by Bob Phillips
In early January, 2020, a group of leaders from the United Methodist Church, representing major stakeholder groups within the church, released a protocol offering an alternative future for the denomination. Brokered by world-recognized negotiator Kenneth Feinberg (who, like all excellent mediators, had no personal dog in the fight), the proposals reflected both a series of compromises and reaffirmed core convictions reflecting the views of the various players. The protocol has no authority, for only the General Conference can speak decisively for the church, although that theory has taken its own beating in light of the response in some portions of the US church toward GC2019. Still, nothing is official without GC2020 approval. Major players have signed onto the agreement, including the promise not to support any other plan nor to work behind the scenes to shred this good faith work.
The extreme left and right of the church generally don’t like it, and I don’t use ‘left’ and ‘right’ in a dismissive manner. Strong progressives see the outcome as a church that still can deny LGBTQIA+ persons the church’s blessing in marriage or clergy appointment to churches. For them, a partial compromise of justice is complete injustice. Strong traditionalists, who have seen their beliefs prevail consistently for 48 years and have been disrespected and openly disobeyed, feel themselves told to walk away with a small retainer while the disobedient get their way and most of the property. There is a bit of truth and a lot of feelings in both views.
Leaders in the centrist movement largely have affirmed the protocol effort. “Centrist” leadership seems composed of those who personally affirm same sex marriage and the ordination of sexually active (in legal marriage) LGBTQIA+ persons. Angus King, officially ‘independent’ senator from Maine, votes with the Democratic Party 87% of the time, more than some elected Democratic senators. Centrist leadership are not on a bullet train to a clearly progressive/liberal understanding of the gospel, but do appear to be on the slower but equally inevitable commuter train toward the same ultimate destination. Thus, I have yet to hear any leader in the centrist movement declare their personal belief that the church is right in its existing view of marriage, but all are clear in their view the church is wrong in its sharpening enforcement of obedience.
For centrists, a schism is not justified by disagreeing over the nature of marriage or the essence of what it means to be created in God’s image. While important, neither issue rise to the level of core Christian doctrine and do not merit separation. Centrists do tend to affirm other Christian teaching such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but again are willing (if not always comfortable) sharing the church with those who take such as the virgin birth or miracles or resurrection seriously…but not literally, which is the existing status quo. Centrist leaders appear to be sincerely willing to live in a church where some congregations and clergy do not bless gay marriage. One can ask traditionists remaining within the Episcopal church how that is working.
Traditionalist leaders largely have affirmed the protocol, seeing it as the best way to put 50 years of intensified bickering behind the church and focusing on the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, in preparation for the Great Assize (Wesley’s term for the Last Judgment). “Traditionalist” is the new/old term for ‘evangelical,’ and has reentered common use as ‘evangelical’ has become politicized and distasteful to many, including many whose theological convictions align with a more historic meaning of the term.
To be very clear, not everyone from these various camps have signed onto the parade. Many see the protocol as “the best bad plan we have,” to borrow a line from the movie, Argo. Since the proposal is certain to face modifications at GC2020, the chance remains viable that sufficient tinkering will cancel the deal, literally at the last moment. The Judicial Council can be asked to provide input on its constitutionality, but still retains the right to stomp the deal in the head at the last moment. Ask delegates to GC2012 at Tampa how that felt.
Assuming the protocol is passed largely intact, consider these blessings and bumps for those of the traditional camp, and in which I am a camper:
- The plan brings an end to head-butting over sexuality. “Peace. Be still.” The birthing of two expressions of Methodism under the protocol will place the increasingly vicious kerfuffle over homosexuality in the rear-view mirror. This is the ‘negative’ benefit of the protocol.
- The plan offer a way for a gracious new birth of two expressions of the faith that cannot otherwise live together. “A bird and a fish can fall in love but where are they going to live?” This wisdom is from Dolly Parton (which I spoke at GC2019…greeted with some mirth and some boos, thus illustratingthe point). The trumpet no longer will sound an uncertain note. The protocol offers a beginning as well as an end. Thus, Traditional folks can affirm a church where it no longer will be possible to be ordained while rejecting the historicity of crucial aspects of Gospel teaching (resurrection, atonement, incarnation) or where conversion and the witness of the Spirit and assurance of salvation or a fully-inspired Bible can move from fiction to fact. This is the ‘positive’ benefit of the protocol.
- The plan pushes the system toward profound and overdue change. “Every organization is perfectly aligned to the results it gets.” This wisdom, attributed to various leadership gurus, speaks to a church in 52 years of sustained US decline. Structures, organization and bureaucracy are at a point where only an organizational re-formation, preceded by a spiritual reformation, can push the reboot button for a vibrant Wesleyan future. This plan makes further evasions impossible. Barnacles on a hull can reduce the ship’s speed by 40%, require twice the fuel to go the same distance, and if left unaddressed, can eat through the hull and sink the ship. A new expression is free to remove the barnacles, clean the hull and produce only enough administration that is clearly aligned to the mission in a marriage of faithfulness, efficiency and effectiveness. This makes possible a systemic benefit for all.
