Guest Commentary: Why Progressives and Traditionalists should Support the Protocol

Dr. Jack Jackson

Jack Jackson is E. Stanley Jones Associate Professor of Evangelism, Mission, and Global Methodism at Claremont School of Theology in California. Some of the opinions expressed in this analysis will be provocative to both progressive and traditionalist readers. Nevertheless, we believe that Dr. Jackson’s viewpoints should be read and discussed across the United Methodist connection.

As our May 2020 General Conference approaches, delegates have been offered a gift with the Protocol. It lays out a path of separation that traditionalists and progressives alike should support.

Advocates on both sides, as well as the few true centrists who remain, can certainly find fault in the Protocol, but there should be no mistake: this is the best solution for the United Methodist Church and the only one which, as Bishop John K. Yambasu (Sierra Leone), Janet Lawrence (Reconciling Ministries Network), and Patricia Miller (Confessing Movement) each argues, avoids denominational catastrophe.

Progressives should embrace the protocol for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, it delivers on progressive’s core demand, namely that the UM Church will ordain and marry LGBTQI+ persons. As the Rev. David Meredith argues, the protocol provides the provisions that progressives so desperately want to stop.

Some progressives complain that inclusion both in the U.S. and around the world will only be optional. Churches in the U.S. “may” opt to host gay weddings and clergy “may” choose to officiate, and annual conferences “may” ordain non heterosexual persons. Meanwhile central conferences around the rest of the world can decide how they will respond to gay persons.

But progressives should rest assured that the Protocol will profoundly shift the denomination’s theological emphasis, at least in the United States, towards a progressive vision.

For instance, while only a small percentage of traditionalists may leave at first (some traditional clergy and laity in their 50’s and older will choose to remain in the UM Church for relational and pragmatic reasons), traditionalist clergy and laity younger than 50 will begin to leave immediately. Even more important to progressives, current and future traditionalist seminarians and young people will leave in mass as they recognize that their vision of human sexuality is increasingly rejected at UM seminaries, Annual Conference Boards of Ordained Ministries, and post separation UMC (PSUMC) congregations.

The result of this departure of laity and clergy in the U.S. means that by the 2028 General Conference, if not 2024, the church will be thoroughly progressive and change its language on inclusion from “may” to “shall.” Churches will be forced to welcome gay weddings and clergy will be required to officiate gay weddings.

The protocol will result in a thoroughly progressive PSUMC. The church will not be a big tent and there will be no room for traditionalists, and little room for centrists by 2028.

A second reason progressives should affirm the protocol is that it will keep most, if not all separately incorporated UM Church institutions within the PSUMC. Already many UM colleges, hospitals, children’s homes, Wesley Foundations, seminaries, etc. are in active conversations regarding leaving the UM Church because of its stance on human sexuality. The vast majority of traditionalists are willing to forgo these institutions. But if progressives continue to fight, many of these institutions will discontinue their connection with the UM Church. On the other hand, if the protocol passes, these institutions will almost certainly remain in the PSUMC. Keeping these institutions connected to the PSUMC, institutions with billions of dollar in assets, is well worth the relatively small payment of $25 million the denomination will give to a new traditionalist movement.

Unfortunately, some have argued that because some progressive voices were not at the table the process was flawed and the recommendations must be rejected.

This is reckless thinking. The church has tried for five decades via large, representative groups to come to an agreement the larger church would embrace. Each effort has ended in unmitigated disaster for progressives. The only option was a small gathering similar to the one which created the Protocol.

Progressives will not get a better deal than the one outlined in the Protocol. Progressives can rejoice that they have won the conversation on human sexuality in the United States, but they have not prevailed in the global UM Church. In light of the precipitous decline in UM Church membership in progressive jurisdictions, progressives do not have time to wait in hope that the General Conference will one day give them everything they want. Progressives should take the deal as outlined in the protocol and move forward knowing the PSUMC will be a thoroughly progressive Wesleyan movement within the decade.

Traditionalists should embrace the protocol for different reasons.

First, the protocol satisfies traditionalists’ core desire, namely the freedom to connect as a movement with other Methodist communities of like mind on human sexuality. The new Methodist denomination will be one that includes members of the WCA but will also reflect the desires of a broader group of traditionalists who, for various reasons, are not members of the WCA. The denomination will have clear expectations for clergy, laity, and ecclesial leaders when it comes to human sexuality. No right minded progressive or centrist will become part of the new denomination and structures will be put in place to ensure missional cohesion on human sexuality. Missionally minded young traditionalist clergy, seminarians, future seminarians, and laity will embrace this new movement in droves over time.

