A Protocol for the Transformation of the World

March 3rd, 2020
This article is featured in the The Future of Methodism (Feb/Mar/Apr 2020) issue of Circuit Rider

“Draw the circle wide,” we sing in The United Methodist Church. These words by Gordon Light and this tune by Mark Miller[1] are a part of our heritage, a hallmark of a denomination that prides itself on the room it makes and the grace it shows. These uplifting and powerful words remind me of our charge: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

And, the world is transforming. Extreme poverty, hunger, and child mortality are in decline. Literacy, democracy, and women’s rights are increasing. And since 1980, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA, 57% of countries have experienced an increase in LGBTQ acceptance[2]. But while we transform the world, the Church must be willing to transform, too. It is our charge to lead the way in resisting evil, injustice, and oppression. Yet, our Church is struggling to lead. Only four years after the “Uniting” Conference brought together racially segregated denominations in 1968, United Methodists began to push LGBTQ persons into the margins, and we have held them there for almost fifty years, as if we had learned nothing from our years of segregation.

But this circle that we draw as the beloved community is not just for us. It is not just for progressives or centrists or traditionalists. Nor is it just for United Methodists. It is for the fellowship of all God’s children. It is for the sake of this circle that Sierra Leone Bishop John Yambasu invited what evolved to be the sixteen signatories of the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation to consider the possibility of something different for our denomination.

Those of us who gathered at Bishop Yambasu’s invitation sought a path to General Conference 2020 that avoided a repeat of General Conference 2019 and provided space between siblings who disagreed on core theological principles. We did not claim to represent all voices of any constituency. On the contrary, we were clear that we could not do that anymore than we could adequately speak as a group for all constituencies within the Church. Mr. Kenneth Feinberg, the skilled professional mediator and expert in alternative dispute resolution who agreed to work with us on a pro-bono basis, insisted that we not grow the group to more than sixteen members. Each of us brought to the table our own voices, our intersections in the Church, the influence of other conversations around the connection, and a vision for Methodism. We each owe a debt of gratitude to the myriad of United Methodists with whom we consulted as our conversations progressed.

It is with sadness that we agreed: The most faithful path forward for the United Methodist mission in the world would be a grace-filled separation that would allow separate bodies to focus on their respective calls. While some present were invited as progressives, centrists, and conservatives, most of us attend churches that don’t exactly think of themselves in those categories. Yet, the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace establishes denominations along those lines. Fortunately, the timeline for local churches does not force them to make a decision and allows over four years for those who choose to do so.

The table where the Protocol was drafted was an imperfect one. Many of us at the table have spilled much ink and spoken many words about the imperfections of the table and the sense of responsibility we felt to voices not present. The next imperfect table will be that of the legislative committee at the General Conference in 2020. Then, it will be presented to the General Conference – yet another imperfect table. But a succession of tables is what we have. In all our areas of ministry, including the tables where we decide our Church’s governance, we must test our ideals and our theology for the fruit they bear. In this Church, ours is a theology of grace. Grace here is brought by sixteen individuals of disparate theologies through a six month-long mediation process for the sake of the Church’s future, and grace must see us through the months to come.

“No one stands alone”

We United Methodists are a people proud of the breadth of our tent; it is written into our name. Now, some ask how we can be faithful yet choose to separate. While we deeply desire unity, the greatest of gifts is not unity but love. After fifty years, we must ask ourselves how we can be faithful yet remain locked in hostility, unwilling to recognize the image of God in each other.

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The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation is our call to release one another. It is a renewed opportunity to make disciples and increase the Methodist mission in the world. It provides the necessary space between us even as we mourn lost connections. The Church is losing generations brave enough to call out our abusive treatment of LGBTQ persons, and it is losing LGBTQ prophets called by God to transform the world. Separating, like untying a knot, may help us to expand again for the sake of the fellowship of all God’s children.