- The plan will lead to dramatically reduced apportionments. For example, paying for 13 seminaries (the same number the denomination had prior to losing 45% of its US membership), will end. Proposals for revised understandings of a DS back toward a modern version of the classic ‘presiding elder’ will enhance effectiveness while cutting hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even with strong financial support for overseas Methodism, the bills will decrease. This is a financial benefit.
- The plan will enable church planting to whole regions currently shut to evangelical Wesleyan presence. Theologically conservative-dynamic-outside the box churches continue to spring up in the 9 states of the Western Jurisdiction and have been eating the lunch of existing United Methodism. A theologically orthodox Wesleyan expression that marries contemporary quality worship with a passionate social conscience, women in leadership, embrace of science, and the best of Wesley’s Catholic spirit could thrive in such regions, and now there will be a chance to prove it. This is a huge evangelistic benefit for those with a church planting vision.
- The plan aligns new American Methodism with a spiritually vibrant global church. Roughly 95% of current non-white members are traditional in their beliefs. Roughly 98% of the poor among our members are traditional in their beliefs, as are 80% of all millennial-age members (who live outside the US). Whatever specific structure emerges from GC2020, beyond all doubt a new traditional Methodism will defy any notion of a white-western-affluent church overwhelmingly mirrored in the demographics of the current theologically non-traditional UM membership. This is a ‘great commission’ benefit.
- Secondary but important issues can be addressed. The new church is unlikely to fight over whether or not to affirm essentially unrestricted abortion, or the boycott of Israel, of whether “Kingdom of God” is a sexist term, or whether the use of masculine pronouns in scripture or reference to God is a chargeable offense (at least in official seminaries), or whether “celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage’ are repressive ideas. Lots and lots of those kinds of issues will recede rapidly, and with little regret. This is a ‘small but crucial details’ benefit.
- Unintended consequences will not go on holiday. Confirmation bias, treating hope as a strategy (which it isn’t), and wearing the proverbial rose-tinted glasses will create unexpected pain in transition.
- Not everyone will leave we think will leave; not all who leave will go where we think they will go. Lots of churches consisting primarily of traditional members and pastored by traditional pastors will drink the Kool Aid as an alternative to feared severe disruption. Recall the Presbyterian equivalent to the WCA, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, has wound up with 10-12% of the former PCUSA denomination. And some who leave, large and small, will drop the Wesleyan vision of Christianity altogether for a plain vanilla American-centered traditionalism. Others, by the tens of thousands, will drop out of anything labeled ‘Methodist” for sound, thriving churches. Ask the Presbyterians about that. Denominational labels don’t sell.
- The movement may lose some really liberal types but can gain some really conservative types. Yes, there are some traditional folks who are bigots by any fair description, not nearly as many as some suggest, but they do exist. There are some sincere Christians who will insist on a 6-day creation as essential to salvation. There are some who may not publicly denounce women in ministry but just never will get around to affirming any woman in ministry. Lose the rose-colored glasses. Conservative curmudgeon Christians exist and at least some will flow into a new expression of Methodism.
- Orthodox belief doesn’t necessarily translate into effective pastoral leadership. Most traditional UM churches are flat-lined or declining, and the reasons have nothing to do with faulty theology. Faithful and sound belief doesn’t automatically produce an effective pastor. If ‘a rose is a rose is a rose,’ the ‘a jerk is a jerk is a jerk.’ All sides have their share.
- Healthy diversity can become a target of neglect. Walter Lippman wrote that ‘where all think alike, no one is thinking very much.’ A church without far-left folks in leadership is one thing. A denomination where crisp diversity among what Wesley called “opinions’ is crucial to spiritual and intellectual health.
- Don’t forget the ‘little guy.’ 15,000 of our US churches have 50 or fewer in weekly worship. Meaningful connectional organization, that neither enables dysfunction nor euthanizes due to small size, will be vital to do early and do right to retain a healthy national church.
- Resist confusing God and Caesar. Dropping all meaningful social-justice witness/ministry or consistently aligning with one political view or party would strike a blow at integrity. Too many American Protestant traditional/conservative churches and leaders treat ‘love your neighbor’ issues as slightly more than an afterthought but much less than a mandate. Recall the painful history that many Bible-believing churches and pastors were among the strongest opponents of civil rights in the 1950’s-60’s. Rev. King’s famed “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written in response to a group letter signed by 8 local clergy asking King to quit causing trouble over civil rights, but to allow a slow and steady shift toward justice to prevail. Two Methodist bishops were among the signees.
Watch for Part 2: “Seven Blessings and Seven Bumps: Progressives/Centrists on the Protocol“
Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference
Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews
Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution
Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)