people, charting an autonomous course, or planning to join in the new traditional denomination with a minority of the U.S.? Each of these possibilities has huge implications. My experience with Africans are that they are the least financially motivated United Methodists on the planet. They are concerned that the bishops’ salaries are so tied to the U.S. And they notice that almost all the current delivery mechanisms for support and partnership will reside with the Post-Separation UMC (i.e. The General Board of Global Ministries).
Africa may already have a majority of the membership in the UMC and is close to achieving a majority in terms of delegates to General Conference. Some don’t want to abandon that. The urgency in Africa is much softer than it is in the U.S. because disobedience is not running rampant there. Many would happy to wait a couple General Conferences and inherit the whole ballgame. Africans are incredibly patient people. One African delegate commented in a private message that the Separation Protocol abandons all the gains that have been won over the past few years. What have we been fighting for if we just walk away now?
Europe is a very mixed bag for United Methodists. France is very divided on the issues at hand. Eastern Europeans are often very traditional and delegates from there were stalwart supporters of the Traditional Plan. There will need to be some sort of new configuration to emerge, but the sparse numbers of European United Methodists will make sustainable ministry difficult. I look forward to learning more about the European context.
Recent indications from the Philippines seem to indicate that they might be willing to participate in a regionalized churches like the one envisioned for the post-separation UMC. (The plan calls for the remaining UMC to be divided into four global regions, each with the power to amend much of the Book of Discipline.) Such an arrangement may be unacceptable to parts of Europe.
There are a large number of U.S. Evangelical Clergy who have not signed on to the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Pastors (often within a stone’s throw of retirement) are trying to keep their churches together in a time of cultural change. They have delayed hard conversations in their congregations in the interest of harmony. Some Traditionalists are loathe to be labelled in their annual conferences and have come to frame themselves as centrist figures. All of the sudden, a deal has been struck for an exit that will lead ultimately to the profound liberalization of the UMC institution. These are people who cannot stay and have not prepared to go. They are anxious.
I am more interested in ministry than labels, but I consider myself Center-Right in the UMC. I joined WCA because I could see the handwriting on the wall. I saw the necessity of traditionalists getting organized together for the future. And, frankly, I am in a church that is fairly well aligned. This is a reality I inherited and have also worked hard to maintain. Decisions get made by people who show up… so I showed up and got involved. There is an amazing amount of consensus on the WCA Council, but I am sometimes a minority voice. That’s OK. I am very comfortable with the team I have chosen.
There is notable esprit de corps in WCA leadership, borne of a shared battle in which we have all taken arrows. This is good and bad. I want to push against the tendency to say, “You were invited (even begged) to join us in 2016 and you declined. Not getting your way now? Tough luck.” My current admonition to WCA is to fling open the doors and be ready to welcome in new significant voices to help shape the future, including bishops. Jesus told a story about laborers arriving later to the harvest and getting the same pay as the rest. We need to treat those late to the party as co-hosts.
The fact of the matter is that those at the helm of the political apparatus on both sides are on board with the Separation Protocol. There may be some significant dissent coming, but there is no existing group with the organization to build a delegate coalition to stop the train that is already on the tracks. The political machinery on the traditional side is headed toward separation. Center-right folks don’t have to join with WCA or its new denomination, but the UMC in the U.S. will shift to full affirmation in very short order and all the related “stuff” will come with it… full-throated support of abortion, embrace of alternative genders, collapse of celibacy standards, minimum representation guarantees for LGBTQ persons, etc. A line has been drawn and people will need to decide which side of it they will be on.
One option that will undoubtedly be explored is a Traditional expression independent of WCA’s efforts. I know of some bishops who have been considering using their annual conference as the basis for a new denomination. The advantage is that they can frame their decision as somehow above the binary combative choices being offered at GC2020, appealing to their own history, values, and current tenor of ministry. Many of our annual conferences are much older than the UMC and have their own ethos. No one wants to be framed as the “Against the Gays” Church. Some may start their own expression as an interim step, choosing independence for a season and deciding with whom to affiliate later. The risk in this move is missing an opportunity to be at the table when a significant new traditional Methodist denomination is inaugurated. And an independent conference also risks leaking churches and membership from both ends of the spectrum. Better to move together and add your voice to the larger conversation.
If you are an Evangelical/Conservative United Methodist laity in a moderate to progressive congregation, there is very little for you to like about the Separation Protocol. You will simply have to decide if you want to hold your nose and stay in your church, or seek something new. The first Traditionalist church planting efforts may include these disaffected UM’s.
There is another group with which I hold great sympathy: Traditionalist pastors in progressive or mixed congregations. I know so many gifted young evangelical clergy in this dilemma. The Separation Protocol does not come to them as welcome news. My advice: Stay close to your call and the Caller. Keep your resume sharp. Start thinking in terms of a move during your next appointment change. It is what it is.
What, Me Worry?
A long article about anxiety isn’t very life-giving. Sorry about that. There are so many unanswered questions. I will be watching African response very closely. I am also fascinated to read the reaction of bishops who are just learning about the protocol with the rest of us.
There is currently a spirit of goodwill and Christian charity that we have not seen in some time. I am concerned this will quickly evaporate in the zero-sum-game sorting process that will follow GC2020. A win for one side is a loss for the other. This dynamic soured the last “amicable separation” in 1844 and property disputes were settled by the U.S. Supreme Court. I don’t look for property litigation if the Protocol is adopted, but I do look for the possibility of heightened local conflict in congregations and conferences. Perhaps that is unavoidable.
One last observation: There are so many ways for an institution to engineer the outcomes it desires, and we are giving all that apparatus to the Centrists and Progressives.
I left the Indianapolis Plan negotiations not really caring if the thing passed or not. I am sort of in the same place with the Separation Protocol. I guess that is a sign that a realistic plan has been reached: No one is happy. Everyone is really nervous.
P.S. Here is a thoughtful post from a Traditionalist coming to terms with the fact that we are the ones that are leaving.