by Chris Ritter

Is the Separation Protocol constitutional? William Lawrence, the past president of our Judicial Council, thinks not. In an editorial written for UMNS, Lawrence outlines the problems he sees with the groundbreaking separation agreement that would allow the formation of a new global Methodist Church for traditionalists leaving the United Methodist Church (UMC).

Like the United States, the UMC has a constitution that provides the framework for our government. The many, various and sundry other laws in the Book of Discipline must fit within that framework. The constitution can be amended, but it takes a 2/3 majority vote at General Conference and supermajority aggregate ratification votes in annual conference sessions around the world. The ratification process can take a couple of years to complete and certify. Now that we have a Separation Protocol agreement that has been negotiated by those representing significant voting blocs, we await a ruling by the Judicial Council, the UMC’s top court.

The Traditional Plan in Reverse

Contrary to popular belief, the Traditional Plan was not passed at GC2019. Parts of the Traditional Plan were passed. These were the enhanced enforcement mechanisms around human sexuality and closing of loopholes that allow same sex weddings in some places. The most important piece (in my opinion) was the mechanism that allowed annual conferences and congregations to exit the UMC. The Traditional Plan, as originally conceived, was a Separation Protocol except the Progressives were the one exiting. The Judicial Council made a key ruling on the exit provision in Decision 1366 (October 2018) and decided that annual conferences and congregations can, indeed, vote to leave the UMC if General Conference creates a legislative mechanism for them to do so.

Lawrence refutes Decision 1366 as a basis for the separation proposed in the Protocol, saying the legislation discussed in the decision did not pass, therefore it does not exist: “Since it does not exist, it cannot be constitutional.” I don’t follow his logic here. If the Judicial Council ruled legislation constitutional before it was enacted, certainly it remains so even though it was not passed. Our high court ruled many legislative proposals as constitutional leading up to GC2019. Decision 1366 is a good indication that the Protocol’s basic proposal is workable.

Disagreement with Decision 1366 seems to be at the heart of Lawrence’s critique. He further argues that an annual conference leaving the UMC would be tantamount to removing the clergy of that conference from the UMC without due process or trial. He notes the restrictive rule that General Conference “shall not do away with the privileges of our clergy of right to a trial by a committee and of an appeal.” But once an annual conference leaves, its clergy no longer fall under this article. A clergy is only a UMC clergy because they are members of a conference that is part of the UMC. Clergy membership is not in the denomination itself but in the annual conference. General Conference has allowed the exit of annual conferences (like Puerto Rico) in the past without a violation of restrictive rules.

Lawrence further argues that the Protocol is problematic in that it enables a Central Conference to vote itself out of the UMC with all its annual conferences (unless the annual conference votes to stay in the UMC). He does not elaborate why he views this as problematic. The constitution is silent about the mechanisms by which an annual conference may leave the UMC and the Judicial Council in 1366 invites General Conference to fill in those gaps. Processes are spelled out elsewhere in the Discipline for annual conferences in our international central conferences to become autonomous (See Par. 572). These exits happen under the rubrics of our current constitution.

Going on to Perfection

The above is an example of an problem (if the Judicial Council says it is one) that is repairable by the framers of the legislation before the next General Conference. A simple update could be offered, say, that allows each annual conference to vote instead of involving the central conferences. This is easy enough. Most of the legislation coming to GC2019 required such repairs. If there are the votes to pass the Protocol there are likely the votes to perfect it.

Lawrence’s critique seems to hinge on Judicial Council back-peddling on Decision 1366, creating the need for constitutional amendments. It is obviously the hope of the framers (any many others of us) to avoid this. The ratification process adds time and uncertainty to weary congregations that need to get the separation in the rearview mirror so they can address the many existential threats and new ministry opportunities that are emerging around them. It is past time to move on.

If the Protocol gets tangled up in constitutional issues, many will read this as further evidence that the United Methodist Church is a turtle on its back without the ability to right itself. “Too divided to divide” is a phrase I have heard repeated from time to time. Becoming further stuck would not only frustrate traditionalists seeking a new start, it would also delay the UMC denominational reboot envisioned by Centrists and Progressives.

So we await the Judicial Council to review and rule on the Separation Protocol. They were slated to meet in April but this meeting was delayed due to the pandemic and new dates have not yet been announced. Lawrence’s critique aside, the decision anticipated is that the basic framework of the Protocol is constitutional with little or minor modifications in language. If the process is sent back to the drawing board, I predict the UMC will be somehow be torn instead of cut. As it stands now, I expect the Protocol to be approved by this time next year, clearing the way for the formation of a new, global Methodist Church.

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