Second, the Protocol allows traditionalist congregations to leave without an “exit fee” of one or two years of apportionments that previous plans have mandated. This is a major concession by progressives and would result in traditionalist congregations saving tens of millions of dollars, thereby removing a tremendous barrier for departing congregations.

Some traditionalists argue that the plan simply isn’t fair because it awards the institutional mechanisms and assets to the numerically smaller group of the global UM Church, a group that has lost every major vote at General Conference on human sexuality. This is a legitimate point, but traditionalists must ask what alternative they have and if they are really willing to keep up the struggle.

The reality is that while traditionalists have prevailed in the global conversation on human sexuality, they have lost it in the United States and have little hope of regaining the majority in the U.S. for a generation if not longer.

Traditionalists can keep on fighting but the resulting missional deadlock, disobedience to the Discipline, and church decline that has marked the UM Church for decades will continue. Episcopal leadership will become even more progressive since progressives are now the majority in each of the jurisdictions. As traditionalist bishops retire, traditionalist clergy will soon have no episcopal support. Even if traditionalists were to prevail in the conversation 25 or 50 years from now, the church they will inherit will have less functional institutional mechanisms and fewer assets. And most importantly, since many young traditionalist laity and clergy are already leaving the denomination, the UM Church in 25 or 50 years would almost certainly have fewer members.

Furthermore, the UM Church structure as currently designed has led to this untenable stalemate. There simply is no mechanism whereby traditionalists can “fix” a structure that permits disobedient bishops, Boards of Ordained Ministry, and clergy. The structure will allow ecclesial disobedience for decades to come and there is nothing traditionalists can do about it.

There is little evidence that traditionalists have the resources, energy, and commitment from future young clergy and laity to keep up the struggle for another generation. Traditionalists today would be wise to embrace the Protocol, despite its deficiencies, and work to create a new vision of Methodism in a new denomination.

All this said, a word of warning to progressive clergy and churches in traditionalist conferences and vice versa: you have your work cut out for you. The protocol enshrines a process that defaults churches and clergy into the majority view of an Annual Conference. Churches and clergy who differ from their Annual Conferences will need help and encouragement to navigate their way into a likeminded Annual Conference or new traditionalist denomination. The General Conference should make it as easy as possible for both progressive and traditionalist congregations to join a likeminded community.

There is no resolution that gives progressives, centrists, and traditionalists everything they want or think they deserve. The Protocol offers a mediated and political truce in the best sense of the terms, as the Reconciling Ministries Network, WCA, UMNext, Good News, UM Queer Clergy Caucus, and Confessing Movement among others acknowledge. Critically it offers both sides what they must have in order to form vital Christian communities in line with their visions of human sexuality. It is time for both sides to embrace a foundational principle of Protestantism in general and Methodism in particular, namely that missional faithfulness always triumphs over ecclesial purity and unity. It is time for both sides to embrace the protocol as a final act of grace towards each other as the only way forward.

Jack Jackson is E. Stanley Jones Associate Professor of Evangelism, Mission, and Global Methodism at Claremont School of Theology in California.

Comments

  1. A most revealing and significant fact seems to already be emerging out of the developing Protocol analysis.

    Traditionalists will have no problem at all in defining and communicating their denomination. However, it’s looking like progressives/centrists will come out of the starting gate with an incoherent or even conflicting definition of their denomination, thus making it most difficult communicate.

    Jack Jackson points out that by the the 2028 General Conference, if not 2024, the post-separation UMC will be thoroughly progressive and change its language on inclusion from “may” to “shall.” Churches will be forced to welcome gay weddings and clergy will be required to officiate gay weddings. The protocol will result in a thoroughly progressive PSUMC. The church will not be a big tent and there will be no room for traditionalists, and little room for centrists by 2028. In a direct contrast to that, the North GA Conference bishop, for example, points out that this Protocol offers a path for The United Methodist Church to continue to be a denomination for those with traditional, centrist, and progressive perspectives. The post-separation United Methodist Church will continue to have room for divergent perspectives and value diversity as an essential component of our faith.

    • In dialogs with traditionalists in the past, the progressives have not acted in good faith. I realize the protocol is to let us all get at least the basics of what we need in order to be faithful to our callings. For me, however, there is a prroblem: I do not expect the progressives to operate in good faith in these matters. I wonder what they might have up their sleeves to render this GC useless, and make sure the traditionalists wind up with nothing significant. This is how they have operated in the past. Feeling one’s convictions to be superior to God’s revealed truth, for theological liberals, is as natural as breathing.

