by Chris Ritter
In Part One (please read) I described how the Separation Protocol faces twin challenges. The timeline for changing church teaching in the U.S. for the psUMC will be extensive now that we understand separate General Conferences are not possible in May 2020. The new timeline is a problem for Centrists/Progressives who want to see change sooner. It is also a frustration for traditionalists who will be assembling a new church and would like to highlight contrasts and communicate urgency.
The other challenge is that Africa will be a larger percentage of a post-separation UMC General Conference. While the power to adapt the Discipline is to be given to a U.S. Regional Conference, the level of adaptation will be controlled by General Conference which will still have significant reserve powers. The amendments needed to create a U.S. Regional Conference will receive an uncertain reception in the ratification votes that will be happening around the world on the annual conference level.
The uncertainties with the Protocol, I believe, stem from a simple, painful truth: The Protocol is a bad deal for Africa. The growing African church has to choose between the UMC name, logo and GBGM on the one hand and their core beliefs and important friendships on the other. It is like a football quarterback, straight-A, high school student whose parents are getting a divorce. Do you go with mom and change school districts or do you go with dad and not live with your siblings? Yuck.
The analogy is imperfect. Africa is not United Methodism’s child. But they are the future. This is the only branch of our church that is thriving and its large, diverse continent with five million United Methodists had exactly one person, a bishop, at the negotiation table. Bishops have different concerns than the folks back home. Their general church salary is middle-class by U.S. standards, but back home it is like winning the lottery every month. Many bishops have sent their children to school in America and use their generous travel allowances to come see them often while attending denominational meetings. None of this is evil but neither does it have anything to do with the mission of the church. The African grass roots want unity AND church-wide traditional teachings on marriage and human sexuality. The Protocol says they can have neither.
The Protocol also raises the spectre that Africa may divide internally. Three central conferences will each have their own separate votes. We could see a 2/1 split. African annual conferences are likewise empowered to vote and these could experience the same internal divisions we will see in the U.S. Will the continued general superintendency of Bishop Oliveto become a factor? Are we playing with matches near a powder keg?
The Protocol is an extremely important development and represents a concerted effort from all sides to work together on separate futures. The admission that separation is needed and should be amicable is groundbreaking. No one wants to go back to the negotiating table or (worse) re-open negotiations on the floor of GC2020. I can think of five basic strategies to address the challenges before us. None are ideal. Most are really bad… or at least incomplete. I will give the first four in this post and save the last for Part Three.
A friend suggested that church teachings on marriage change at GC2020 with an IOU to Africa that all language on sex will be removed after the U.S. Regional Conference forms. This, of course, is an immediate red flag. It diverts from the Protocol and would require Traditionalist delegates to sit on their hands while things happen that they have been fighting against for years. This opens deep matters of conscience.
Tom Berlin begged Africans at GC2019 from the podium to not vote so that the One Church Plan could be approved. That didn’t work. Attempting this again would trigger the ugly GC2019-like spectacle that the Protocol was designed to prevent. Again, the deal struck in the Feinberg negotiations is that the Traditional Plan stuff would stay in the general discipline. There may be some attempt to keep the teaching in place but repeal the penalties, but this get us quickly back to our well-worn legislative battlegrounds.
The above being unworkable, Centrists wonder if they can get the Regional Conference Plan passed at GC2020. This legislation has no direct reference to sexuality and its passage would speed the timeline by a few months… avoiding a specially-called GC2021 of unknown composure. The Connectional Table’s suggested amendments would need to be passed by a 2/3 majority.
Traditionalists have long opposed separating U.S. decision-making from African influence. The single biggest open question right now is whether the Protocol changes that. Two-thirds is a high standard. Both U.S. Traditionalists and Africans will be needed. U.S. Traditionalist delegates will likely take their cues from Africa on this. We just don’t know enough about the African response to the Protocol to make any assurances. I feel that the bigger uncertainties come following GC2020 with the global ratification votes. What motivation will Africa have at that point to accept less influence over the direction of the UMC? Some African conferences rejected regionalization amendments from GC2008 by as much as 98%. The biggest indicator of future performance is past performance.
We are watching our church move through stages of grief. One of these stages is negotiation. The shock and awe of witnessing open planning for separation is causing renewed interest in previously rejected plans. A well-known United Methodist called me this week to ask: Could there be two U.S. Regional Conferences instead of one, thereby keeping the church somewhat together? That is basically the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP). I was its biggest supporter last year. The legislation was comprehensive, realistic, and elegant. But it only gained 12% support. Do bishops wish they had backed the CCP instead of the One Church Plan? I imagine so. Is it too late? I believe it is.
The CCP was probably always a gentle path to complete separation. Some are looking again at the legislation again through that lens. As leaders survey the future created by the Protocol, they see a landscape fraught with peril. Once a new denomination forms, we move to a zero-sum-game sorting process in which a win for one side is a loss for the other. Bishops and their cabinets are already feverishly working to identify the flight risks and calculating odds of financial viability following separation. Remember, the Schism of 1844 started out as amicable separation and ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. There is no group empowered by the Protocol to enforce fair play. Sorting under the CCP, by contrast, was to have been guided process so that everyone plays nice.
