by Bob Phillips
Rumor and spin are temptations to Christians of all persuasions. When conflict is fueled by conscience, the temptation magnifies greatly. As The United Methodist Church faces separation, passions are beginning to build. One of the targets is the Protocol negotiated in the aftermath of the 2019 General Conference by representations of a wide variety of perspectives within the denomination. A number of annual conferences and at least one jurisdiction have called for its passage at GC2022. Recently some other groups, such as the North Central Jurisdiction delegates, have expressed through consistent (in)action and alternative language a rejection. To clear the air, consider the following five myths surrounding the Protocol.
Myth #1 – The Protocol is a way to sugarcoat schism and a denominational divorce, so to support it is to support the destruction of The United Methodist Church. Separation of itself is morally neutral and can be a positive good. Separation from the Church of England produced all versions of Methodism. The Salvation Army separated from British Methodism, for good reasons. Protestants separated from Catholics, and in the 19th century the anti-slavery elements of the Baptist and Methodist churches separated from each other for a season. Separation becomes schism when anger, mutual accusations and a desire to wound other parties are central motives. The full title of the Protocol, “Grace and Reconciliation Through Separation” speaks to a constructive outcome for all parties.
Myth #2 – The Protocol offers dissatisfied conservatives a 25 million-dollar reward, taken from money given by all faithful members, as blackmail against causing more trouble. Traditionalists “won” every vote on contested issues at General Conference for 50 years. After GC2019 it was clear those who disagreed with church teaching, including many bishops, simply would ignore that teaching and confirm the brokenness of the system. Under the Protocol the new traditional Wesleyan expression would receive 25M out of an estimated 120M in church available liquid assets. The legacy church would receive 51M and African and ethnic/racial minority ministries would receive 39M. The 120M identified in 2018 has grown to 286M today, but the amount for the new expression remains 25M. The legacy church also would keep all seminaries, schools and properties and trusts not specifically related to a departing congregation, hundreds of millions. If the Global Methodist Church is robbing the legacy church, it is akin to kidnapping billionaire Jeff Bezos and demanding two tickets to the local Spiderman movie as the ransom.
Myth #3 – The Protocol is a giveaway to the liberals and progressives, who lost every fair fight over sexuality at every General Conference for 50 years, openly defied the will of church and has dared anyone to do something about it. Now THEY get to keep the house, car and keys? When the Nazarene church formed out of Methodism the saying was, “They took the fire and left the stove.” Blessings on the legacy church as they will struggle to reboot, reset and revive a clearly dysfunctional organization. Yes, the new expression will begin by traveling light, just as the mobile Jesus, unencumbered by “stuff” traveled light in Kingdom ministry. Churches will leave with their property, owing only repayment on conference loans or current apportionment. The main thing is not institutional bling.
Myth #4 – The Protocol was gamed to marginalize and disadvantage traditional, orthodox members by stacking the deck with liberal members who want to change church teaching. Not to worry. The make-up of the team included 5 US bishops, all of whom desire to see church definitions of marriage and ordination expand; two leaders from the Philippines (one a bishop) whose public views are not clear beyond strong affirmation of the Protocol; a progressive Danish bishop; one leader from the national Discipleship office, progressive on gay marriage/ordination and tragically felled by illness; four members who are leaders in affirming gay marriage/ordination. Only two of the 16 members represented a traditional position on contested issues, and all were convened by an African bishop lamentably killed in an accident not long thereafter. The decisive difference was the presence of an internationally renowned, negotiator in the person of Kenneth Feinberg, who oversaw the process of distributing support to victims of the 9/11 attacks. Jewish in faith, offering pro bono service to the church, he insured what typical church gatherings of this sort virtually never get right, i.e., balance, perspective and clarity. His professional insights prevented the marginalization of the traditional voices. The Protocol, with such an impartial and proven negotiator at the helm, produced an approach that none of the participants liked in all its particulars but all came to see would work with effectiveness and grace as a whole.
Myth #5 – Adopting…or not adopting…the Protocol will solve the main problem affecting the denomination. Nope. The Protocol is a productive way to open the door for the church in two new expressions to tackle the far more complex and serious issues affecting the denomination. Membership in IGRC dropped from 288,000 in 1972 to 105,000 in 2021, and not because of drag queens or gay marriage or sexual bigotry. Fractured theology, demographics of age and property location, miscommunication, ineffective organization, trust deficits, mission confusion, and an overall sense of denial are some of the larger issues. The Protocol enables the church to push a constructive reset button so that the real and deeper issues can be faced by both groups.
A final caution. Organizational theory wisely observes that institutions fail into collaboration (such as the Protocol) when all parties realize further combat is destructive to the future. But most collaborations fail back into conflict when some parties convince themselves it is better to slug it out or drive them (the ‘other guys’) out. The Episcopal Church followed that line of conflict over collaboration about 10 years ago, with legal costs alone now at 50M, and we are four times their size. The Protocol defuses the major financial barrier by transitioning pension issues seamlessly to Wespath through the Global Methodist Church. Going otherwise can involve payments from tens of thousands to millions, plus added slugfests in areas with bishops hostile to traditional views. We don’t need to do that. We must not do that. Let the Protocol begin the process of healing as the church turns the page on what can become a vibrant future and witness.
Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference
Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews
Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution
Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)