Reflections on the Proposed Protocol for Separation (Part IV)

For the United Methodists readers of this blog, you are all aware that these are momentous days of decision, which will determine the future of a major slice of the Wesleyan/Methodist movement in the USA and the world. The United Methodist Church is facing a separation that will have consequences for our witness and our future. Therefore, it is important that we think through our position carefully.

On a personal note, I appreciate so much the many phone calls, e-mails, text messages, and blog comments that have poured in this last week in response to my articles regarding the Protocol. The last one (read here) very plainly listed the pros and cons of this separation plan known as the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation (read here). There is no doubt that the Protocol has become the leading piece of legislation to resolve our denominational struggle over historic orthodoxy and issues related to human sexuality.

After extensive interaction with many United Methodists, including clergy and lay delegates to the General Conference, the support for the Protocol is not based on any consensus that it represents a just resolution of our conflict, but rather that it is simply the best of the options that are before us.

Essentially, this is where things currently stand for those who adhere to historic orthodoxy, including the biblical teaching regarding gender and marriage. There are three options for the traditionalists.

Option One is to continue the struggle. This means fighting for the theological and missional integrity of the United Methodist Church, voting to uphold the Discipline, and seeking to legislatively close the loopholes that have been used to make a mockery of the will of the church by the rogue bishops and pastors who refuse to abide by the very Discipline that they pledged to uphold when they were ordained. This is the road the traditionalists have been on for decades. While it has given the United Methodist Church some incremental advances, the latest round of open defiance has left traditionalists exhausted and the witness of the church has been publicly shamed. The traditionalists are tired of winning General Conference votes that are subsequently ignored. This has become a cycle of conflict that no one sees a way through.

Option Two is to change the constitution of the United Methodist church to allow some form of mutual disassociation. While I think all traditionalists agree that this would be a more just resolution, it has been abandoned because it would almost certainly require a constitutional change. It might pass General Conference, only to be declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council. (Constitutional change is a complicated process. It involves a two-third majority vote of the General Conference, and two-third majority of the total aggregate votes of every annual conference around the world.) If our recent history is any guide, it is not easy to get two-thirds of United Methodists to agree to anything, much less a change to the constitution. The conclusion is that there is no point in pursuing anything along these lines, however noble it may be. As an example, the Bard-Jones Plan proposed the creation of three separate denominations labeled conceptually as the Progressive Methodist Church, the Open Methodist Church, and the Traditional Methodist Church. These three new denominations would have gathered the progressives into one church, the centrist into another, and the traditionalists into yet another. By 2025, the United Methodist Church would have no members. Everyone would be required to vote and join one of the three expressions. This plan would only have worked if it could be launched using section 9 of the 90041 petition of the Traditional Plan. However, this petition was not adopted by the special called General Conference. Therefore, the energy has shifted to finding a solution that does not require a constitutional change.

Option Three is the Protocol. As my last article outlined, this proposal gives the denomination to the progressives and creates numerous barriers, both financial and procedural, for leaving the United Methodist Church. The main advantage of the Protocol (from the perspective of the traditionalists) is that the Trust Clause would not be enforced, allowing churches to leave the denomination with their land and property, avoiding all lawsuits and financial payments.

If the Protocol passes, it would be optimistic to expect that all the churches that leave will land in the same place. The most likely scenario would be that a significant group of traditional churches would leave and join a new denomination, which will emerge out of the work of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA). In addition, there is a possibility that a few annual conferences might vote to leave, but it is unclear whether those annual conferences would join the new denomination started by the WCA. Furthermore, there are clearly a number of traditionalist United Methodist churches who would prefer to be independent churches linked with others in some form of a network, Wesleyan in theology, but not in polity. Thus, the Protocol could result in several, not just one, new denomination. We should also mention that some churches might choose to affiliate with already existing denominations such as the Wesleyan, the Free Methodist, and the Anglican Church of North America. Finally, there will be many United Methodists who are traditionalist in their theology and ethics, but will remain in the United Methodist Church for a wide variety of reasons. Some will remain because they love their local church, their families are buried in the church graveyard, or they simply don’t have any alternative local Wesleyan congregation. Others will drift to other evangelical options such as the local Baptist church, or the local community church, and so forth. Thus, we should expect that the Protocol would produce a splintering, not merely a simple divide, of the United Methodist Church. And, let’s not forget that this will not happen quickly. It will take years, many years, for all of this to sort itself out. This may be unfortunate, but this is the likely reality that we should understand upfront as the Protocol is being discussed.

The rationale in support of the Protocol is as follows. The first option only gives us more conflict, will not coax the church to embrace orthodoxy, and, if we keep dragging this fight out, the traditionalists may likely begin to lose many evangelical churches who are tired of these battles and want to move on. This kind of attrition has been going on for decades, but will likely increase if nothing is resolved this year. The second option, while attractive, and more just, is not practically possible. So, there is no point in pursuing a path which we know at the outset would require a lengthy constitutional process with virtually no chance of success. Thus, the Protocol, with all of its flaws, is the only option left standing, according to the reasoning of many. That, in my view, is why the Protocol is receiving the support of a sizable number of traditionalist leaders. I have not received a single response to my previous articles that stated that they believed the Protocol was a fair and just settlement. What I have overwhelmingly received is either outright opposition to the Protocol or, at best, a sigh which says, “What other option do we have? This may be unjust, but it is the best we can do. Let’s take the deal and get on with the mission God has called us to.”

While I understand this rationale, there is a serious flaw in this reasoning, namely, it is a North American rationale. This line of thinking previously outlined makes complete sense if you are a beleaguered pastor or lay person in North American Methodism. However, this makes no sense to our brothers and sisters in Africa who, unlike us, are situated in one of the most dynamic, vibrant, growing Christian movements in Africa. In all of these struggles they have pleaded with us that, whatever is decided, they want to keep the name “United Methodist.” For the traditionalists, the name “United Methodist” is just another reminder of the mainline malaise. But for Africans, it represents vitality, vibrancy, and biblical fidelity. Retaining the name United Methodist is important to them because of their legal registration with various government agencies, as well as the positive, missional reputation of the United Methodist Church in Africa.

The Protocols design, perhaps unintentionally, will harm the traditionalist in Africa in three ways. First, the only way the Central Conferences can retain the name United Methodist is if they remain with the Progressive Methodists. Second, they are given the highest voting bar for leaving the denomination. If they do not have a 67-percent vote, they cannot leave the denomination, whereas any North American conference can leave with only 57 percent. Given the aforementioned legal ramifications for leaving, coupled with the African episcopal reluctance to leave, this will not be easy for the African traditionalists even though theologically and ethically they are overwhelmingly traditional. Third, the financial agreement of the Protocol places the funding for Africa into the hands of the progressives.

Bishop John Yambasu of Sierre Leone (who convened the group that negotiated the Protocol) has promised that the African Central Conferences will support the Protocol 100 percent. Well, let’s wait and see if that is true. Many of the African delegates to General Conference are meeting in Johannesburg later this month to discuss the Protocol and to give us their response to it. I think it would be wise if we waited patiently until the end of this month and see what the African response will be. They may, like those in North America, be so exhausted with the struggle that they are willing to accept this unjust settlement. On the other hand, they may have a counter-proposal that is worth consideration. So, let’s wait for the official response from the African delegations. Only then will the traditionalists be in a position to evaluate whether the Protocol is worthy of support or not.

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.
Read Part III here.