Quite a stir has rippled out across the country because of reporting by Christianity Today, CNN, New York Times, among others, with headlines like this: “Methodists Agree to Split Denomination” (Christianity Today headline), “United Methodist Church Proposes Historic Split over Gay Marriage and LGBT Clergy” (CNN headline), and “United Methodist Church Announces Plan to Split over Same-Sex Marriage” (New York Times). In case you were wondering, the United Methodist Church has actually not agreed to split, and none of those who met and signed this agreement were authorized to make such a decision. Any possible separation of the UMC cannot be made until May 2020 when the next General Conference of the UMC convenes to consider various petitions, since that body alone has the power to officially represent the denomination.
What the articles were talking about was actually an unofficial agreement on the terms of a proposed denominational separation signed by 16 leaders in the UMC who are regarded as representative of the various “conservative,” “centrist,” and “progressive” wings of the church. The agreement is known as the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation (read it here). It includes eight shared principles, followed by six articles outlining the terms of the agreement, definition of terms, proposed timeline, financial considerations, and so forth. In the UMC, it is newsworthy whenever clergy and laity across such a wide theological divide find agreement, especially with a statement as detailed as this one. I want to commend them for the time and effort it took to create this document (and the stellar work performed by Kenneth Feinberg, esquire who led the mediation). I am confident it was done out of a genuine love for the church and heart for reconciliation. They did what was supposed to be done years earlier by the “Commission on a Way Forward,” which was officially authorized by the 2016 General Conference in Portland to come up with a solution but ran aground by supporting a plan which had already been rejected three times by previous General Conferences. We are now in 2020, and this new “Protocol” has been placed on the table and will probably end up before the General Conference in May of 2020. The “Protocol” carries particular weight because, even though it has not been authorized, the leaders involved have agreed to not support any other legislation which contradicts any portion of this agreement. However, before any actual delegates to the 2020 Conference endorse this plan, we should have a robust conversation about some of the possible implications of this Protocol.
The “Post-Separation United Methodists” Remain the Default United Methodist Church
The Protocol envisions the church separating into two main groups. The first group is referred to as the “Traditional Methodist Church” and represents those who are committed to retaining the current Discipline regarding homosexual practice; namely, that all persons are of infinite worth, but that the practice of homosexual behavior is incompatible with historic Christian faith. The second group is named the “post-separation United Methodist Church.” This group is set forth in the document as the continuance of what remains once the Traditionalists leave the denomination to form the “Traditional Methodist Church.” This default is obvious for several reasons:
First, this is explicitly stated multiple times in the official “Q and A” release about the Protocol when it states, for example, “if a local church or Annual Conference wishes to remain within The United Methodist Church, there are no actions required” or in reference to the church after the split when it says, “the United Methodist Church will be smaller.” We should, therefore, presume that the “post-separation” United Methodist Church will continue to be legally and officially called the United Methodist Church.
Second, if any central conference, annual conference or local church fails to vote to “leave” then they automatically—by default—remain in the “post-separation United Methodist Church.” This is a remarkable concession. In fact, even if 65% of a Central Conference voted to leave the denomination, they would not be permitted to leave, but would remain in the “post-separation UMC” (since the protocol requires a 2/3 vote for Central Conferences). If even 56% of an annual conference voted to leave, they would not be permitted to leave (the protocol requires a 57% vote by annual conferences). Furthermore, there are, of course, thousands of small Methodist churches scattered all across the country who have not been actively engaged in all of these struggles and who will likely not organize any kind of official vote. All of these churches would, by default, find themselves in the “post-separation UMC.” Contrast this, for example, with the Indianapolis Plan which states that if a Central Conference UMC does not vote then they, by default, will belong to the Traditional Methodist Church.
Third, the financial understandings in the Protocol underscore that the “post-separation UMC” is the default main denomination. The separation makes several financial agreements, including 25 million for the Traditionalists to start a new denomination, again underscoring which group is “leaving.” The separation also creates a 39 million dollar fund for supporting groups historically marginalized by racism. However, 13 million of this will be funded by the Traditional UMC Denomination and paid to the post-separation UMC, which the progressives will control and administer. This creates an enormous economic advantage to the progressive UMC, euphemistically named the “post-separation UMC” in the document. Many marginalized groups, including the Africa University in Zimbabwe, are theologically conservative and will feel pressured to not leave the denomination and join the “traditionalists” for fear of losing funding that will be dispersed by the progressive church. For fifty years, orthodoxy has been upheld in United Methodism because of a close coalition between those committed to historic faith in Africa with those with similar convictions in North America. The Protocol, because of the high bar placed on Central Conferences for departure, as well as the financial arrangements, could threaten that alliance. We are very close to the African United Methodists becoming larger in number than all of North American Methodists. This is the time to strengthen the ties between historic orthodox Christians all over the globe.
