Why a Traditionalist Supports the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation

January 1st, 2020
This article is featured in the The Future of Methodism (Feb/Mar/Apr 2020) issue of Circuit Rider

There are times when followers of Jesus have believed that separation from one another was a better way forward for spreading the Gospel. Paul and Barnabas quarreled over the advisability of taking Mark with them on their second missionary journey (Acts 15:36-41). “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.” The result was that Paul took Silas and Barnabas took Mark, each team visiting a different territory, thus multiplying the mission outreach of the church. The time has come for The United Methodist Church to separate so that we can multiply the missional outreach of the church and free ourselves from a debilitating disagreement.  

The St. Louis General Conference highlighted the depth of the irreconcilable differences present in The United Methodist Church. Rather than continuing the quarrel over homosexuality at the 2020 General Conference, several groups have proposed plans of separation for the denomination. A group of centrist and progressive leaders has proposed the Next Generation UMC Plan. A group of centrist, progressive, and traditionalist leaders has proposed the Indianapolis Plan. A group of liberationists has proposed the New Expressions Worldwide Plan.

Recently, a new plan has been proposed that was developed out of intensive mediated negotiations that included traditionalists, centrists, progressives, bishops, and persons from the central conferences outside the U.S. This Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation takes concepts from both the Indianapolis Plan and the Next Generation UMC Plan and arrives at a compromise that all the negotiators could support.

As one of the team that developed the Indianapolis Plan, I am now supporting the new Protocol plan for separation. The Protocol plan is not perfect; in fact, I find several parts of it very difficult to accept. But given the current circumstances, I believe it is the best opportunity that our church currently has to definitively resolve the conflict that is tearing us apart and to help all parts of the church move into a positive focus on disciple-making and world-transforming ministry.

How are the two plans alike?

One reason I support the Protocol plan is that it is very similar in concept to the Indianapolis Plan. They both envision a clean separation into new denominations of Methodism with ongoing or future cooperation dependent upon mutual agreement. They both provide for a choice between two main denominational options:

  1. A continuing United Methodist Church will change to allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing LGBT persons.
  2. A new traditionalist Methodist church will maintain the current position of welcome for all people, while continuing to define marriage as between one man and one woman and require that clergy exhibit celibacy in singleness or faithfulness in a heterosexual marriage.

Both plans permit other denominations to develop if they meet the requisite qualifications. Both would allow central conferences, annual conferences, and local churches to vote on which denomination to align with, while not requiring any entity to take a vote. If a local church disagrees with the choice of its annual conference, that local church could take a vote to align with a different denomination than its annual conference. Bishops and clergy could freely determine which denomination to align with, assuming they meet the denomination’s qualifications. Both plans maintain clergy pension benefits intact without reduction and allow clergy to continue participating in pension programs through Wespath.

Both plans allow local churches that separate from their annual conference to keep all their buildings, property, and assets (as well as liabilities) without any payment to the annual conference. Both stipulate that central conference and annual conference property, assets, and affiliated institutions would remain with that conference in whatever denomination they choose. Under both plans, local churches could choose to withdraw from The United Methodist Church and become independent, but such a decision would require the local church to pay additional apportionments and pension liabilities.

Both plans allow the post-separation United Methodist Church to repeal Traditional Plan provisions enacted in St. Louis (2019) and remove all prohibitive language around same-sex marriage, ordination of practicing LBGT persons, and declarations that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Both plans provide for a suspension of all complaints and judicial processes related to these requirements in the Book of Discipline. This post-separation United Methodist Church could also make whatever structural changes it wants to, such as creating a U.S. regional conference and restructuring the general boards and agencies to serve what will probably be a smaller denomination.

Both plans allow the new Methodist denominations that may be formed to contract for services from UM general boards and agencies should they desire to do so. Mission partnerships and cooperative projects could continue, especially those benefiting the mission work in the central conferences outside the U.S.

The basic outlines of the process of separation and how the denominations will look afterward are quite similar in the two plans.

How are the two plans different?

Of course, some of the crucial details of the two plans differ. One positive difference for the Protocol plan is that it contains an agreement on allocating some of the general UMC unrestricted reserves to the new Methodist denominations. $25 million would be set aside for a new traditionalist Methodist church, and $2 million would be set aside for any other denominations that develop under this plan. By contrast, the team that developed the Indianapolis Plan could not reach agreement on how to allocate assets between the churches. Having this matter settled by the negotiation should make it much easier for the General Conference to come to a decision.

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The biggest difference between the two plans is in the area of voting percentages. The Indianapolis Plan saw the choice as between equal alternatives and thus agreed to a simple majority vote to decide alignment at all levels of the church. In the Protocol plan, central conferences need a two-thirds vote to align with a different denomination than The United Methodist Church. Annual conferences would need a 57 percent vote to align differently. Local churches, however, could choose whether their vote would be two-thirds or a simple majority. Thus, the most important vote at the local level could be decided by a simple majority at the discretion of the congregation’s church council.