  2. Jeffrey Parker says

    An interesting juxtaposition, these:

    “…by the 2028 General Conference, if not 2024, the church will be thoroughly progressive and change its language on inclusion from “may” to “shall.” Churches will be forced to welcome gay weddings and clergy will be required to officiate gay weddings.”
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    “…Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man… wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: … For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.”
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    “Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision: for the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision.”

    As for me and my house, we shall serve the LORD.

    Blessings
    Jeff

    • Robert A Combes says

      and as I re-read this morning in Genesis, The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.

  3. Brenda Ellis says

    The Progressives should form a new church that adheres to whatever rules they choose to formulate to suit their sensibilities. Traditional Methodists should retain the Book of Discipline and the Wesleyan teachings and traditions. The traditionalists are not trying to break from the Methodist heritage; therefore, traditionalists should retain the traditional Methodist Church. New beliefs lead to new church.

    • One of the strangest negotiated deals of all times is unfolding. The existing organization (UMC) that recently passed new rules (Traditional Plan) to follow has turned around and negotiated a deal for a new break away organization (Traditional Methodist Denomination) to carry these rules out. This existing organization (post-separation UMC) will then convene a meeting and repeal these recently passed rules while pretending to be the same organization that passed them in the first place.

  4. John Cobil says

    “a thoroughly progressive Wesleyan movement”

    There’s a term I never expected to see. Wonder how that would fit into Wesley’s idea of holiness? Kinda like a thoroughly feline dog.

    Regardless, I think the best traditionalists can hope for is a chance to get out with our church property. We can keep arguing that we are the majority and should end up with the barrel but with no mechanism to get the bad apples out of it what’s the point?

  5. Either way… I have no more NRG for bureaucratic haggling and traditional denominational churches…. if we spent just as much time on sharing the good news and preparing others to receive Jesus Christ not only during this Lenten season perhaps we could collectively reign in the great power of the Triune God to save and show mercy for everyone on this Earth as he did in the greatest event of all World History at Nineveh ( current day Misoul Iraq) to work his way through our leaders, our scientific researchers, are Public Health point persons, and all of us as Disciples of Christ… so that we don’t miss this great opportunity to repent, prepare our hearts, and to receive Christ to change the trajectory of this World. Thank you.

    HOW? https.findingmyhope.org

    Why? https://youtu.be/v9XyAMnSh6g

  6. Gary Bebop says

    When will aggrieved and peeved traditionalists begin to refocus on the critical matter of what will sustain a new Methodist denomination amid a wilderness of uncertainties? Thrashing the progressives in one-more-lambaste won’t save souls and won’t raise money.

    • But, the biggest obstacle to bringing the message of the newly emerging traditional Methodist denomination in order to bring forth the Gospel once more for the saving of souls and a means of paying for it is the entrenched progressive UMC bureaucracy. They are already underway with a grand plan of deception, subterfuge, manipulation, propagandizing, and what ever else it will take to hold onto as many traditionalists and their money as possible. They are already out with the message that the post-separation UMC will be a place for traditionalists, centrists, and progressives, while portraying those leaving the denomination as some sort of illegitimate band of fringe, fake Methodists contaminating the existing church. The incredibly preposterous, outrageous, and horrendous ends they will use to deceive has no bounds. Those forming the new traditional Methodist denomination are up against some mighty steep odds in getting their message out and down to the laity, which I’m sure they’re discovering anew daily.

      • IN ADDITION — this is direct evidence of the GREAT DECEPTION already underway by progressives. If what the bishop is saying (below) is true — then why would she be supporting the Protocol Separation Plan. Who does she think is separating? Did the past 48 years of conflict never happen? If there will be a place for ALL in this post-separation UMC, then why has a separation plan been negotiated in the first place? A separation plan has been negotiated with the result being that ALL will be welcome in the PSUMC and suddenly start getting along? If ALL will be this restructured PSUMC, then who will be leaving?

        In 3/2/2020
        On Sunday afternoon a capacity crowd filled the modern worship space and an overflow room at Hillside UMC for the first of Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson’s Town Hall meetings.

        In a warm, personal conversation, Bishop Sue shared some of her faith journey, she discussed the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace legislation that is before the 2020 General Conference, and she offered assurance that there is a place for each of us in The United Methodist Church now and in the future. She made it clear that she would not ask a pastor or congregation to violate their conscience around matters of human sexuality.

