By Thomas Lambrecht
June 10, 2022
In a statement issued this week, progressive and centrist leaders have withdrawn their support for the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. The Protocol was negotiated by a mediation team of progressives, centrists, traditionalists, and bishops under the guidance of renowned mediator Kenneth Feinberg, Esq. It provided for central conferences, annual conferences, local churches, and clergy to have a clear way to separate from The United Methodist Church in order to form or join a new Methodist denomination. The costs involved were low, and the process was manageable.
The Protocol represents the best chance the denomination has of resolving its conflict through an orderly and gracious separation, ending decades of conflict and opening the door to renewed focus on mission and ministry. It was widely assumed the Protocol would pass at the 2020 General Conference. Covid-related postponements, however, have lessened enthusiasm for the deal.
None of the Protocol’s signatories or the groups they represent was entirely happy with the terms of the Protocol. But they were willing to sign off on the deal, conceding some terms they did not like in order to gain terms that were favorable and provide for a resolution of the church’s conflict. The focus was on how to amicably end the conflict, knowing that the alternative was to return to the dysfunctional and vicious disputes that characterized the 2019 General Conference.
All the living signatories to the Protocol representing centrist and progressive viewpoints have signed the repudiation statement. The centrist and progressive groups that had endorsed the Protocol have withdrawn their endorsement, including Uniting Methodists, Methodist Federation for Social Action, Affirmation, Reconciling Ministries Network, UM Queer Clergy Caucus, UMCNext, and Mainstream UMC.
It appears that these leaders and groups have taken their eyes off the mission of the church and focused once again on the conflict and the desire to “win” as much as possible. This attitude has prompted a number of bishops and annual conferences to levy impossible fees on churches that desire to disaffiliate from the UM Church. They have abandoned to some degree the spirit of the Protocol in favor of a win-lose approach to conflict. Doing so will only set the church up for more decline and alienate more members.
Some of the reasons given in the statement for their repudiation of the Protocol include:
• The passage of time and “long delays.” We, too, are frustrated by the continued unnecessary postponement of General Conference until 2024. It is this delay that caused the Global Methodist Church to be launched. However, many traditionalists have made the commitment to stick with the UM Church in order to seek enactment of the Protocol. One cannot help but wonder if the postponement was part of a plan to provide an excuse for centrists and progressives to withdraw support for the Protocol.
• “Changing circumstances within The United Methodist Church, and the formal launch of the Global Methodist Church in May of this year.” What has changed is that those traditionalist congregations that are able are moving to disaffiliate from the UM Church. Perhaps the centrist/progressive calculation is that such a move will reduce the number of traditionalist delegates at General Conference enough to allow a change in the church’s position on marriage and sexuality to a progressive one. They may be thinking that, once the church’s position becomes progressive, there will be no need to allow traditionalists a gracious way to separate. At that point, they may be thinking, progressives and centrists will hold all the cards and be able to determine what should happen in the church.
However, it is important to note that traditionalists are not without power of their own. Traditionalists can still hinder the progressive agenda by defeating the Christmas Covenant regionalization of church government, which requires a two-thirds vote. Traditionalists can also refuse to fund a denomination that has turned its back on the clear teaching of Scripture. A coerced covenant is not a legitimate covenant. A church that thinks it can force people to remain in a denomination they do not support is not operating by Christian principles. It is best for all sides to promote amicable separation on reasonable terms to allow agendas supported by all sides to move forward unhindered.
• Serious misgivings voiced by bishops and church leaders in the Central Conferences, concerned about potentially disruptive impacts in their geographical regions. Obviously, the signers of this statement are talking with different bishops and church leaders than we are. We heard universal support for the Protocol from our European and African colleagues. Three bishops who attended the recent leadership and prayer summit of the Africa Initiative stated clearly their desire to wait for any decision on disaffiliation until the 2024 General Conference could enact the Protocol. One must ask what would be more disruptive – an orderly process of informed decision-making by Central Conferences or a piecemeal and irregular action by annual conferences to disaffiliate outside the provisions of the Discipline? We have been told that if the UM Church adopts a progressive position on marriage and sexuality, there is no way that many African annual conferences will remain in the UM Church, whether they are “allowed” to leave or not. It would be cultural suicide for them to remain.
