Like many United Methodists, I have been reading various reactions to the Protocol for Separation, which is being widely heralded, for the moment, as the leading hope for our future as a way out of the chaos we are in as a denomination. You can read my initial reflections here. I have noticed that some articles have stated that I am in favor of the Protocol, whereas others have stated that I am against it. I hope to clarify my stand by offering several articles on the issue. I do not speak for Asbury Theological Seminary, nor any of our beloved graduates who have been so valiantly fighting for orthodoxy in our denomination. My article only reflects my personal views on the matter.
Undoubtedly, May 5–15, 2020 promises to be one of the most historic General Conferences in the life of the United Methodist Church. The delegates have been chosen and the delegations are even now considering various proposals that will be brought before the General Conference. This is supposed to be a time of honest dialogue and debate as we assess the various plans, particularly the Protocol, and seek to understand the implications of it. This installment of my mini series will state two of the challenges which the traditionalists face as General Conference approaches. Second, a few points of clarification in the current dialogue will be offered.
Challenges Faced by Traditionalists
First, Are There Three Groups or Two?
The traditionalists have suffered in the negotiations because the church has accepted the idea that we have three, not two major factions within the church. It is very common to hear the statement that we have traditionalists, centrists, and progressives. However, Jeff Greenway made a very compelling case in a Wesleyan Covenant Association article that we actually do not have three groups, but rather two groups. The centrists may not be as far along the progressive road as the progressives, but they remain consistently and adamantly opposed to the traditionalists. Therefore, when it comes to negotiating, a three-group format always places the traditionalists in a distinct minority at the negotiating table since there are no public examples of centrists voting with the traditionalists. Just to give this some perspective, the traditionalist view represents slightly more than the majority of all United Methodists. Yet, the Protocol negotiating team had only two or three traditionalists out of sixteen.
Second, Are “Stay and Fight” or “Leave and Start Over” the Only Two Options?
The second problem that has plagued the traditionalists is that we have been caught in a situation where we feel there are only two options. The first option is to stay and keep advocating for orthodoxy within the church. This has been the leading strategy for the last fifty years. This strategy has had incremental success over the years since the church has experienced a slow resurgence of evangelical witness among grassroots Methodism, even though it has faced stiff headwinds (especially among the Council of Bishops and several prominent United Methodist pastors). This, coupled with the explosive growth among African Methodists, has put us in a situation where we were reasonably comfortable that over time we would be able to consistently uphold orthodoxy in the church.
The progressive wing of the church has been doing the math too. By 2013, they realized that they had no clear strategy to defeat the traditionalists because in each General Conference, the progressive wing of the church receives fewer delegates and the African delegations receive more delegates. To be fair, the 2020 General Conference delegation appears to be more progressive, but the overall trajectory of future delegates to General Conference does work against the progressive cause. For example, in the allocation for the 2020 General Conference, the African delegations received 18 additional delegates while the American delegations were reduced by 22. By the time of the 2024 General Conference, the African Methodists will likely outnumber the American Methodists.
By 2013, the progressives realized that they were likely not going to achieve a victory through voting on the floor of the General Conference. Thus, we experienced the birth of the disobedience movement, which called for open defiance of the Discipline and any General Conference decision that was not consistent with the progressive aspirations for the church. This has caused such a crisis and turmoil in the church that many traditionalists have thrown up their hands in frustration. What is the point of following the strategy of “stay and fight for orthodoxy” when whatever is voted on in General Conference can be just ignored? Entire annual conferences have endorsed disobedience. Dozens of same-sex marriages have been performed. Karen Oliveto, the first openly lesbian bishop to be consecrated in the United Methodist Church, remains in her post despite the Discipline, Judicial Council, and the vote of General Conference. Therefore, option one became more discouraging for the traditionalists.
This leads us to option two. The second option is to negotiate some kind of separation. This has been the source of much debate as various plans have been presented. Of the various plans, the Indianapolis Plan and the more recently released, Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation seem to have attracted the most support among traditionalists. There are positive aspects in both of these plans, but there are some serious problems with the Protocol, not the least of which is that it reinforces the perception that the United Methodist Church will be given to the progressives to be redefined and reshaped as the default denomination, whereas the traditionalists would be the ones who are exiting the denomination. The traditionalists will have won thirteen consecutive General Conference votes—and yet the traditionalists will be the ones who are exiting the denomination. The Discipline will be changed approximately five minutes after traditionalists are shown the door.
I do not think the Protocol represents a just resolution of our disagreements over the last fifty years. Nevertheless, I do believe that after all is said and done, a new orthodox Wesleyan/Methodist denomination is going to emerge. And yet I still need convincing that the Protocol should be supported as the best way forward for traditionalists. Before we rush to quickly declare that the Protocol is the best way forward, we should ask the following questions:
1. Is it a victory if the Protocol passes General Conference but the majority of traditionalists do not vote in favor of it?
2. Is it a victory if the Protocol passes with an odd coalition of support between the progressives and the USA traditionalists, but the African delegations are not supportive?
3. Is there really no option to make a few simple amendments to the Protocol that would represent a more just resolution? (A future article will suggest possible amendments).
My intention in raising these questions is simply to stimulate a healthy debate among the traditionalists so everyone is clear what is being agreed to. I know that the overwhelming feeling is one of exhaustion and a deep longing to be free from this long and difficult struggle. But we want to look back on these days with no regrets, knowing that we did the best we could. It is in that spirit that I offer my reflections. The next installment will discuss the pros and cons of the Protocol.