        • Gary Bebop says

          It’s too late for the progressive sect to recapture disaffected traditionalists. The harangues and the lectures will go on unabated, but we are unmoved. Don’t be a redundant alarmist. I dwell amid the screech owls and mocking hyenas of an outlandish progressive stronghold. Everything is upsidedown here, but traditionalists are quietly rallying their numbers. Go and do thou likewise.

    • Michael McInnis says

      They have, Gary. It’s called the WCA, and it has been “methodically” working toward a new future for several years in response to the chronic movement of our denomination in a more and more liberal progressive direction.

  7. w.f. meiklejohn says

    Thought provoking opinions raising many serious concerns about proof! E.g “The result of this departure of laity and clergy in the U.S. means that by the 2028 General Conference, if not 2024, the church will be thoroughly progressive and change its language on inclusion from “may” to “shall.” Churches will be forced to welcome gay weddings and clergy will be required to officiate gay weddings” AND YOU KNOW THIS FOR A FACT AND HAVE PROOF OF IT? That is one person’s opinion meant to foster further division and fear!
    “Missionally minded young traditionalist clergy, seminarians, future seminarians, and laity will embrace this new movement in droves over time.” Again one person’s opinion, which is entitled under freedom of speech, but without proof.
    “The church will not be a big tent and there will be no room for traditionalists, and little room for centrists by 2028. Again, opinion not proof.
    ” Keeping these institutions connected to the PSUMC, institutions with billions of dollar in assets, is well worth the relatively small payment of $25 million the denomination will give to a new traditionalist movement.” Putting a dollar figure on ‘making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world’ is offensive. Why is anyone being paid to stop abusing all of the innocent pawns caught in the middle of this debacle?

  8. The fact that progressives seem to be OK with the deal while traditionalists are still criticizing it is indicative of the misgivings traditionalists have with the protocol.
    “First, the protocol satisfies traditionalists’ core desire, namely the freedom to connect as a movement with other Methodist communities of like mind on human sexuality.”
    I have never seen that expressed as a core desire of traditionalists. If anything, the core desire was to keep The UMC from going over the edge into liberalism.
    “Missionally minded young traditionalist clergy, seminarians, future seminarians, and laity will embrace this new movement in droves over time.”
    Maybe and maybe not. What schools will these young seminarians be attending? Our seminaries are part of the problem.
    “Second, the Protocol allows traditionalist congregations to leave without an “exit fee” of one or two years of apportionments that previous plans have mandated. This is a major concession by progressives and would result in traditionalist congregations saving tens of millions of dollars, thereby removing a tremendous barrier for departing congregations”
    This was no concession at all. The departing congregations will be leaving with their share of the unfunded pension plans so from a progressive point of view it is a wash.
    “The reality is that while traditionalists have prevailed in the global conversation on human sexuality, they have lost it in the United States and have little hope of regaining the majority in the U.S. for a generation if not longer”
    We do not need a majority in the U.S. because we are a global organization. This simply takes the view that the American branch of The UMC is the only one that matters. The author completely dismisses the views of Methodists in other countries. This looks like one of those examples of “colonialism” we sometimes hear about.
    “There simply is no mechanism whereby traditionalists can “fix” a structure that permits disobedient bishops, Boards of Ordained Ministry, and clergy. The structure will allow ecclesial disobedience for decades to come and there is nothing traditionalists can do about it”
    This is defeatism and is hardly a good start for a new denomination.
    “Traditionalists today would be wise to embrace the Protocol, despite its deficiencies, and work to create a new vision of Methodism in a new denomination”
    Sounds great from a top down perspective but looking at it from the bottom up not so much. The problem is that we have traditionalists who will be trapped in progressive conferences all across the country with nowhere to go. Even a church that is 80/20 traditionalist will be reluctant to vote to leave and if it does the loss of members could be the death knell for that church. What we will see instead are members leaving The UMC and they will not be joining any new denomination. They will simply leave.
    Maybe the wise decision is to walk away and join an independent church avoiding the fight entirely.

    • Gary Bebop says

      Perhaps you have high risk aversion and need to walk away from the conversation. But many traditionalists love a good fight. Does that surprise you? We love the “good fight,” the one scripture speaks of and calls us to engage.

    • John Cobil says

      ” Even a church that is 80/20 traditionalist will be reluctant to vote to leave and if it does the loss of members could be the death knell for that church. What we will see instead are members leaving The UMC and they will not be joining any new denomination. They will simply leave.”

      This is what is happening now, and has been for several years. People who believe in traditional scriptural interpretations are leaving a denomination that ordinates gay bishops and performs gay marriages. Progressives are leaving a denomination that has a book of discipline that calls homosexuality a sin. The status quo isn’t working.

