by Chris Ritter
The Protocol for Grace and Reconciliation through Separation was a big step forward in envisioning how divergent United Methodisms might disentangle and move forward productively. My experience as a delegate to GC2019 convinced me that the type of wide-ranging constitutional overhaul the UMC needed was not then possible. Instead, we fought over two win/lose options (the Traditional Plan and the One Church Plan.) In reality, no one “won.” Everyone lost. If General Conference is further delayed the Protocol will continue to be on hold to the frustration of Progressives and Traditionalists alike. We need real help in the interim.
Proposals like “A Call to Grace” rightly acknowledge that legislative solutions cannot help us in the current impasse. But the prescription of more individual disaffiliations has been rejected by Traditionalists who see “A Call to Grace” as an attempt to bleed away just enough traditionalist leaders so that control can be achieved over a majority who remain. Even if we could find an agreeable way to “Protocol without the Protocol,” it would be unwise to attempt to launch a Global Methodist Church with only Americans. Africans and other international delegates will want to show up at the next UMC General Conference to make their voices heard.
The U.S. Church needs to reorganize and doing so now would allow the next General Conference to do its best work. That is why I dusted off an old draft proposal that employs a feature of our current polity, the provisional central conference (Par. 560-567), and applies it to our American impasse. If General Conference is further delayed, I propose unified executive action to create a Provisional Emergency American Central Conference (PEACC) for traditionalists to join.
Provisional central conferences are provisional because they exist only until the next General Conference, at which time they are affirmed or dissolved. The “emergency” part alludes to the fact that such a structure in the U.S. would be beyond the scope of our present polity (like not holding a quadrennial General Conference due to a pandemic is beyond the scope of our polity.) Provisional central conferences can do everything a regular central conference can do, except elect bishops.
Below are some questions and answers related to the PEACC.
Is this a replacement for The Separation Protocol?
No. It is designed to bridge the time until the next General Conference when the Protocol and other legislation can be considered.
Why don’t traditionalists just disaffiliate?
Disaffiliation makes a congregation non-denominational. Most traditional-minded United Methodists do not feel called to that. They likewise will not feel at liberty to leave the UMC until (1) General Conference acts, and (2) the official teachings/practices of the UMC violate conscience. Any disaffiliation-based exit that can now be negotiated will not meet those requirements. Most importantly, Africa (probably now a majority of the UMC) will make no big moves before General Conference acts. It is not advisable to launch a “Global Methodist Church” organized almost completely of Americans. We need to put the medicine on the spot from which the pain is radiating.
What is a Provisional Central Conference?
In the U.S., our UMC polity is very rigid in terms of geography. This goes back to a long-negotiated reunification in 1939 when northern and southern Methodists came back together. “Jurisdictions” were created to navigate the Jim Crow politics of the time. Our rigid geography now locks incompatible streams of United Methodism together in a win/lose “cage match.” Outside the U.S., our polity is more adaptable. Provisional Central Conferences are described in Par. 560-567 of The Book of Discipline. When United Methodism reaches into new geography, it is possible to organize a number of conferences and provisional annual conferences into a new central conference. It is “provisional” because it awaits the blessing of General Conference. Provisional Central Conferences can do everything a regular Central Conference can do except elect bishops.
The emergency is that the United Methodist General Conference cannot meet to address the biggest threat ever faced by the United Methodist Church. Provisional Central Conferences can normally exist only outside the U.S. The epicenter of our crisis, however, is within the U.S. The PEACC proposal uses a feature already found in our polity and applies it to our place of greatest pain. “Emergency” acknowledges that it is beyond the scope of the Discipline and our constitution. (We are also violating our constitution by not holding General Conference as mandated.) This would be a desperate measure for desperate times. United Methodism has navigated off the map. Provisional General Conferences exist only until the next General Conference when they must be blessed by General Conference or dissolve.
How would the PEACC organize?
We actually have a very detailed roadmap already in place with work done on by the Commission on a Way Forward for the Connectional Conference Plan (they spent more time writing thee CCP than any of the other plans). Some of this work transferred over into the Separation Protocol. Annual conferences in the United States would have opportunity to vote themselves into the PEACC. Those that do so would relate to other similar annual conferences instead of their jurisdictional conference. Individual congregations out of step with the decision made by the annual conference would have opportunity to go the other direction and either be placed into a provisional annual conference by the PEACC or into an annual conference assigned by their jurisdiction. Each U.S. jurisdiction with an exiting conference would need to meet to adjust their conference maps.
This proposal would work best with unified executive action on the part of the Council of Bishops that a PEACC for traditionalists should form. Episcopal leadership will need to be identified to supervise the PEACC until General Conference can meet.
Isn’t there too much lost trust to make something like this work?
If we can’t pull something like this off, I doubt we can peacefully separate under the Protocol. Undergoing the sorting process while under the same tent might help us stay out of the civil courts.
What about financial liabilities?
I recommend that liabilities be transferred to the PEACC and any annual conferences that receive congregations under this proposal. The Connectional Conference Plan and Protocol contain rubrics for working through this.
Should there be more than one PEACC?
While it would certainly be possible to have a PEACC for progressives, I would argue for simplicity, following the rubrics of the Protocol. Let progressive United Methodists have the five jurisdictional conferences to do with as they wish.
What about Africa?
My hunch is that Africans would be relieved that they are not immediately forced to take sides in a U.S. fight. The teachings of the UMC are orthodox. They do not feel the urgency we do in the U.S. for change. It is going to take a long runway for the growing and diverse continent of Africa to decide its own fate.
What might happen when GC finally meets?
General Conference could approve the Protocol and the PEACC would likely join with Eastern Europeans and some Africans to form the Global Methodist Church. The pain of that transition would be much lighter due to the fact that the U.S. would already be mostly sorted. Alternatively, the General Conference might find a way to help to the UMC move forward with a multi-brand strategy. This is envisioned in work done by traditional-leaning bishops on a regional conference plan with two overlapping U.S. regions (The Protocol for Gracious Unity.)
If General Conference fails to change church teaching on marriage and human sexuality, some traditionalists will want to stay and Progressives may seek their own structure. If General Conference does change church teaching, this would likely boost the formation of the Global Methodist Church. General Conference could also push teachings on marriage and human sexuality down to the central conferences and jurisdictions.
Who supports this?
As of today, this is one person’s recommendation. I notice that the PEACC plan is getting some positive attention from moderate traditionalists. The Progressives I have interacted with on this have given it a reasonably warm reception. They are growing impatient to push forward their agenda and are disappointed at the reception of their “Call to Grace.” What General Conference says about human sexuality is now less important to Progressives because they are moving together across the line of defiance.
Would delegates from the PEACC be seated at the next General Conference?
This would be a decision for General Conference, I suppose. The annual conferences that join the PEACC, at least, would retain their delegations. There would be no basis to exclude them. If the delay in General Conference reaches all the way to 2024, new elections would need to be held in annual conferences and these would reflect the demographics at the time.
How can I support this idea?
Make sure your bishop and annual conference leaders are aware of the plan. A PEACC would only become necessary if General Conference 2022 is further delayed.