by Chris Ritter
A small group of bishops is circulating a new proposal to replace the Feinberg Separation Protocol with a “Protocol for Gracious Unity,” a global restructure plan featuring separate compartments for traditionalists and centrist/progressives. Four global regions, each with overlapping progressive and traditional annual conferences, would receive power to adapt decisions made at General Conference. Think of it as a cross between the Connectional Conference Plan and the Christmas Covenant. You can check out the summary here and the legislation here along with the post that seems to have inspired it. I understand that a website in support of the proposal is soon forthcoming. With supermajority support needed and key players already pledged to the original Protocol, this late entry will have a nearly impossible uphill climb.
The plan emanates from center-right, institutionally-minded U.S. bishops nervous about the future. These might include certain African American bishops who feel torn by the choices presented by Feinberg Protocol. Additionally, the plan hopes to speak into a larger angst related to the Feinberg Plan that has developed during the COVID shut-down. I discuss that below. Succinctly, here are some problems with this new “Protocol for Graceful Unity”:
- It pulls the rug out from under the Feinberg Protocol which eliminates any residual shreds of trust that still exist in the UMC between our factions.
- The complex plan artificially superimposes eight pre-defined compartments on United Methodism defined by geography and human sexuality.
- There is great financial inefficiency in keeping General Conference as it is yet giving each regional conference the power to undo or adapt the decisions made there. It would be better to replace or greatly downsize General Conference. (Having participated in GC2016 & GC2019, I can attest it is a terrible way to run a denomination.)
- The complexity of the plan is matched by a high bar for approval and ratification.
- It locks people in that want out.
- If we start calling new legislation by the Protocol name, things are going to get even more confusing than they already are.
Although I was perhaps the most vocal supporter of the Connectional Conference Plan at GC2019, I do not believe this similar “Graceful Unity Protocol” proposal is the right medicine for our Methodist moment. The Feinberg Protocol should be approved as negotiated and as soon as possible. But it is important to understand why a major new plan is being proposed. The Protocol by itself leaves some serious unanswered questions on the table that are making some constituencies very nervous. Let’s talk about that.
Leading bishops in the UMC are alarmed at the scale of the pending separation. They agreed to the Protocol in the hopes that a few restless traditionalists would stomp off and take with them the Evangelical renewal caucus apparatus that has kept General Conference traditional on human sexuality. Meanwhile, the UMC ship would quickly steady and the business of the church would move forward under a banner of unity. The messaging of the post-separation UMC was to be simple: “There are a few among us that can’t seem to live with the rest of us. We are graciously letting them go. But the UMC you know and love will be here for you, minus the hurtful, restrictive language about our LGBTQ siblings.”
That message of continuity does not match the demands of the moment. The COVID crisis has accelerated decline and called for a new, leaner institution. The Protocol puts the post-separation UMC in a position of selling continuity in a market driven by change. Progressive voices in the UMC will be magnified following separation and this releases a whole new set of internal pressures. Meanwhile, those forming the new traditional Methodist denomination have been working on a fresh vision of Methodism that will be quite attractive beyond the human sexuality debate. It will be a leaner structure where the old is unsustainably scaled. It is styled away from the current top-heavy model and toward the grassroots. The new denomination will allow congregations authority over their own properties and grant them more collaboration on pastoral appointments. It has become clear to U.S. bishops that several annual conferences will be leaving for the new Methodist Church as will many of our most effective congregations. Remaining conferences of the post-separation UMC are in for a prolonged season of down-sizing and mergers under the rigors of the current Discipline (a process that has never, ever yielded a turnaround).
U.S. institutionalists are nervous about the prospects of separating the U.S. into its own self-governing region. The hope was that a minimal number of traditionalists would leave and that General Conference would approve a raft of constitutional amendments that organize the global church into four regions, each with the ability to adapt much of the Book of Discipline. That would allow the post-separation UMC to have same-sex marriage in the U.S. and no same-sex marriage in places like Africa. Traditionalists have stood opposed to regionalized morality. A similar global restructure plan passed at GC2008 only to later fail ratification. (In some African conferences it was voted down by as much as 97%.) If regionalization is not ratified in the annual conferences and African conferences stay in the post-separation UMC, U.S. Centrists will find themselves as a minority. They could suffer through separation only to find themselves more stuck than before.