U.S. Traditionalist leadership might have been persuaded to support the CCP at GC2019, but not today. There is now great momentum toward full separation. And, of course, if we are talking about the CCP again we are not really talking about the Protocol. It is either one or the other. I hope we can all work together to keep the Protocol train on the tracks.
Another solution is patience. Centrists and Progressives may have to fall back on the fact that no one will much care what the Discipline says about marriage and human sexuality in the psUMC. It may be a couple years of don’t-ask-don’t-tell until a U.S. Regional Conference can be approved and assembled. That would be a bitter pill for Progressives to swallow. Two years of continued (if only technical) church positions banning same-sex marriage may spur the formation of the Liberation Methodist Church. And that, I expect, would be just fine with Centrists. But this will spell continued conflict within the ranks of the psUMC. It might be a very painful wait.
4. African Exodus
If African Central Conferences use the Protocol to vote themselves into a new traditional, global Methodist Church (or their own church), some uncertainties about the future control of the psUMC General Conference are solved (even as problems of timeline remain). Africa would, however, be severing themselves off from their voice in the General Board of Global Ministries and UMCOR. These are not only the source of millions of dollars in aid but also the delivery and accountability system for those funds. Africans love being United Methodist. They deeply appreciate United Methodist News Service as a source of objective information. The name and insignia mean everything to them. The protocol gives them no right to keep these if they separate.
No one would ultimately be able to stop “The United Methodist Church of Africa” from forming and using the Cross & Flame. Below are non-United Methodist denominations that use the insignia in different ways. But Africa does not want autonomy. They want unity.
I support the Feinberg Separation Protocol. But it is only (to quote the movie Argo) best bad plan we have. It is especially bad for Africa. Those comprising the the psUMC seek a more workable timeline. The U.S. Regional Conference Plan, if passable, is thin… theologically, ecclesiologically, and otherwise. It lets the U.S. get its way on marriage and human sexuality, but it leaves a divided General Conference with significant reserve powers.
As they approve the Protocol, delegates at GC2020 might do well to design a future that makes better sense for the African church. I will take my best stab at that in Part Three.
I wish we could give the Africans unity. If the progs had proceeded to exit after GC 19 and the centrists had been wiling to work with the trads, it would have worked. But the centrists joined the mutiny, turning it into a civil war, and the church has become ungovernable. I realize that the WCA doesn’t want a big, bureaucratic general church, but I think we need to give the Central Conferences clear incentives to follow their consciences and join us, rather than stay and be sidelined by the antics in the Rump UMC.
My Friend and Brother Chris!!
You put my heart on fire! I dd not want to comment on this matter until we as Africa Initiative meet and consider our collective response to the Protocol later this month But your article is so provocative that I. could not hold back my response which is largely an admiration for your TRUTHFULNNESS and BOLDNESS. Your description of the African UMC DILEMMA frustration and disappointment is so accurate. We are informed our only Representative on the Table Negotiating the Protocol was the one who Connvined it our Bishop Yambasu of Sierra Leone and The current President of the Africa College of Bishops As a convenor we are not sure how he was at the same time an active participant representing the African voice and deep concerns you have ably articulated. As we look at the Protocol as it is now released : indeed your imagery of a child being forced to choose between divorcing parents is accurate.Speaking as a delegate to the 2020 General Conference I feel our option is not on the Table. Only America has options for them to choose from as it is always the Parents in a divorce have choices to make and not the Children! In this case I am no longer speaking metaphors. We feel We AFRICANS ARE BEING TREATED AS CHILDREN OF DIVORCING PARENTS. If we constitute Over 5million of the 11million of the Global United Methodist Church membershi how could anyone in good conscience accept a scenario where we have one Representative out of sixteen?
Without pre-emptying how the African Delegates will react I just want the wider Church to know that the Protocol is as it is now is a US document. As Africa we treat it as such.
Our hope for the future of The United Methodist Church is in that wherever we will choose to go we will be the majority and we will use our majority to preserve our Faith and protect our integrity. We will not accept to be treated like Children asis the case now. We will not be pushed into forces marriage! Both The Name and The Theological Teaching of the UMC is Dear to us. Good Will GRANT AFRICA both of these.
This may not.be on offer at this point in the Protocol but with sincere people like you and many others who take Africa seriously we will redeem not only the aspirations of the African United Methodist Church but the Authethetic Orthodox Wesleyan Church.
As has always been said: Africa is not in a hurry. We have no timeline worries! The West loose Time Africa makes Time for that which matter to her! We can not be forced to make haste Decisions by those who are running out of time. We are Patient to do what God the Owner of Both TIME and THE CHURCH HAS TO say!!
Pray for African Delegates as we begin to digest the implications of this Protocol to the future of our Vibrant Church in Africa.
Looking forward to your Part 3.
Complete agreement! Europe was also represented by only one progressive bishop, while at least half of the European UMC is traditional.