Under the Indianapolis Plan, funding for ongoing central conference operations (bishops, annual conference expenses) would continue at the current levels for the 2021-24 quadrennium. Under the Protocol Plan, the post-separation United Methodist Church would determine those funding levels based on resources available. On the other hand, the Protocol plan would set aside $39 million to assure that current funding levels would continue for the next eight years for U.S. ethnic minority ministry and Africa University. (This provision was made possible partly by the traditionalists agreeing to forego $13 million that they could otherwise have received.) Churches in the new Methodist denominations would be able to access and benefit from these funds, as well.

Another key difference is the use of the United Methodist name and the cross-and-flame logo. The Indianapolis plan would permit all denominations formed out of the separation to use the name and logo with a modifier to distinguish one denomination from another. (Such use would be permitted, but not required.) The continuing United Methodist Church would also have to add a modifier, so that no one denomination would keep the old name — all would have a new name, signifying that all are in effect new denominations (even though one would continue the current UM Book of Discipline). By contrast, the current thinking in the Protocol plan as this article goes to press is that new Methodist denominations could not use any form of the United Methodist name or logo after a transition period. (They could still use the individual terms “United” or “Methodist,” but not the two together.)

Other less-important differences will become apparent to those who delve into the details of the two plans.

Why do I as a traditionalist support the Protocol Plan?

In 2019 at the special called General Conference, traditionalists made a good-faith effort to reform The United Methodist Church. Since 2011, the problem has not been what the Book of Discipline said, but the fact that a growing segment of the U.S. church had determined to ignore the church’s teachings and requirements. Clergy increasingly performed same-sex weddings. Boards of ordained ministry increasingly recommended persons for ordination who did not meet the Discipline’s standards. Even a retired bishop very publicly performed two same-sex weddings. Bishops in the Western Jurisdiction and elsewhere increasingly dismissed legal complaints against those who did not abide by the Discipline. The ultimate example of disobedience, of course, was the election in 2016 of a woman married to another woman as a bishop of the church.

The impetus of the Traditional Plan in 2019 was to regain the unity of a church in schism by enforcing compliance with the church’s teachings and standards. Traditionalists believe that if one is going to claim the name of United Methodist, one should live by what the church says. Much of the Traditional Plan passed in 2019 and key parts were declared constitutional. However, the response was not unity in compliance but a radical deepening of the schism. The determination not to live by what the General Conference enacted grew deeper and much wider, particularly among clergy and bishops in the U.S.

It has become evident that the only way to resolve the deep theological and ecclesiastical conflict in our church is some form of separation. Even most centrists and institutionalists, who fought tooth and nail to keep any kind of “exit path” out of the 2019 Traditional Plan, have come to see separation as the only constructive way forward.

The risk now is that, instead of fighting about the presenting issue of marriage and sexuality standards or fighting over whether the church should separate, the General Conference will fight over how the church should separate.

The Protocol plan is the only plan for separation that has the support of leaders of advocacy groups across the theological spectrum. If that agreement extends to the advocacy groups they represent, it is a hopeful development in the attempt to shift from fighting toward working together to find an acceptable solution. If few or none of the advocacy groups opposes the Protocol plan, it stands an excellent chance of passing General Conference.

* * *

Many have said that the Protocol plan is not fair to traditionalists, as those who represent the majority of the global church and its long-standing teaching should not be the ones to separate. However, there is a higher value here than fairness. It is faithfulness.

The Protocol plan is the best chance the church has to allow all the different factions in the church to live into and serve faithfully their deeply held convictions. As a traditionalist, I would rather spend my time and energy building a new, Scripturally-based, Christ-centered, outreach-oriented ministry that focuses on making transformed disciples of Jesus Christ than on fighting over old wineskins.

It is time to put the conflict behind us and embark on a new faith adventure with God. I hope that we can be the first major mainline denomination that reaches a Christ-like amicable separation in which we respect each other as fellow followers of Christ with different opinions over the definition of marriage and clergy standards. Let us not follow in the footsteps of our Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Lutheran brothers and sisters, who experienced a bitter separation that tore apart relationships, severely compromised their witness, and cost tens of millions of dollars in lawsuits. We have a chance to take the road of peaceful, respectful separation rather than acrimony.

The Protocol plan provides an efficient process that is keenly sensitive to the differences in and among our local churches. It requires no constitutional amendments, can be passed by a majority at General Conference, and can be implemented immediately. For many who are ready to move on from the conflict, the short time frame allows immediate relief. Current thinking is that annual conferences and local churches may begin living into the new alignment as early as January 1, 2021. At the same time, the window for local churches making decisions would remain open until the end of 2024, allowing plenty of time for those who are not ready to decide.

When one evaluates the Protocol plan, one must ask if it is better than the likely alternatives. Any plan of separation that does not have broad support will engender another conflicted General Conference that runs the risk of degenerating into another St. Louis. The passing of any plan — whether a strengthening of the Traditional Plan or one of the other separation plans — by a narrow margin runs the risk that it will not be complied with. We have found that the church cannot force compliance with its policies where there is widespread refusal to conform. Where bishops and clergy are determined to resist the church, we degenerate into anarchy and inflict harm on congregations and members.

Can we envision a peaceful and fair separation that would provide a pathway to new denominations of the Methodist movement so we can all make new disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? These new denominations, though separate, will continue the rich heritage of Methodism while being free to share their respective witnesses for Christ unhindered by those with whom they have been in conflict. That is a future I can live for, and supporting the Protocol plan seems to me the best way to get there.

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