Inherent in the Protocol is compromise. Some say that the Protocol does additional harm because compromise implies incrementalism. Others profess that compromise is required in mediation. We knew when entering a mediated conversation that compromise would be inevitable. Some see compromise as a way to refocus on the mission of the Church, as though repentance and reparations for the harm done to LGBTQ persons were somehow separate from the mission of the Church. Some see the separation reflected in this compromise as a sin. Others see it as a sign of hope. If the delegates to General Conference 2020 choose this path, then we transform the Church. We create space where there was little, paths where there were few, and reform where we had gridlock.

“Let this be our song”

Perfecting and voting on legislation is the purview of General Conference delegates, and we can hardly guess at what that process may birth. However, the legislation implementing the protocol, which must be passed without substantive change to hold together will be and does the following:

  • A resolution that does not require local churches to vote
    The Protocol provides that congregations only need to vote if they disagree with the decision of their annual conference.

  • A resolution that protects small, rural, and ethnic churches
    This desire was shared by members of the mediation team. By placing the first level of decision-making responsibility on the shoulders of annual conferences, the Protocol would allow local churches to follow their annual conferences without disruptive conversations.

  • A path that makes separation affordable
    The Protocol permits movement by local churches to a denomination that is formed under the Protocol.

  • Support for the formation of new denominations
    The Protocol would provide seed funds for nascent denominations.

  • Removal of discriminatory anti-LGBTQ language
    Removal of the language is a feature of the Protocol and is already in legislation before the General Conference.

  • A moratorium on the administrative and judicial processes related to anti-LGBTQ complaints before General Conference 2020
    The Protocol calls for charges and complaints against LGBTQ clergy and their allies to be held in abeyance. In this season, this moratorium cannot be forced, but adherence to the Protocol creates pressure for bishops to uphold this abeyance prior to the General Conference.

  • Maintenance of global connection
    The principle of self-determination in the Protocol prioritizes the flourishing of the global Church. A regional conference structure allows for a healthier connection around mission with more regional autonomy.

  • Safe harbor for LGBTQ people in harm’s way
    RMN, Resist Harm, the UMQCC, and others are actively working to connect, advocate for, and support LGBTQ persons before the passage of the Protocol, during the transition within the church, and after the transition is complete.

“Side by side”

I recently had the joy of worshipping with Allendale UMC in St. Petersburg, FL. Each of us sang, “I am a child of God.” The weekend before that, I attended the Mission Together Colloquy at Lover’s Lane UMC in Dallas, TX. There, North Katanga Bishop Mande Muyambo reminded us that everyone is welcome in the Church, and he suggested that our polity is inadequate for today.

These experiences reminded me of the beauty of our Church and the sadness of this moment. They also point to the potential of our future: a future where LGBTQ people are included in the full life and ministry of The United Methodist Church; a future where we have repented from the sins of racism, sexism, and the marginalization of others; a future where we have repented from our colonialist history; a future where United Methodists across the connection are free to live into a different future.

The Methodist movement has seen many separations and reconstitutions over its nearly 300 years. This will not be the first, and it will not be the last. In this critical moment, we must free one another while we maintain opportunities for collaborative, life-affirming ministry. The Protocol gives us permission to set each other free so that we can continue to be about the transformation of the world. And in this process, we may even find ourselves and our Church transformed.

Whatever happens at General Conference, Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) is in solidarity with marginalized people across the Church. If delegates vote to adopt the Protocol, RMN is not abandoning LGBTQ children born into the traditionalist denomination or LGBTQ adults worshipping in churches that will not bless them. Nor are we forgetting that our LGBTQ siblings are subjected to great harm in some Central Conferences, often exiled from the very churches that baptized them. As we move toward the Church of May 16, 2020, our ministry may evolve, but our mission will remain unchanged.

May 16, 2020 has the potential to herald a new dawn for our denomination. No matter what happens, we must be willing to encounter repentance. It will not be a day of arriving; it will only be the first day of the arduous work ahead of us. Our charge is to reset, reform, and reimagine The United Methodist Church.

[1] #3154, Worship & Song (Abingdon Press, 2008).

[2] “Acceptance of LGBT people and rights has increased around the world,” The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law (April 18, 2018). 

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