The Real Root behind Our Separation
This Protocol, if adopted by the 2020 General Conference, seems to be weighted in favor of the “post-separation United Methodist Church” (Perhaps this is understandable since the “progressives” and the “centrists” vote together). I am concerned that the language of the document refers to the traditionalists as the ones who are leaving the denomination, and those who remain as the default United Methodist Church. The progressive Methodists have never been interested in starting and building a new denomination. Instead, they want to follow the pattern of the PC (USA), the ELCA, and the Episcopalians – adopting increasingly progressive theological agendas, further and further away from the parameters of historic faith until a breaking point is finally reached and the conservatives are forced to “leave” the denomination. (This is where newer denominations like the Presbyterian Church of America, the North American Lutheran Church, or the Anglican Church of North America came from.) But, in the case of the United Methodist Church, the traditionalists have not left. Great credit is to be extended to the Good News Movement, the Confessing Movement, and more recently the Wesleyan Covenant Association, for so nobly leading this struggle all these years. They have remained strong under relentless attacks, and orthodoxy has prevailed in vote after vote after vote. The progressives in the United Methodist Church have been exceedingly frustrated that the UMC has not followed the normal pattern of every major mainline denomination in the United States. The 2019 General Conference was the progressives’ “last stand,” and it did not go as they had planned. The church stood firm. Let me repeat, the traditionalist view is not a minority view held by a smaller and smaller margin of United Methodists, but a majority view which has been re-affirmed thirteen times by General Conference votes. Yes, the vote is 13-0. Yet, the entire structure of the Protocol envisions the traditionalists as the ones who are “leaving” the denomination.
Let us be clear about what makes the United Methodist Church different from every other mainline denomination in the US who has struggled over these same issues. The traditionalists in the UMC, unlike other mainline churches which have divided, are not leaving the denomination because the church no longer affirms historic orthodoxy and they find themselves in a church on the wrong side of orthodoxy. Quite the contrary, the votes to support historic orthodoxy have gotten stronger over the last several General Conferences. The traditionalists in the UMC who are part of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) are, indeed, prepared to start a new Methodist “traditionalist” denomination, but it is only because of the sustained rebellion against the clear and decisive decisions made by the General Conference. This rebellion has been made more difficult because it was led by many of our own episcopal leaders who hold the decisions of both the General Conference and the Judicial Council in contempt. The WCA is considering forming a new denomination because of the unwillingness of the episcopacy to maintain church discipline in the church.
The Protocol, if adopted, would open the door for the current United Methodist Church, which all these years has remained faithful to historic faith, to become the default progressive church, and the traditionalists would be left to start something from scratch. The Protocol calls for the traditionalists to leave and form a new denomination (which is like the one they currently already have, save for the rebellion), while the progressives, after that departure, will finally get the United Methodist Church given back to them on a silver platter to reshape according to all the proposals they have been making without success since the 1972 General Conference.
I would prefer that we keep holding our ground as we have done for fifty years. However, I understand the good reasons given by the courageous traditional leaders for why a church separation in 2020 may be necessary. There are just too many people’s lives at stake for us to be stuck in an ecclesiastical quicksand for another generation, while United Methodism keeps losing members at such a precipitous rate. So, although it is has not been my first hope, I am prepared to join with those who are leaving and start from scratch and build a whole new denomination. Count me in. I’m ready to get to work.
But I do think that it is important that those interested in the history of the United Methodist Church have a clear narrative about what has actually happened. We may have lost our beloved denomination, but we went out having successfully defended historic orthodoxy each time we were called upon to vote. Our General Conference never let us down. Our story is different from other mainline denominations. In our case, we were defeated by our own leaders. That began long ago and entered yet a new phase on September 3, 2013 when Bishop Melvin Talbert officiated at a gay wedding in Birmingham, Alabama, with no repercussions. That began a rebellion which, while never able to change the UMC doctrinally, still ended up destroying the denomination. So, let us turn the page in 2020 and start afresh, remembering our beloved brothers and sisters throughout the history of the church who have fought their own battles, and found, as we will, that Christ always renews his church and makes good on his sacred promise to build his church.