There have been several efforts lately to somehow link passage of the Protocol with a global regionalization plan (see here and here). “Link” is a nice way to say “hold hostage.” But that is not the deal that was negotiated under the leadership of Kenneth Fienberg. The new Methodist Church hopes to leave with Africa and traditionalists do not see reorganizing the remaining UMC as their problem to solve. Many are philosophically opposed to helping create a church with contextualized definitions of marriage. In short, there seems to be present the simple majority to pass the Protocol but not the supermajority needed for regionalization. Even if regionalization could somehow pass in 2021, the timeline for standing up a U.S. Regional Conference is long and uncertain. It would be at least 2023 before we know if the amendments were ratified.
African bishops are dissatisfied with the Protocol and have called for its renegotiation. The bishops honor the legacy of Bishop Yambasu who convened the Protocol negotiation. But they also point out he was the only African at the table to represent the millions of United Methodists in Africa, the denomination’s fastest growing segment. The Protocol puts them in a position akin to children of divorce with bad options laid out for them by others. Africans love the UMC, the Cross & Flame, and being part of a global church. The UMC works for them.
The Protocol puts Africa in a difficult position. To leave the UMC is to sever itself from the General Board of Global Ministries, UMCOR and other components of the established funding mechanism housed in the U.S. To stay in the psUMC is to accept moves toward doctrinal incoherence and a general superintendency conflicted by mutually exclusive moral visions. Under the Protocol, they could launch out on their own to create “The United Methodist Church of Africa,” and this is perhaps their least bad move. But this, too, degrades the connection between them and their sources of support. They don’t want separation. They want a global United Methodist denomination that stands for traditional Christian truth. The tensions between tradition, treasure, and truth have potential to split African United Methodism internally.
It is clear that the UMC needs the Protocol. It should be approved as negotiated and as soon as possible. This will provide U.S. traditionalists with ready access to the fresh start they have been seeking. But it is also important to address the lingering issues that remain on the table. It will come as no surprise to those who have followed me over the past six years that I have a plan for that. It is not new. In fact, you can find it in the proposed legislation for GC2020.
A new constitution could transform the United Methodist Church into the United Methodist Communion of Churches*. This plan is designed to sit alongside the Feinberg Protocol and is fully compatible with it. But instead of just dividing United Methodism, we multiply it into several new entities. Basically, everyone gets to help form one of several new United Methodist offshoot denominations. Those denominations have a voice in managing the shared resources through a United Methodist Governing Council (60-100 people) that meets annually. Each denomination can choose whether or not to use the United Methodist name (with appropriate modifiers.) We could have The UMC of America, the Liberation Methodist Connexion, The UMC of Africa, The UMC of the Philippines, etc. The new traditionalist denomination enabled by the Feinberg Protocol is invited to participate in the Communion but is not required to do so.
A Process of Transformation
Here is the process you will find in the legislation:
- General Conference would approve the Feinberg Separation Protocol which allows traditionalist churches and conferences that so wish to vote themselves immediately into their own denominational body.
- General Conference would debate, perfect, and approve the new constitution transforming The United Methodist Church into the United Methodist Communion of Churches.
- 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.
- 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 (The Liberation Methodist Connexion, for instance, could be in the UM Communion without the UM name.)
- Clergy and individual congregations stay with their annual conference by default but may transfer if they so choose.
- Current bishops would select a United Methodist denominational body. Bishops superintend only the church they have selected and there they 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.
- 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 continues 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 equal numbers of clergy and laity. The Governing Council would meet annually to oversee the agencies of the communion and attend to other business.
- A fellowship of bishops meets at least every four years as a forum for theology and best practices of ministry.
Strengthening the Feinberg Protocol
I believe it strengthens the Feinberg Protocol to better define the future following its implementation. It is exciting to help shape something new and I wish this for all my United Methodist brothers and sisters. The opportunity for all groups to dream together about the future with a blank sheet of paper is the best hope for multiple fruitful futures. It better honors the legacy of United Methodism to multiply (with continued connection for those who wish it) instead of just divide. Like the bishops that proposed the new Protocol for Gracious Unity, I don’t have a vote at the next General Conference. Those that do can read the legislation here. You can also find it on page 304 of the ADCA, Volume 2, Section 1.
**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 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.