by Bob Phillips
NOTE: This article is not a subtle appeal to wait for GC2024 to enter discernment or possible disaffiliation. If GC24 seeks to residually punish those who have departed earlier, that will be an obvious and public stink. Nor must GC24 ‘sell the farm’ to conservatives to prove how noble they are. It is time, past time, for so-called centrists and remaining conservatives inside the tent reconnect with progressives to produce a renewed Protocol. The failure to do so in a prompt and serious manner will make very clear agendas that evangelicals cannot abide and will push conservatives who initially remain into a vast re-thinking.
Prior to GC2019 I wrote a blog piece on “Why GC2019 Will Fail and CAN Succeed,” and followed it with another piece after the event, “Why GC2019 DID Fail and DID Succeed.” I wrote as a delegate then and as a UM retired elder now. The substance of the two pieces was that GC2019 would fail. The expectations and demands placed on it to resolve the sexuality debate were irrational, unfair, and dysfunctional. The UMC suffers from a ‘wicked problem,’ an aggregate of trust deficits, theological schizophrenia, demographic challenges of aging membership and outdated locations of church facilities, organizational and structural misfires and a steadfast and systemic denial of the seriousness of any of the above. The US church (as of 2019) had sustained 51 years of consistent and accelerating decline. Since that decline is reflected in conferences that did and did not embrace the hot-button gay marriage/clergy issue, the debate over sexuality was secondary to deeper and more compelling issues. No one-issue General Conference had any chance of making a major difference, especially with attention focused on a subject that was not and is not a deal-breaker in the big picture of UM woes.
Thus, GC2019 would fail and did fail, spectacularly. The immediate and complete defiance of decisions made by whole regions and numerous bishops decisively reinforced the trust deficits bleeding hope from the existing denomination. Though 1/3rd of the GC was devoted to prayer, the immediate rejection of its decisions drained the integrity and moral capital from the GC as the voice of a truly connectional church. Now that the freedom to disobey GC decisions without consequence was established, a buffet of selective obedience became and remains the future of engagement with the authority of General Conferences into the future.
GC2019 also succeeded, really. Conservatives, liberals, and institutionalists began to emerge from the wreckage of the GC2019. Having hit the wall and, after some preliminary efforts, the groups coalesced into what became known as the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. It was, and remains, the only effort that included significant guidance from a nationally recognized and impartial mediator, and seemed in December 2019, as a hopeful way into GC2020. It was the fruit of collaboration theory that posits that competing stakeholders in an organization resort to collaboration after all other options have failed to gain leverage over “others.” While many felt some modest modifications would happen at GC2020, all contestants held high expectations that this would cut the Gordian knot of conflict over the paralyzing debate on sexuality and free the denomination to move constructively through a “Methodist Mitosis” moment into a win-win future with center/left and center/right expressions of Wesleyan Christianity pointing the way.
COVID undid the timeline. Trust deficits, highlighted as a major issue in the 2010 ‘Call to Action’ denomination-wide study, emerged again to question the integrity of the motives and intent of numerous decisions made regarding rescheduling the GC, as well as other Council of Bishop and Judicial Council decisions. The Global Methodist Church, intended for birth as part of the Protocol, could not abide an additional 4-year gestation. This convinced many progressives and some center/left leaders the Protocol was dead, and they publicly ‘disaffiliated’ themselves from it. That, in turn, underscored another insight of collaboration theory, i.e., most collaborations fail back into conflict. The United Methodist Church has become a poster child for “I told you so.”
All that said, GC2024 will fail…and can succeed. It will fail if the responsibility of “fixing” the denominational fratricide over sexuality is placed on its plate. GC2016 and GC2019 confirmed that such expectations remain unreasonable and unfair. It will fail because profound systemic shifts in the definition of marriage and Christian human sexuality likely involve constitutional amendments that are deliberately and notoriously hard to pass. It will fail if side-step strategies, such as the Christmas Covenant, are seen as savior of the moment, given the same constitutional wall and the wariness of African and other growing areas to surrender proprietary rights to the unified theological content of “United Methodist” to a more liberal (and declining) older white Western voice. It will fail because those convinced of the unfairness and injustice of existing church teaching toward LGBTQIA+ persons almost certainly will be dissatisfied with the glacial movement toward fresh understandings by a legislative body of 850 very different delegates.
And yet…GC2024 can succeed, and must succeed. It will succeed if residual resentments and score-settling of the theological left and right are cast out of the process like the demonic attitudes they are. It will succeed if all participants affirm both the legitimacy and necessity of a Protocol vision of Methodist mitosis to create a win-win future. It will succeed if a fair and reasonable second edition Protocol is created and passed, with the theological vision and organizational heft to nurture all expressions of the church to unify around missions and ministry all affirm as vital. It will succeed if the systemic attitude of denial that now has the church by the throat, slowly strangling the passion, innovation and tolerance for profound change, is forced to release its hold. Such a reality check likewise is required of the new Global Methodist Church, lest self-deception rooted in wishful thinking cripple the profound reboot that both the legacy UMC and the infant GMC must undergo in structures, strategies and practices.
Unlike the tag line from the movie, Apollo 13, failure is an option. Most secular and religious organizations, true to collaboration theory, prefer slow death by combat to revival through profound change. Yet, this is an option the church need not take. Traditionalist leaders largely distrust appeals to GC2024, having seen no evidence of coherent movement by bishops or lobby leaders toward a specific win-win vision of outcomes. Progressive leaders, while holding more delegate cards due to the exodus of numerous conservatives from conferences, remain wary of the impact of residual traditionalists and the wild card of Africans who, in contested issues, tend to be more conservative than their US cousins. Even so, and all the more, GC2024 can be an historic example of a break-out from a half century of bickering and a reformation moment for Wesleyan Christianity. If any interest group leaves GC2024 proclaiming, “We won,” the true message will be that everyone lost. Collaborative win-win for the sake of the Kingdom and the mission is the better course, but all must drop sword and shield to grasp that collaborative prize.
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)
See Bob’s work on Methodist Mitosis in Methodist Review.