The recently announced separation plan called the “Protocol on Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” has aroused many reactions in and beyond the church. Some are satisfied and even hopeful that the long-running conflict in our church can finally be over and traditional and evangelical United Methodists will be free to pursue ministry without being hampered by discord or a dysfunctional denominational structure. Local churches will get to keep their buildings, property, and assets and will need to make no extra payments to move into the new traditionalist Methodist denomination.
Others are upset and angry over provisions of the agreement they believe are unfair. We have heard the criticisms of the plan. We understand them. Many of them are legitimate. Clearly, there are several unfair provisions. I will be addressing them in future articles.
The most common criticism I have heard of the agreement is that traditionalists are leaving The United Methodist Church, rather than it being an equal separation. The follow-up comment is that since traditionalists “won” the vote in the St. Louis special General Conference in 2019, it should be those who want to change the church who have to leave, not those who want to maintain the current doctrine and discipline of the church.
This is a perfectly valid point. In a perfect and just world, those who want to change the church’s understanding of marriage and ordination would leave and those who want to keep the church’s long-standing teachings could remain. We do not live in a perfect or just world, however.
This agreement did not come down from God on Mt. Sinai like the Ten Commandments. It is a negotiated agreement worked out between factions in the church that deeply disagree with one another and do not trust one another. The fact that there is an agreement at all is astounding and a testament to the dedication of the participants and the perseverance of the mediator.
In negotiated settlements, it is not what is right or fair that determines the outcome, but what is possible. I’m convinced this agreement is the best possible agreement that could be reached and is preferable to all other likely alternatives.
What happened in 2019?
At the 2019 General Conference, traditionalists made a good-faith effort to bring about unity in the church through compliance with the Book of Discipline, the governing document of the church. It maintained the current teaching and standards of the church, while attempting to increase accountability of bishops and clergy to live by those standards.
Since February, it has become readily apparent that this attempt at unity through compliance did not work. More than half the annual conferences in the U.S. declared their opposition to the provisions enacted in the Traditional Plan. A number of annual conferences and bishops have declared that they will not abide by the provisions of the Discipline. The Greater New Jersey Annual Conference is even trying to write its own Book of Discipline!
This widespread disarray indicates that the church cannot achieve unity through compliance. The gate-keepers on enforcing the Discipline are the bishops. If some bishops are unwilling to enforce the Discipline and plan to simply ignore its requirements, there is nothing the larger church can do about it. The accountability process for bishops envisioned in the Traditional Plan was ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council. The accountability process proposed by Bishop Scott Jones and others that relies upon the Council of Bishops to hold other bishops accountable depends upon having a majority of the Council willing to exercise that accountability. At this point and into the foreseeable future the majority of the Council favors changing the church’s requirements and will decline to hold colleague bishops accountable.
Since unity through compliance is not possible, and unity through allowing for “local option” (each annual conference and local church making its own rules about marriage and ordination) does not have the votes to pass General Conference, the only apparent way to resolve the conflict is some form of separation. The recent agreement recognizes this fact and provides a way for the church to go in two different directions. We should not discount the fact that, for the first time, some of our leading bishops and other church leaders have finally acknowledged that separation is the only viable way forward for the church.
How to Separate
The fairest way to separate would be to dissolve The United Methodist Church and create two or more new denominations with new names. Such an approach is unworkable because it requires changes to the constitution, which needs a two-thirds vote at General Conference and a two-thirds vote of all the annual conference members (which could take up to two years). Most self-described centrists and progressives are against dissolving the church, as are many Africans and Europeans. Dissolving the church and starting over would most likely not reach even a majority vote, let alone the two-thirds vote required.
So any form of separation that General Conference adopts will have to have a continuing United Methodist Church and a group or groups that form something new. The closest to an equal plan of separation under this precondition is the Indianapolis Plan. However, that plan did not resolve the contentious issue of a division of assets. Furthermore, it encountered fierce opposition from key leaders in the centrist camp, who believe it comes too close to dissolving the denomination. To pass the Indianapolis Plan would require a major fight at General Conference, which could degenerate into a repeat of the vitriol of St. Louis. And its passage is by no means certain, as the margin for traditionalists is projected to be very slim.
The leaders of the Renewal and Reform Coalition decided that it would be better to support a plan that is less fair, but promised a definitive end to the conflict, was much more certain to pass, and would give traditionalists a way to separate while keeping their buildings and property.
Throughout the last year, many progressives and centrists have vowed not to leave the church, but to stay and continue to fight to change the church’s teachings and standards. It is true that a few very progressive annual conferences and a few high-profile progressive leaders have announced plans to prepare to possibly leave the denomination. But the vast majority would stay, and the fight would continue. It is therefore unrealistic to hope that most centrists and progressives would voluntarily leave the church. No matter what good legislation General Conference adopts, if there is no way to obtain compliance, the Discipline is not worth the paper it is written on. Any attempt on traditionalists’ part to keep on fighting for the current teachings of the church would entail another 20 years of conflict, rebellion, disobedience, and vitriol that would destroy the church. While attempting to force out those unwilling to live by the Discipline, the church would also lose many traditionalists who are sick of the fighting and want to maximize their ministry of the Gospel rather than spend millions of dollars, time, and energy fighting a battle against those who will not be convinced.
If we were to fight to hang on to The United Methodist Church, traditionalists would also be saddled with trying to either maintain or reform an intractable bureaucracy that is often counterproductive to local church ministry. Every single general board or agency except United Methodist Communications endorsed the One Church Plan. Most of those boards and agencies are staffed by people who want to change the church’s teachings and do not share our traditional theological perspective. To reform and reclaim these agencies would be a monumental task that would again drain valuable resources from actual ministry. Better to walk away from these entrenched agencies and start something new that can be much more streamlined and oriented toward resourcing and empowering local church ministry. If we can drastically lower denominational overhead, we can pour more resources into supporting our central conferences outside the U.S. and engaging in innovative, effective ministry to the unchurched and marginalized people in our world.
The use of the United Methodist name and cross and flame logo has also been of great concern. Once again, we have heard the concerns. We understand them. I will be writing on that issue in a separate blog after the implementing legislation for the separation agreement is finalized. I will also be addressing in a future article the apparent unfairness of the amount of money traditionalists will receive from the general church assets that generations of traditional United Methodists have contributed to over the years.
It is understandable for some to see it as though traditionalists will be “leaving” The United Methodist Church. A better way of describing it is that traditionalists will be separating from a denomination that has left them theologically and seizing this opportunity to create a new traditionalist Methodist movement. No, this agreement is not as fair to traditionalists as we hoped it would be. But it promises a definitive end to the conflict in our denomination and provides an unparalleled opportunity for a fresh start that can create a new denomination that can go forward in unity of belief, vision, and mission. When we have had a chance to process our anger, frustration, disappointment, and grief, we can either choose to dig in our heels in an unrealistic hope for a better deal, or we can focus on the positives of what this deal makes possible for us. I, for one, am excited about what the Lord can and will do through a new expression of Methodism. We can walk into this new future together.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.