• “Growing opposition to the Protocol within the constituencies [they] represent [and] dwindling support among General Conference delegates.” One wonders how much these leaders advocated for the Protocol within their constituencies. Certainly, the primary public voices promoting the Protocol were traditionalists. Most of the progressive and centrist leaders who signed the Protocol seem to have believed that their job was done once their name was on the dotted line. But effective leaders know how to build support for a course of action they know is for the good of the church. We estimate that the support of only 20 percent of progressives and centrists would be enough to enact the Protocol. It appears that, in this case, rather than lead their constituencies toward a better future, these leaders are following their constituents.
Frustratingly, these leaders did not consult with traditionalist groups who have also endorsed the Protocol. Their statement says, “Out of a spirit of transparency, trust, and accountability, members of the mediation team have reached out to the organizations that initially supported the Protocol Agreement, General Conference delegates, and others within our broad constituencies.” But they did not reach out to us. There was no transparency, trust, or accountability toward traditionalists. They did not hear our perspective before making their decision, nor did they have an opportunity to consider evidence contrary to their other sources of information.
Also frustratingly, these leaders have never come to us and said which terms of the Protocol were deal-breakers for them. They say they can “no longer endorse the Protocol Agreement and its enabling legislation as a whole.” Which parts can they endorse, and which parts can they not endorse? We could have had a conversation about these areas, in light of “the changing circumstances within the UM Church.” We might not have come to a new agreement, but at least we would have a better understanding of where we all stood and why.
While the Protocol may be on life support, it is not quite dead, yet. We believe that new delegates will need to be elected for the 2024 General Conference. It is possible a slate of delegates could be elected that is more favorable to providing for amicable separation, rather than the doctrinaire progressives that were elected in 2019 in reaction to the Traditional Plan. We will await those elections to determine whether the Protocol is a viable path forward.
Other legislative options exist, as well. The General Conference could reinstate ¶ 2553 (which will have expired by then). The statement voices support for “individual congregations to disaffiliate from the Unite Methodist Church using BOD ¶ 2553. We, therefore, implore bishops, district superintendents, and conference trustees to facilitate amicable departures after congregations pay their required pension liabilities.” Are these leaders taking the floor of their annual conferences and advocating that no extra expenses or fees be added to what ¶ 2553 requires? That is what it will take to allow churches to depart. It is our understanding that Wespath may be proposing additional provisions that will make the pension liability payment less onerous. The General Conference could revise ¶ 2553 to make departure affordable for local churches.
The General Conference could also create special provisions for Central Conference members to disaffiliate without going through the arduous, four-year-plus process mandated by ¶ 572 in the Discipline. If the denomination adopts a progressive definition of marriage and endorses the practice of homosexuality, some central conferences and certainly a number of annual conferences outside the U.S. will unquestionably withdraw. Why not make that process easier and more amicable, rather than risk alienating people who already feel that this whole conflict is a result of U.S. members pushing their agenda on the whole church?
Once again, we have seen that many progressive and centrist leaders cannot be trusted to keep their commitments. This repudiation is a vivid example of the types of backtracking and double-dealing that we have seen in the past. Nevertheless, Good News remains committed to leading traditionalist Methodists to a faithful future. We will continue to fight for a fair and equitable disaffiliation process at General Conference 2024. We will not abandon churches and pastors who are stuck where they do not want to be, due to the high cost imposed by some bishops and annual conferences and the outright refusal of other bishops to even allow disaffiliation.
It is time to move past this conflict in our church. The Protocol represented the best opportunity to do so in a gracious way. It looks doubtful to pass at this point. There are other options that could lead to a gracious separation, and we will work for them. Even if the separation has to be won through conflict and struggle, we believe in the end it will be worth it. We “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called [us] heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). For the sake of the mission.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Image: Photo courtesy of the Protocol Mediation Team.