Presentation on the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation

. 10 min read

Thanks for staying for this presentation and for keeping Christ
Church and the entire United Methodist Church in your prayers. At the front
end, I warn you: I brought a fire hose and I hope you can drink from it. To
help you, we have handouts with all the slides and with a chart of several
plans that are before General Conference. (Distribute). And, I am always
available for conversation around these questions.
On January 3rd, the office of the Council of Bishops released
a proposal for the separation of The United Methodist Church. Immediately,
major news outlets released stories about The United Methodist Church splitting
up. Now, this is only a proposal, but the stresses in the denomination are real
and significant. And these stresses are almost entirely focused on the single
question of how we welcome and include our LGBTQ siblings (that is, our gay and
lesbian brothers and sisters) in our life and ministry together, particularly
on whether we will permit same-sex marriage and, by extension, clergy to be in
same-sex marriages.
My first reaction to this is grief. I grieve the possibility that
persons and colleagues who are personally dear to me could – in the very near
future – be in separate church organizations from me. We disagree on this question.
We are best friends. At this time, we are pastors together in The United
Methodist Church. But very soon, we could be in separate organizations. I
grieve for another reason: Jesus prayed “that they may all be one, just as you
and I, Father, are one.” There is “one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith,
one baptism, one God and Father of all,” there is only one Church, no matter
the distinctions and denominations we have set up. In the great and final day
of the Lord those brand names won’t mean anything. As Paul writes, “The only
thing that counts is faith working through love.” So, for me to see The United
Methodist Church, with all our shared history, with all our personal
connections, with all our amazing mission partnerships, to see that split up
and diminished means that we have not been able to answer Jesus’ prayer “that
they may all be one.” At the same time, on a practical level, if we can’t live
together in one household, perhaps we can be good neighbors.
John Wesley said, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love
alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without
all doubt, we may.”

