by Chris Ritter
GC2020 convenes in just eighty-one days and delegates must be ready to do their best work. A big piece fell into place with the announcement of the ground-breaking Feinberg Separation Protocol on January 3. It calls for U.S. Traditionalists to form a new Methodist Church and the rest of the global denomination to live together, if they so elect, in a UMC where the U.S. Church is regionalized. There are big questions about whether central conferences will join the new denominations, form their own, or accept regionalization within the post separation UMC.
The most discussed vehicle for regionalization is the Connectional Table’s U.S. Regional Conference Plan. It allows the U.S. to customize the Book of Discipline in ways more extensive than the adaptations long allowed to central conferences. As the name suggests, the plan was written to privilege the needs of the United States.
The Connectional Table’s Plan has some significant weaknesses:
- Inequity. It adds a fourth layer of conferencing in the U.S. while the rest of the world gets three.
- Top-Heavy. The UMC struggles to fund our existing boards and agencies. The plan envisions a potential new set of national agencies and boards created to serve the U.S. Region.
- General Superintendency. It requires Africa and other parts of the world to accept a general superintendency that includes LGBTQ bishops.
- Bad Options for Africa. If Traditionalist central conferences cannot accept gay bishops in the UMC, they would need to take the exit allowed by the Protocol. Under the Protocol they would need to vote by a 2/3 majority while U.S. conferences would vote themselves out by 57%. Voting themselves out, Africa would lose all access to the UMC name/insignia along with their representation in GBGM, UMCOR, Africa University, and other important structures.
- Uncertainty. The plan requires constitutional amendments with uncertain reception in African conferences. The last regionalization plan to be passed at GC2008 was soundly rejected in Africa. Failure of the amendments would leave the psUMC in further crisis.
- Polarization. If the regionalization amendments are passed, the post-separation UMC will have a General Conference more polarized than it is today. The U.S. will be more Progressive and hold the power to adapt the Discipline. Africa will continue to claim a bigger percentage of a General Conference retaining significant reserve powers (like defining budgets and setting limits for what can be regionalized). This arrangement seems inherently unstable.
- Timeline. Traditionalists will not support passage of the present regionalization plans at GC2020. Some planners now discuss a specially-called General Conference for fall of 2021 or spring of 2022 to approve the amendments needed for regionalization. If approved, it will be another 18-24 months of waiting to discover the results of ratification votes.
Add to these weaknesses the fact that General Conference has become a chaotic and dysfunctional way to run a denomination. Meeting in such a large, international body every four years makes us clumsy instead of nimble. The language translation effort alone costs millions of dollars. By the time massive amounts of legislation are processesd and bundled into consent calendars, most delegates leave these global meeting not exactly sure what they did. Sanity is the ability to stop doing what is no longer working. The U.S. Regional Conference would go through all the labors of a General Conference only to have the U.S. delegates meet a second time to change it all back to U.S. preferences.
My interest in the psUMC is as a United Methodist clergy with deep concerns for the central conferences. The Separation Protocol meets the needs of the congregation I serve well enough (even though it is far from ideal). I hope GC2020 accepts the Protocol as written, and approves a much more stable vision for regionalized United Methodism. There are lessons to be learned from our Anglican brothers and sisters who have organized themselves globally into a family of regional churches… a Communion. Amidst all the talk of separation I hope we don’t miss an opportunity to take a step back and think big.
What is a Communion?
A communion is a family of autonomous (but related) denominations and/or regional churches. The Orthodox churches have full communion with each other among their autocephelous (independently headed) churches. Anglicanism is an example much closer to United Methodism.
In Anglicanism there is nothing like a General Conference. An Anglican Consultative Council meets every three years. Member churches are granted either one, two, or three seats depending upon their size. Term limits of six years are imposed and a few at large members are added for expertise. The total Council is around 70 members and all are seated with 2/3 consent of the body. A Secretary General elected by the council hires whatever staff is needed. There is also a group of trustees elected by the council that meets annually and oversees a group much like our General Council on Finance and Administration. All Anglican bishops gather only once every decade for the Lambeth conference. The heads (primates) of the various churches meet somewhat more often.
The apparatuses of the Communion are overall much leaner than that of the constituent churches. A Council of this limited scope is sufficient because it is not trying to directly govern all the member churches. It is only responsible for shared expressions of Anglicanism. Each church has its own governance to suit their mission.