I pray our faithful
Brothers and sisters in both Africa and Europe will arrive at General Conference ready to see God act on your behalf and on behalf of all faithful United Methodist Christians everywhere. There are some of us in America who are praying for you to show up and lead us forward in God’s way, not in the political maneuvering we have seen so far. I do not speak ill of any negotiators in the Protocol. I believe they were trying to act in some manner of good conscience, but I do pray you are all ready and prayed up for God to use you to lead us forward. God Bless You.
Rev. Matonga, thank you so much for joining this discussion. Please do return and post more of your thoughts here, or on Chris’ next post. I think both progressives and conservatives in the US would benefit from hearing more clear descriptions from African UM leaders about what you see as the costs and benefits of separation and unity. I have suggested some considerations below in a longer comment, but I don’t know if my concerns and suggested changes would correspond to the concerns of yourself and your colleagues or not.
I appreciate your statement that “Africa is not in a hurry,” because that makes total sense from your perspective, and it shows your faith and spiritual strength. The Holy Spirit is moving in the UMC in Africa and souls are being saved. On the other hand, I hope you can understand why the situation seems intolerable to US conservatives, who have grown tired of existing in ecclesiastical structures where there is no unity around the basic Gospel message (beginning with “all people need to be saved”), where the basic faith commitments of any colleague you meet are in question until you get to know them very closely. That tension is where the urgency comes from here. For progressives it is different, but I won’t try to speak for them.
May the Lord bless and keep you.
Thank you for your insightful response. I, as an American, understand less of what the protocol would mean for you my brother in Christ. You have educated me. Be Blessed today.
Thank you for this helpful series of reflections Chris. Forbes I agree that this whole thing is not fair to Africa. I wish I had a way to fix that problem. But we are approaching the place where too many traditionalist laity will simply walk out and go to a different denomination here in the USA for it to be sustainable. (We have already had many do that.)
The African delegate is right: Africa cannot be forced to make hasty decisions by those who are running out of time. The dithering American church is a withering church.
I believe the Protocol and the ensuing discussion gets us *close enough* to a solution to where it is *possible* at this GC, but all sides in the US will need to listen to the African delegations. If the African delegations could come with a unified front I believe they could win some key concessions which would make the plan better for (almost) everyone. I would love to see them come in and say something along the lines of the following:
> We recognize a separation needs to happen, but we demand a more significant voice in the group that settles the terms; that group needs to be the General Conference of the UMC
> African United Methodists MUST be free to continue to use the Cross and Flame and the name United Methodist if they so desire, regardless of whether they remain tied to the progressive/centrist wing of the split happening in the US, and even if they unite with the traditional wing in the US who is not using that name and that symbol.
> Every Annual Conference in the entire UMC connection must have the choice to unite with either the traditional or centrist/progressive branches, and the vote must be by simple majority. This will allow more of the US UMC to remain in communion with the Africa UMC.
I realize there are some obvious objections to what I just suggested, so I will address them:
1) “You are just another American telling Africans what to think!” Good point. I suggested those points because I believe they fairly represent the convictions I have heard African United Methodists express for themselves. If I am incorrect in something then I hope more brothers and sisters like Forbes Matonga will join the discussion and give their own versions which better represent their convictions.
2) “That last point about the simple majority does not represent African interests, but rather conservative US interests.” I would suggest that it represents *all* of our interests, and I hope our African brothers and sisters will consider the matter carefully.
The thing that I think many progressives and centrists get wrong about our African brothers and sisters is that they hear them saying “we want to stay united,” and “we will not vote to split the church,” and they interpret that to mean they will tolerate a change in the definition of marriage within the UMC, or that they will choose the progressive branch for monetary reasons. But they have made clear that both of those things are NOT true!
I am hopeful that the African delegates will see the plight of traditional Methodists in the US – that plight being that the progressive authorities by and large refuse to enforce the Discipline and often persecute and condemn those who uphold traditional teaching – and so I hope that they will eventually come around to supporting the need for separation.
Where the *simple majority* comes in is that it would allow something closer to 40% of our US Conferences to join the Traditional branch, as opposed to the 20% or so that would probably make the move under the current Protocol. That would most definitely be in the interests of Africa, and of any other Central Conference which chooses to go with the traditional side, because it would mean more overall strength for the new, global, orthodox and evangelical Methodist connection.
3) A final objection would be, “But that isn’t the agreement we made with the mediator!” Well, the problem is that African United Methodists were not *truly* at the table. And traditional United Methodists of any sort were only *barely* at the table, compared to the overwhelming numbers of centrists / institutionalists and progressives. Those centrist leaders who insist on the unaltered Protocol might threaten to remove their support if it is amended, but one can hope that if they saw unity and resolve from traditional-minded Central Conference delegates, they might reconsider and cooperate with a revised version.
[Personally I hope everyone on all sides will think very carefully about the incongruity and chaos which would be caused if an Annual Conference were faced with a choice of which branch of Methodism to join, and voted, say, 55% to 45% for their choice, but that choice was denied due to not reaching the arbitrary “mediated” threshold of 57%. It is a crazy situation to imagine, and will feel even crazier when we are in it, but is exactly what will happen in several cases if the Protocol is not amended and improved.]
Grace and peace to you all in the Lord Jesus Christ!