by Chris Ritter
The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation has created strange bedfellows in the UMC. The two primary legislative caucuses mustered to oppose one another at previous General Conferences now find themselves oddly aligned. Both the Renewal and Reform Coalition (Good News/WCA/Africa Initiative/Confessing Movement/IRD) and Love Your Neighbor Coalition (Reconciling Ministries/Queer Clergy Caucus/MFSA, et. al.) are in relative agreement that separation following the rubrics of the Protocol is the best option given our regrettable circumstances. And legislation with this type of support would seem to be a slam dunk.
But there is another UMC dimension that is also powerful: Institutional loyalty. And institutionalism is particularly strong among our bishops. Bishops have no vote at General Conference, but they are and will be the de facto managers of the separation process. Four approaches to episcopal leadership are emerging relative to the Protocol that can be plotted on a coordinate plane defined by ideology and institutionalism. The categories are much more nuanced that a simple four-part grid can capture. But this general framework helps us understand some of the church-related headlines we are seeing relative to bishops, appointments, and protocol planning.
Progressive-leaning bishops wed to the current institution were well-represented at the Protocol negotiating table and comprise the executive team of the Council of Bishops. These bishops saw the Protocol as a means to move the current institution past the crisis over human sexuality. They noted that without some breakthrough, the make-up of General Conference will be less U.S. Mainline going forward. The offer made by Traditionalists to leave and start a new denomination was too good to pass up.
But we should not confuse their Protocol support for enthusiasm about dividing the UMC. They want to exit to be just large enough to take the problematic traditionalist caucus leaders away and bring peace to United Methodism. In their episcopal areas, these bishops have a vested interest in keeping losses small. To that end they are tempted to use their appointive powers to consolidate traditional clergy in traditional congregations. Congregations perceived as divided on the presenting issue will tend to be appointed an institutional loyalist as pastor. The UMC/GMC sorting process is to these bishops a zero sum game. Three bishops are currently under scrutiny for using their appointive power to engineer their preferred outcome from a future separation.
Traditional-leaning bishops in the UMC did not greet the Protocol as welcome news. In fact, some were livid that the traditionalists at the negotiating table were willing to “give away the farm.” These bishops have enjoyed the luxury of being fairly non-political because the pitched theological battles have happened in the legislative branch. As executives, traditional bishops have used their influence to balance upholding the Discipline with keeping a tenuous peace.
Traditional institutional bishops do not like the options created by the Protocol. They take seriously their call to guard the unity of the church and do not want to see the denomination fall apart on their watch. African American bishops hold gratitude toward progressives who have been vocal on racial issues. But many are traditional on matters of human sexuality. The Protocol makes them choose side along difficult lines. Many traditional bishops have cast doubt on the Protocol’s chances by saying the legislation does not have a snowball’s chance in Hades. But these bishops are generals without a legislative army. Those who share their love for the institution are mostly progressives. Those who share their traditional values are mostly ready to leave.
The leadership posture in this category tends to be deny and obstruct. These bishops do not want to see traditionalists (or anyone else) organize to leave. They hope the Protocol fails, but at the same time realize any effective alternative would require a major reworking of constitution for which there is little support. They place their hope, instead, in a long game in which the Protocol fails, a few hotheads on both sides disaffiliate, and the denomination finds a generally orthodox path under a global majority.
One friend contacted me recently to say that he spoke with a conference official about a potential upcoming vote on alignment as envisioned in the Protocol. He was told the bishop intended to rule any such vote out of order as unconstitutional. Laity, he said, cannot vote on clergy status. “A vote to leave the UMC would change the affiliation of all the clergy.” My response? UM clergy are not ordained into the denomination but the conference. A vote on affiliation would keep all the clergy in the conference with their same status. Failure by the Judicial Council to rule on the Protocol was decidedly unhelpful. But the Judicial Council previously ruled that a conference can exit the UMC if General Conference creates a process for that. I read a comment like this from a bishop as an attempt at obstruction by someone who feels legislatively powerless. If you are a traditionalist congregation or clergy in a setting like this you feel very much in limbo. You may see conferences around you openly planning for separation while conversation in your conference is stifled.
Less Institutional Traditionalists
I hesitate to label any UM bishop anti-institutionalist. It is hard for one to question the institution that elected them to office. But some on the right and left have allegiances larger than their institutional loyalties. These include United Methodism’s traditional bishops who are prepared to leave the UMC. Three African, one Eurasian, and one Filipino bishop have publicly indicated their preference for the Global Methodist Church. Several American bishops, although less open, have come to peace with moving on.
These bishops have an established history of frustrating progressives with their willingness to uphold the current Book of Discipline. But they take a very non-punitive view toward progressives congregations that seek to leave the denomination. Likewise, they are not trying to take unwilling parties into a new denomination. This would only perpetuate the same dysfunction we have today. Bishops planning their exit do not see it as their role to lead people out of the UMC. They generally await the conference-level voting on affiliation after the Protocol is enacted. Once a new denomination is approved, they will tender their resignation from United Methodist episcopacy.
Less Institutional Progressives
There are a number of Progressive bishops who are assuming an open, non-punitive posture toward the coming separation. While their episcopal areas tend to be majority progressive, they recognize vibrant traditional congregations as on a distinct path from the larger body. The leadership posture is one of managing significant change in a healthy way.
Bishop Laurie Haller instituted in Iowa an Ezekiel Team to plan what and how information about separation will be shared with churches and how the two future denominations will cooperate on things like camps and disaster relief following the split. The European college of bishops is comprised of three progressives and one traditionalist who together are openly planning for separation. Bishop Bruce Ough put a Strategy Team in place in the Dakotas and this team has continued to meet after his retirement to plan for post-separation cooperation. In the case of the Dakotas, there is at least a possibility to trade churches between a more traditional Dakotas Conference and the progressive Minnesota Conference so as to create a future relatively free from animosity. The goal seems to be to off-board traditionalist clergy and congregations from the UMC in a way that everyone can feel good about. If you are a traditionalist in these locations you are eager to see the Protocol passed but feel okay about the process.
I am a recovering institutionalist. I tried for years to “save” the UMC by exploring some structure that would keep everyone connected. The fallout of General Conference 2019 cured me of that. Institutionalists now run the risk of following the Vietnam Era logic of destroying the village in order to save it. The healthier emotional space is to be found on the left side of the grid. Shifting to let the institution go will require a process of grief and acceptance. Both sides in the coming separation will deal with major change. We can manipulate, deny, or lean into the change as our best hope for a better day for all.