Today, for the purposes of this
presentation, we will assume the protocol, with a couple qualifications:
The General
Conference may amend it or not adopt it at all.
There are four other
major plans for the future of the church, all involving dissolution.
This is the only one
published by the Council of Bishops.
I will also use the labels used typically in the debate, though
one could argue with the labels themselves: Traditionalists, Centrists,
I am going to address a series of questions about the protocol.
First, who wrote this?
·       A group of 16
persons across the ideological spectrum, representing the primary traditional,
centrist, and progressive caucuses. The group was gathered by Bishop Yambasu of
Sierra Leone, who says that the delegates from Africa will vote 100% in favor
of this protocol. Other bishops involved came from the Philippines, the Nordic-Baltic
area, and the United States. The group worked to find a way to unwind our
denomination and still honor the different constituencies. They consulted with
several others and employed a skilled mediator.
Given that the special session of General Conference in 2019 affirmed
the Traditional Plan, a plan that strengthened the existing prohibitions
against performing same-sex marriages and ordaining clergy in same-sex
marriages, adding mandatory minimum penalties and encouraging those who could
not comply to leave the church, why is
the protocol designed to help the traditional side of the church depart?
the Traditional Plan was approved at the 2019 General Conference. The vote was
roughly 54% to 46%, a majority but not a super majority. One of the associated motions
was approved by only a 4 vote margin, a practical 50%-50% vote. And the votes
were regional in nature. Our brothers and sisters in Africa and most of those
in the Philippines, for example, were almost 100% in support of the Traditional
Plan. The UMC in Norway was against the Traditional Plan, whereas the Czech
Republic and Russia were in favor. In the USA, 2/3 (66% of the delegates) were
against the Traditional Plan. Today, headed into the 2020 General Conference,
3/4 or 75% of the delegates from the USA are against the Traditional Plan.
what happened?
The passing of the
Traditional Plan exposed new fault-lines in The United Methodist Church. Progressive
annual conferences in the United States (like those on the West Coast) insisted
that they would continue to ordain persons in same-sex marriages and permit
their pastors to perform same-sex marriages. They likewise insisted that they
would not leave the denomination, despite the fact that the Traditional Plan encourages
every dissenting annual conference, clergy person, and local church to leave. At
the same time, leaders in Africa and the Philippines insisted that they do not
want the church to divide. They want to prohibit same-sex marriage in their
regions and remain in relationship with United Methodists in the United States
with whom they disagree.
The Traditional Plan
cannot be uniformly enforced without changes to the constitution of The United
Methodist Church. The constitution makes the annual conference (the regional
body like our Susquehanna Conference) the basic building block of the
organization. Both property ownership and clergy credentialing are powers of
the annual conference that cannot be taken away. And there is no super majority
that will allow constitutional change.
The most traditional
parts of The United Methodist Church already have the institutions necessary
for a denomination, which have existed in parallel with those of the whole
church. They have their own mission board, seminary, and publishing house. And
they have recently published their own book of discipline in draft form. No
other group within the church has set up their own institutions.
Finally, the largest
umbrella body for traditionalists in the UMC, the Wesleyan Covenant Association,
is expected to vote to leave the UMC this fall, no matter what decision is made
at General Conference.
What’s there to like about the protocol?
The protocol is
designed to limit lawsuits in the process of dissolution. When the news is all
about God’s people suing each other, it certainly does not reflect well. And it
does not reflect what Jesus says would mark his disciples, that they love one
another. So, to limit lawsuits, local churches will be able to retain their
property (currently held in trust by the region or annual conference), assets,
and liabilities even if they do not end up in the same organization as their
annual conference. Annual conferences retain their property, assets, and
liabilities regardless of what future church organization they are a part of.
And the post-separation United Methodist Church retains all the property,
assets, and liabilities of the current United Methodist Church EXCEPT that it
shall pay $25 million to help start a new traditionalist denomination and escrow
$2 million to help start up other denominations that may come out of this
protocol. The legal question marks remain around the intent language of trusts
and reversionary clauses in the deeds of some church property. But that is a
matter for state law, not church law.
As uncomfortable as
it is, and as much as I grieve the development, I believe that we must be
honest about the fact that the pressures within our denomination are too great
for every church, every annual conference, every pastor and bishop to remain in
a single organization. With that in mind, it is my hope that the General
Conference will approve this protocol or something like it, and that we will be
able to live it out in the peace of Christ.
What are the expectations for the future
of the different segments of the church?
The Traditionalist
group, by whatever name that new church will be called, is expected to become more
traditional. That is, the intention of the traditional plan to prohibit clergy
from performing same-sex marriages and prohibit credentialing or assigning
clergy in same-sex marriages is expected to be strengthened beyond current
language and uniformly enforced. Furthermore, the Traditionalist group is
expected to change the way pastors and churches are partnered together. Our
current process is known as a “sent” or “itinerant” ministry, in which pastors
are sent by the bishop to serve communities and churches. The Wesleyan Covenant
Association’s draft book of discipline describes churches selecting their own
pastors from a pool of approved persons and a much more limited authority and
role for bishops.
The post-separation
United Methodist Church is expected to completely roll back the Traditional
Plan and to permit pastors and churches to perform same-sex marriages while
also protecting the choice of pastors and churches not to perform same-sex
marriages. There would be some new regional structures that would make clear
that this kind of permission will not be available in regions, such as Africa,
that refuse it.
There are other
groups preparing plans for alternative denominations. One is described as
“liberationist,” a church in which all clergy and churches shall perform
same-sex marriages. Another may be an alternative traditional denomination that
retains the traditional authority and role of bishops in the itinerancy. The
protocol allows for alternative denominations to organize and offer themselves as
potential options by May 15, 2021.
These alternative
expressions of Methodism are more narrowly defined, particularly around these
tough questions of human sexuality. The post-separation United Methodist Church
(which may well keep the UMC name and branding) is the only current “big tent”
option designed to include persons of various convictions on these questions.
All the resulting
denominations will be smaller, with smaller institutional structure. The boards
and agencies of the current UMC will have to be significantly downsized in the
post-separation UMC, and the alternative denominations start off with minimal to
moderate institutional footprint.
What faction is Christ Church part of –
Traditionalist, Centrist, or Progressive?
Short answer: I
don’t know.
Long answer: We
include persons with a variety of conviction on this question. The decision day
is coming, and your church council will be guiding us through that process. Pray
for them. I hope that, in the stress and pressure of our time, we will find a
way to honor each other as sisters and brothers in Christ and to remain one
across our differences in answer to Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one.”
Whatever happens, we belong to God.
What is the decision-making time frame
and what majority is required?
General Conference
meets May 5-15. If they adopt the protocol as written …
Annual conferences
may vote to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church and affiliate with a
new Methodist denomination created by this protocol and must do so by a 57%
majority vote by July 1, 2021.
Local churches remain
part of the denomination chosen by their annual conference. The members may
vote for a different affiliation at a special church conference and must do so
by December 31, 2024. The majority threshold for the vote to carry will be
either simple majority or 2/3 majority, as determined by the church council.
Pastors and bishops
are free agents in the protocol, with complete flexibility as to where they
choose to serve.
Is there anything that doesn’t change?
Our commitment to
welcome everyone and offer them Jesus.
My commitment as
your pastor to submit to church law.
Our ability to live
and worship with persons with whom we disagree (even in our own households)!
Our ministry and
mission in our community – it is more important than ever!
What is your conviction on this matter,
Pastor JP?
I am not without
As your pastor,
however, I am the pastor to everyone here, both in the church and the community,
whatever your convictions and whatever your sexuality. The decision day is
coming and it is your decision to make, not mine to impose.
I also recognize
that, whether I am moved by a bishop or I retire, there will be a time when I
will not be your pastor. It is all the more necessary that the decision you
make is yours.
Yes, I will have to
make my decision as well. And I am advocating within the annual conference for
my preferred future for our denomination and region. But, here, I am
pastor, not advocate. At this time, I am not sharing the details of my personal
convictions beyond what I have already said about Jesus’ prayer that we may all
be one.
For those who are
interested, I have included in the handout a list of advocacy groups within The
United Methodist Church as well as a website devoted to this protocol.
I know that this uncertainty can lead to anxiety. I have
certainly had my anxious moments. I want you to know, however, that I have
complete confidence in Jesus. He is the Lord of the Church, even as mixed up
and divided as we may be. He is the one who holds our future and promises that
it is a future of hope. So, keep this matter in your prayers.
Thanks for staying after for this presentation. I will
remain up front for a few minutes for anyone who wants to come up and ask me questions.
But to honor our time, I will close our time with prayer.
Lord God, our Father,
you call us to be holy as you are
Jesus Christ, unique Son of God and Savior of the world,
you were crucified for your friendship
with sinners;
Holy Spirit, gift-giver, child-of-God-bearer, truth teller,
             you make
us one whether or not we recognize it:
Hear our prayers.
             Hear our
prayers of grief and grant us comfort.
             Hear our
prayers of confusion and grant us compassion.
             Hear our
prayers of anxiety and fear and grant us hope and daring.
You, Lord, are Emmanuel, God with us.
             Help us to
be with you.
             Help us to
be with each other.
             Help us to
be with you in our world.