by Chris Ritter
With the delay of General Conference until 2024 and the launch next month of the Global Methodist Church, many traditionalists long for a new denomination sooner rather than later. While the Protocol called for a wide and gracious door for separation, many U.S. bishops are pushing disaffiliation as the one and only pathway out. In a recent video, Bishop Kenneth Carter says he is “living into the spirit of the Protocol” by respecting the abeyance of charges against violations of church teachings on marriage. But the spirit of the Protocol is not applied to exits to the Global Methodist Church. Those exits, he said, must be preceded by the disaffiliation process found in Paragraph 2553. Even if exits are granted under another disciplinary paragraph, he says, the rubrics of disaffiliation will still apply. Conference leaders have discovered that disaffiliation allows them to control the pace and price of exit. A 50% share of local church assets are being asked by some conference officials on top of pension and advance apportionment payment. For some congregations this could equal over six times their annual income.
I heard the question recently from a United Methodist bishop: “If traditionalists drew up the disaffiliation plan for progressives at GC 2019, why are they complaining when those rubrics of disaffiliation are applied to them?” All of the sudden, they say, the plan is “onerous and expensive.” Is it not hypocritical for traditionalists to refuse to lay in the same bed they made for others? That narrative is false.
The Brief and Bumpy History of Disaffiliation
In addition to the Way Forward Plans, multiple stand-alone disaffiliation plans came to General Conference 2019. While it was assumed that most United Methodists would remain in a denomination of some sort, there was awareness that a few might seek an independent status. Keith Boyette submitted a disaffiliation plan that allowed exit by a simple local church vote and payment of pension liability. Another was submitted by Houston laywoman Leah Taylor, a member of the Commission on a Way Forward and a supporter of the One Church Plan. One might surmise that the Taylor Disaffiliation Plan (now Par. 2553) was crafted by institutionalists for conservatives unwilling to live under the One Church Plan favored by the bishops.
When the legislative priorities were ranked on the second day of General Conference 2019, the Taylor Disaffiliation Plan was ranked third after the Wespath Pension legislation and the Traditional Plan. The Boyette Disaffiliation Plan was ranked #4 just ahead of the One Church Plan. So Taylor became the preferred vehicle for disaffiliation and would be the legislation perfected during the final session. By that point in the conference, however, some progressives were actively working to grind all proceedings to a halt. Things became a bit surreal. Someone stole the cross from the stage during the session. Continual chants rang from the bleachers. Delegates were reminded that truckloads of dirt were waiting to be hauled onto the conference floor for a Monster Truck Rally scheduled for the weekend. After approval of a substitution that corrected problems in line with a Judicial Council ruling on Taylor, some progressives spoke in favor of the final legislation and some traditionalists spoke against it. Taylor was ultimately approved by a 52% margin. Following the final benediction at the close of conference, demonstrators took the stage to grab the microphones. Delegates staggered away amidst cries of defiance.
The drama associated with the Taylor Disaffiliation Plan did not end there. Some of you might remember that the Commission on General Conference later investigated charges of voting irregularities. The only legislation they could find to be possibly affected by those irregularities was the minority vote substitution perfecting the Taylor Plan. They ruled it null and void. The Judicial Council later ruled that the commission had no such authority and that the legislation would stand as approved. Disaffiliation was always conceived as a way to treat churches that wanted to seek an independent status. It was not part of the Traditional Plan or authored by a traditionalist. It was never conceived as a solution to United Methodist fundamental divisions over marriage and human sexuality.
The leadership we see from some bishops is selective disempowerment. Leaders like Bishop Carter feel empowered to negate the actions of General Conference 2019 on human sexuality while claiming the are constrained by GC2019 to treat any exits as disaffiliations. When the Book of Discipline becomes a grab bag, we have lost the constitutive integrity necessary to be Methodists. This is the path of war. The best route the Council of Bishops could take is to call a special General Conference to approve the Protocol. Short of that, they could and should show support for gracious separation using long-standing paragraphs like 2548.2, transfer of local church property to another denomination. Unless United Methodist bishops want another General Conference like the last one, they should help facilitate a wider and more gracious exit path.
Treat Traditionalists Like the Traditional Plan Treated Progressives
Although I was perhaps the chief advocate for the Connectional Conference Plan, I had a small role in writing legislation for the Traditional Plan. (The Commission on General Conference left the plan in draft form and it was up to an ad hoc team to write the actual petition.) Specifically, I helped draft the part that spelled out how those who disagreed with our church teachings on marriage should be treated. The most novel part of that plan was the possibility of annual conference exit. It caused quite a stir among the small circle of UM polity geeks when the Judicial Council upheld this portion of the statute (see Decision 1366, page. 43). The Judicial Council is presently being asked to say more about this important decision now that annual conference exits are a real possibility.
Proposed Par. 2801 (see page 72) was called “the Heart of the Traditional Plan” and provided gracious exit for those who disagreed with church teaching. Each conference was required to take a vote on whether or not it could in good conscience uphold the Discipline. Those that could not were granted a free and clear exit from the UMC and were empowered to set their own boundaries to receive like-minded others. Any group of fifty or more congregations could form a self-governing denomination. Local churches were granted the right to retain all their assets, properties, and liabilities. Clergy pensions were protected. Any new denominations were allowed to use a version of the cross and flame as long as it was distinguishable from the original.
Note that progressives were not asked to individually disaffiliate and negotiate for their own property before joining with others. They were freed to take local church and annual conference properties and organize as they wished. Those willing to abide by UMC covenants were, of course, welcomed to stay. Due to procedural issues in the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, the heart of the Traditional Plan never made it to the floor of General Conference for approval. This left us with the mess we have today. Our tighter rules on human sexuality provide no corresponding relief valve for those that disagree. The result has been fracturing of our covenant. But many UM traditionalists would be very happy to take the deal offered for exit in the Traditional Plan.
Hearts of Peace
The Feinberg Separation Protocol, in many ways, was the Traditional Plan in reverse. Instead of principled progressives freely leaving, principled traditionalists agreed to form a separate denomination. Leaving with property and at a minimal cost is the the foundation of gracious exit. The Taylor Disaffiliation Plan, now known as Paragraph 2553, does not accomplish that. It requires super-majority approval at the level of the local church, multiple approvals by conference officers, and price tag fixed by the annual conference. There is no standard basis on what disaffiliation should cost. When congregations realize they must sit across from a conference attorney and negotiate for their own property, they hire lawyers.
The vast majority of traditionalists do not want to disaffiliate. Most wanting to leave now wish to transfer to the Global Methodist Church. The current state of affairs accelerates an open-ended leakage from the UMC and deterioration of goodwill. The Council of Bishops could alleviate the current crisis by recognizing the Global Methodist Church and negotiating a standard Comity Agreement that allows for transfers under Par. 2548.2. With hearts of peace, our bishops should speak against punitive property expectations that can lead only to litigation. Bad rules invite bad behavior on all sides. Hearts of peace will lead us all to a better future.