by Chris Ritter

This could be the most significant week in the United Methodist Church since February 2019. At the last General Conference the partial passage of the Traditional Plan left orthodox standards on human sexuality intact without the planned gracious exit for those who disagreed. It turned out that many U.S. clergy and U.S.-centered institutions were among those so ready for liberalization of standards that they were willing to stage a rebellion against the very Discipline that binds us together as a denomination. Traditionalist leaders, in the wake of the revolt, offered to be the ones to leave in exchange for a gracious exit with property (very similar to that written but not approved in the Traditional Plan.) This Separation Protocol anticipated General Conference approval in May 2020. COVID triggered two delays and the UMC is about to learn whether the planned GC2022 will happen or not. That announcement (I hear) is expected Thursday, March 3 and will shortly give us the answer to this and other weighty questions on the minds of United Methodists.

1. Will General Conference be Further Delayed?

Rumors abound that the Commission on General Conference decided last week to delay General Conference until 2024. Their reasons for delay may be multiple, but topping that list would be visa issues for international delegates. General Conference is the only body that speaks for United Methodism and it is certainly significant that this voice is kept on mute in the midst of the biggest crisis in our church’s fifty-year history. But the illusion that General Conference (and the Book of Discipline) governs the church should have been dispelled in the fallout of GC2019.

Watch for whether the COGC styles General Conference 2024 as a new, quadrennial General Conference or a postponement of the 2020 meeting. At one time, they had hoped to retain a modicum of control by keeping both the 2020 legislation and delegates. A recent Judicial Council ruling nullified the earlier decision by COGC to not allow new legislative proposals in keeping with the new schedule. So they have no choice but to allow a fresh wave of legislative submissions for any future conference. But we will watch to see if the delegates elected back in 2019 will serve or if new elections will be required in each annual conference. To not allow new delegates would be patently unfair to Africa because the demographics of the church will have shifted significantly during the interim away from U.S. Jurisdictions and toward the African Central Conferences.

2. Will the U.S. Jurisdictional Conferences Meet?

The Council of Bishops met Friday and some were said to be pushing to have U.S. jurisdictional conferences convene in spite of the fact that the Book of Discipline requires that they meet only following General Conference. American Progressives hold more seats in the Jurisdictional Conferences than ever before. Meeting would allow them to retire several conservative-leaning bishops and replace them with progressives. The effects of this would be especially profound in the South Central Jurisdiction. Elections to the general boards and agencies are also at issue. The Judicial Council meets March 10 and there may be several declaratory decisions requested by the Council of Bishops about matters related to ramifications of a third General Conference postponement.

3. What is the Status of the Protocol?

The Protocol was negotiated in 2019 for approval at General Conference in May 2020. There has been a lot of water under the bridge since then. If the Protocol cannot be considered until 2024, it will be of limited value as a legislative solution. However, the Protocol served as a significant admission by key parties that the current configuration of the UMC cannot hold. It may be best to think of the spirt of the Protocol as a guiding principle about separation that is amicable… a mitosis, to borrow Bob Phillips’ language. The problem with “spirit of the Protocol” concept is that we United Methodists have our black belts in interpreting things to suit our own purposes. (There was only one John Wesley, but United Methodists have at least four or five visions of him that we pull from as needed.) Key members of the Protocol team have died, including its convener. Who referees the “spirit of the Protocol”? As a hard-fought negotiation, there were facets of the legislation that each party loved and hated. The temptation to cherry pick will be difficult to overcome.

Of course, it is possible that the Council of Bishops could call a special session of General Conference to deal with the Protocol. Holding a single-issue conference is much simpler than holding a full two-week conference with multiple legislative committees. But the Council of Bishops faced blow-back from Africa the last time they attempted this. Their called May 2021 Special Session to deal with administrative needs of the denomination had to be uncalled. It is difficult to foresee them trying this again.

4. What Will Traditionalists Do?

The Wesleyan Covenant Association has been advising all churches to not disaffiliate and to wait for passage of the Protocol. It will be important to see whether that counsel changes with a much longer delay of General Conference. But the real players are the Transitional Leadership Council of the proposed Global Methodist Church. Will they launch the GMC in 2022? To do so would be to start smaller than initially planned with hopes of growing over time. This will certainly be complicated by the fact that some bishops have demonstrated that they are willing to choose the path of war with any congregation seeking to leave. I have long said that the further delay of General Conference will mean that United Methodism will be torn instead of cut.

A further challenge is that the experience of traditionalist United Methodists is so varied by location. Here in my conference, we have what is often said to be the only traditional-minded bishop in the North Central Jurisdiction. He does not want to see the church divide and upholds the Discipline as complaints may come to him. He doesn’t go looking for violations and (it seems to me) intentionally balance his cabinet between progressives and traditionalists. The conference is not vital and our bishop is the first to say we are “circling the drain.” But we are held in stable tension. Twenty minutes away from me is a conference where the bishop has declared standards in opposition to the Discipline and (it seems to me) stacked the cabinet with folks willing to go along with this. Elsewhere traditionalists are in annual conferences that would join the GMC if this ever came to a vote. Do these congregations leave now or stay together in the UMC for a later move? Do some conferences make a move this year to disaffiliate from United Methodism without the Protocol?

5. What Will Be the Institutionalist Response?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict the talking points from progressives eager to transform the United Methodist Church in America:

  • There is nothing much to see here.
  • Delaying General Conference, unfortunate though it is, was the only logical choice.
  • The delay of General Conference leaves a vacuum in which the work of the church still needs to move forward.
  • Let’s convene the U.S. jurisdictional conferences so they can fill the void, elect leaders, and move forward.
  • Disaffiliation is available for those who want it, but we sure hate to see anyone go. We set the price tag for anyone seeking to leave.
  • The only part of the Protocol in practical effect is the abeyance of charges against clergy.
  • We need to “live into the future” by creating a big tent and acting as if the Book of Discipline does not say what it does.

In other words, prepare for an institutional steamroller to simultaneously use the powers granted by the Discipline while selectively ignoring the rest. Wise institutionalists, however, will realize that power games and trust-clause-hostage tactics can yield only a Pyrrhic victory. For the good of the Church and God’s Kingdom, learning to let go will be the spiritual discipline that all United Methodist need to discover this Lent. The road to Easter leads through Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The more amicable and gracious the separation, the more collaborative and positive Methodism’s futures can be for all.

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