Communions are not without conflict. The Episcopal Church, for instance, was suspended for three years by the 2016 meeting of the primates. The issue was… wait for it… the topic of human sexuality. But disagreements within the Communion do little to disrupt the operation of each member church. No church is held captive or coerced by the Communion. It operates as a cooperative fellowship of denominations.
The United Methodist Communion of Churches
Last summer I accepted the challenge from a member of the Judicial Council to imagine a new constitution for United Methodism. This vision was submitted in legislative form to GC2020 and includes detailed transitional procedures that take us from United Methodist Church to United Methodist Communion of Churches. The new constitution would be approved alongside the Feinberg Separation Protocol. U.S. Traditionalists could leave immediately under the Protocol or form a church under the provisions of the new constitution.. Here are the highlights:
- GC2020 would debate, perfect, and approve the new constitution transforming The United Methodist Church into the United Methodist Communion of Churches.
- The Feinberg Protocol would also be adopted at GC2020 and churches could move immediately under those provisions. They are compatible.
- If the new constitution is ratified, General Conference 2020 would be the last General Conference.
- Self-selected Drafting Teams would meet to envision new denominations of United Methodism. Each would produce a 1,000-word vision statement available for public review and endorsement via UM Communications.
- Existing annual and central conferences each take votes on affiliation based on the vision statements and endorsements. If no group garners a majority there is a run-off between the top two choices. Annual conferences elect delegations to the convening conference of the church they select.
- Individual congregations may select a choice different from their annual conference and move into that choice without financial penalty. They may participate in the convening conference by the basis of representation established by that body.
- The new United Methodist denominations would meet to organize. All new churches have access to the United Methodist name and insignia. They would need to add a modifier like “The United Methodist Church of Africa,” “The United Methodist Church of America,” “Evangelical United Methodist Church,” or “The United Methodist Church, Philippines.” Member churches are not required to use the name and insignia.
- Clergy stay with their annual conference by default but may transfer if the so choose.
- Bishops would select a United Methodist denominational body. Bishops superintend only the church they have selected and there serve and are held accountable.
- Once the new constitution is ratified, GCFA is granted the authority to amend the Book of Discipline and the budget so as to best facilitate the transformation. This temporary power exists until the United Methodist Governing Council is formed. GCFA will also manage the timeline, not to extend beyond December 31, 2024.
- Central conference funding is to be continued at the rate set by GC2020 for the 2021-2024 quadrennium.
- Institutions may affiliate with one of more member churches and/or with the Communion generally.
- The trust clause transfers to the new denominations who may do with it what they will.
- The primary focus on The United Methodist Communion is the continued work of the General Board of Global Ministries and UMCOR. Wespath is prominent and may select their own board. The general agencies of The United Methodist Church would adapt to service the entire Communion.
- As member churches organize they elect representatives to the United Methodist Governing Council which is comprised of 60-100 members with equal numbers of clergy and laity. The Governing Council would meet annually to oversee the agencies of the communion and attend to other business of the Communion.
- A fellowship of bishops meets at least every four years as a forum for theology and best practices of ministry.
A Better Deal for Africa… and Everyone Else
There are any number of advantages to the approach suggested here. Unlike the U.S. Regional Conference Plan, the Communion allows all groups to design a new future (from scratch if they like) that makes sense for them. Rather than simply divide, United Methodism multiplies. Africa does not have to choose between gay bishops on the one hand and loss of the name, insignia, and GBGM on the other. They can become, if they choose, The United Methodist Church of Africa with proportional representation on the Communion’s Governing Council. The constitution envisions continued episcopal salary support for Africa.
Progressive and Centrist United Methodists would have the opportunity to design the church or churches they want, unencumbered with the uncertainties inherent in the CT regionalization plan. The new church would negotiate their own contract with the UM general agencies for their services. Structure would be defined by their own General Conference and Book of Discipline.
Check It Out…
I realize it is late in the game for a new, far-reaching structural plan to surface. But the current leading structural plan is insufficient. It will not gain the supermajority support it needs at GC2020 and my Centrist/Progressive friends may be waiting a full quadrennia for a U.S. Regional Conference, if that is even possible. The Protocol is one important piece. Now let’s work on a smart plan for regionalization.