  9. Our congregation is a mix of traditional and “centrist/progressives”. I can’t assess the numbers.
    Our pastor is telling us to relax and wait because we have four years to see what else comes down the line before we NEED to decide. He is trying to appease everyone on an issue that’s been divisive for decades.
    Many of us feel we can’t wait but it’s so hard to walk away from our church family. We have been members for 25 years
    If we wait I believe we will lose many more members because we can’t define who we are. How do we organize the traditional members when our pastoral staff is centrist?

    • Now you understand why the progressives insisted upon remaining in The UMC as the default position. The institutional bureaucracy is aligned against the traditionalists. Our protocol negotiators should never have agreed to this.

      • Gary Bebop says

        It’s not helpful to tell a grieving church member what should have been done by this or that authority. All eyes are now on GC2020. Backseat drivers need not apply. Phony seers will be exposed. Get ready to see an astonishing denouement.

        • your so called authorities are simply an ad hoc group who crafted a plan that can be amended on the floor of GC if it gets that far. People need to understand that the protocol is a proposal not a done deal. I think it is very helpful to point out that we are being sold a lemon by some used car salesmen.

          • Gary Bebop says

            Who are you trying to persuade at this point? The delegates (who have a vote) aren’t taking cues from the comment section.

  10. The signers of the protocol constituted no authority, either this or that. Just an ad hoc group offering their own collective solution.

    • Gary Bebop says

      It’s misleading to diminish the Protocol as mere “ad hoc” advocacy when the Protocol has received spectacularly diverse endorsements from around the globe (including full African support). The time has passed for unnuanced criticisms of the Protocol.

      • On what basis can we say it has full African support? No one knows how the African delegates will vote

        • Basis for full African support are near-unanimous votes of Liberian, Sierra Leonean, and UMC Africa conferences for separation. They also will seek more money, have a concern for continued use of the name and insignia, and want the default to be leave the current UMC bureaucracy instead of stay. They say they are already traditionalists in this divide and also certain unscriptural viewpoints are being forced upon them. They want nothing to do with the church that won’t enforce the current book of discipline that they have always voted for and enforced.

          • So they don’t support the protocol. If they are asking for modifications that kills the protocol which we are told must be passed as is. The default was key in getting progressive support. Switch the default and all bets are off. Personally I would like to see that happen.

  11. Judith Wolfgang says

    It is my prayerful opinion that the Traditionists ought not
    be the ones that leave the church. Our stand is Biblical in
    scriptures in both the Old and New Testaments. Our stand is also based on the present Book of Discipline. Why are we
    the ones that are being asked to leave the United Methodist
    Church? We are not the people that are causing it to be untied.

    • John Cobil says

      Judith, you are correct in everything you wrote. Your opinion is shared by many. However, what “ought” to be is not what “can” happen. Traditionalists will not let the Book of Discipline be changed and progressives will not let it be enforced. We have been having the same conversation about what “ought” to be over and over. If we get caught up in it again in May, then we stay at each others’ throats, cripple our true mission, and keep losing members for at least four more years.

  12. Judith,
    I’ve been frustratingly pleading that case for years. The Bible, where’s the Bible in this argument? Has it been lost? Did Satan confiscate it? Has it been banned? Did General Conference vote it as inadmissible evidence? Where’s the BIBLE? Does the Methodist Church still use the Bible to settle questions? What happened to the Bible in the UMC?

    • Or more to the point- why is God avoided in the UMC?

    • Honestly, progressive seminaries and those educated there are going to say you’re too uneducated to understand what the Bible really says. I hear that all the time. True, I can’t read ancient Hebrew or Greek, but they’re claiming to be wise and I think the rest of the verse is accurately translated, and indeed that entire chapter that is problematic for them.

  13. In our increasingly secular society, it is important that a church has internal discipline, a clear message/mission. Building a denomination that delivers on making disciples for Christ is no simple task. I pray that God will have mercy on us and not leave us to our on folly.

    • Hi brothers. I am not from UMC but have many friends within it. I find this single comment to be the most insightful of all posted (an opinion, just as Jack gave his opinion). I also pray God give you all mercy, grant you serenity and lead you to wisdom. (I often wish He would simply give me wisdom but often it is a journey.) The above leads me to 2 questions: As society becomes more secular, does her message/mission change? And is building a denomination a secular or holy activity- or both? Blessings & Love…

  14. Is there a way to judicially and systematically enforce the BOD policies as they now stand? If there is none then there really is no correction way forward. Then it would seem the protocol is the only way forward. Am I seeing this correctly?

  15. The real question is…should Christians support the protocol?

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