Observations from a “Town Hall”

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a lot of disruption in our lives, in how our country functions, and in how our churches function, as well. Nowhere was that in greater evidence than in a May 5th “Town Hall” meeting held online by Mainstream UMC, a “centrist” advocacy group within The United Methodist Church. Various presenters appeared from their homes in different parts of the U.S., facilitated by two college students also at home because their college was closed due to the pandemic. This has become the “new normal” for our church, at least in the short-term future. And we may make more use of this kind of “meeting” in the future, now that many of us are at least somewhat more comfortable with the technology.

The event coincided with the originally scheduled opening of the 2020 General Conference, which of course has been postponed until later next year. Those unable to watch the livestream of the Town Hall can watch a recorded version that was promised to eventually have markers to identify the various questions that were discussed.

This Mainstream UMC Town Hall was called to consider how centrists and progressives can pursue their goal of a church that affirms LGBTQ ordination and marriage, in light of the postponement of General Conference. Subtitled “A Call for Grace,” the group proposed ways that they and the whole church could anticipate the reality of separation in the future through actions taken over the next 16 months.

There are several important takeaways from the presentation made during the meeting. Most notable in the “Call for Grace” were two proposals made by Mainstream executive director, the Rev. Mark Holland from Olathe, Kansas.

Continue the Moratorium

First, Holland proposed that the moratorium on complaints and judicial proceedings related to same-sex weddings and clergy being “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” should continue during this delay until the General Conference in 2021. The moratorium would mean that all proceedings or processing of complaints over these issues would be suspended and not carried forward to a trial. That, of course, is in line with what the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation calls for. What the Protocol originally envisioned as a four-month moratorium has now turned into perhaps a 20-month moratorium. Just as the terms of bishops and Judicial Council members have been extended in the wake of the General Conference postponement, it makes sense to carry forward the moratorium informally until General Conference can pass it as part of the “package deal” guaranteeing separation.

Of course, the moratorium is only a request at this point, since it depends upon General Conference action to make it binding and official. Many bishops are abiding by the moratorium, but some are not willing to do so. It still depends upon the willingness of the bishop, and the Mainstream UMC advocacy group has instituted a petition drive to convince bishops to go along. The moratorium would really be unnecessary if there were also a moratorium on performing same-sex weddings or ordaining non-celibate LGBTQ persons. The best sign of grace would be for everyone to stand down and not engender further conflict from either “side” by their actions.

Encouragingly, although not part of his formal proposal, Holland also endorsed the Protocol’s agreed moratorium on the closure of churches except for financial non-viability. We continue to hear reports that a few annual conferences are precipitously closing churches that seem to be functioning fine in order to claim the local church’s property and assets. Traditionalists will join Holland in urging that unnecessary church closures should be put on hold until after General Conference.

Allow Local Churches to Separate Now

The second part of Holland’s “Call for Grace” was to suggest that local churches desiring to separate from The United Methodist Church in order to join or form a new traditional Methodist denomination be allowed to depart with their property under the terms of the Protocol, even though General Conference has not yet enacted those terms. The Protocol’s terms are much less onerous and expensive than the current process in the Discipline. Bishops and annual conferences have the discretionary authority to at least partially follow this proposal, but it again depends upon the willingness of the bishop.

While traditionalists will appreciate the gesture and the attempt at even-handedness, this proposal is fraught with difficulty. In annual conferences that are majority traditional in understanding, it would weaken the traditional voice if local churches started departing from the denomination in advance of an annual conference vote. That could jeopardize the ability of the whole annual conference to separate and join the new denomination. The ability to leave under these more generous terms would be welcome in annual conferences where traditional churches find themselves in a small minority. However, these may be the annual conferences least likely to allow for such generous departure terms, absent a General Conference action.

The major provision in the more generous terms for separation by local churches is the ability to transfer their share of unfunded pension liabilities to a new denomination. But no such denomination exists right now for those liabilities to be transferred to, nor can it exist until the General Conference acts. Most traditional churches will be unable to take advantage of this proposal and would prefer to wait until General Conference enacts uniform terms for separation that cover everyone. A piecemeal separation by some traditional churches may not be helpful to the traditional cause. An orderly process of separation that leads to a strong new traditional denomination is the best way forward.

The Protocol Still on Track

Probably the most important takeaway from this Town Hall is the assessment that centrist and progressive leaders still strongly support the Protocol. Centrists such as Holland continue to promote the Protocol (as do traditional organizations like Good News, the Confessing Movement, and the Wesleyan Covenant Association). That means that, despite the delay, the Protocol is still on track to pass General Conference. There is almost universal acknowledgement among General Conference delegates that some form of separation is necessary to resolve our church’s conflict, and the Protocol seems to have the most support of any plan that has been put forward. While there are still 16 months to go, and nothing is certain until General Conference acts, the chances continue to be good that the Protocol will pass.

It is noteworthy that Holland continues to defend the $25 million settlement to be allocated to a new traditional Methodist denomination. He noted that The Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations that separated recently over these same issues have spent tens of millions of dollars in lawsuits. Holland opined (and traditionalists would agree) that money would be better spent seeding new denominations than carrying on legal disputes over property. Crucially, all the terms of the Protocol agreement are interdependent. To substantially change one term would upset the balance of the agreement and throw the whole package into doubt. Thankfully, there are no prominent centrist or progressive leaders calling for changes in the terms of the Protocol.

Many Centrists Are Really Progressives

It became apparent throughout the Town Hall that the agenda for a post-separation United Methodist Church would be unwaveringly progressive. Although the tone of the meeting was reasonable or even irenic at times, there was a strong commitment to ending “discrimination” against LGBTQ persons and relationships. Many centrists appear to think that, while other parts of the global church could continue to have their own rules against same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, the U.S. church would be largely of one mind and one practice in affirming both.

To this end, Holland promoted the “Christmas Covenant” proposal that would create regional conferences within the global church, allowing each national church to have its own teachings about marriage and human sexuality. One questioner highlighted the apparent hypocrisy in this approach by asking whether a regional conference approach would have been acceptable in extending ordination to women or overcoming racial segregation.

Judging from the Town Hall presentation, it appears that the majority of centrists and progressives would not be comfortable allowing traditional views to prevail in any part of the church for long. Traditionalists who stay in the post-separation United Methodist Church might find their views tolerated on paper, but extremely marginalized in practice.

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