Separation and Self-Determination

Faced with glitches in the electronic voting system, delegates use colored cards to vote on May 16 at the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

By Thomas Lambrecht –

One of the values promoted by U.S. foreign policy over the years (and imperfectly adhered to) is the value of self-determination. This is the idea that people ought to be able to determine for themselves their own government and national policies, rather than having them imposed on them by a coercive government or dictator.

The value of self-determination ought to apply in religious contexts, as well. A recent statement by some African UM bishops proposed, “Let’s make our own choices.” In the statement, the bishops lamented a situation in the church where they feel they are helpless observers, rather than participants in choosing their own future and the future of their annual conferences.

The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation proposed for the 2020 (now 2021) General Conference highlights self-determination as one of its hallmarks. It aims to provide the opportunity for all parts of the church, including individual members, clergy, and bishops, to make choices that will define their own future with Methodism.

Today’s Lack of Self-Determination

The Protocol for Separation came about because many persons in the church currently feel they lack the ability to choose their preferred future for the church.

  • Progressives and many centrists want the church to allow same-sex weddings and affirm the ordination of practicing LGBT persons. The church at large, through 50 years of General Conferences, has maintained a more traditional position.
  • Most conservatives want the church to affirm what they believe to be the biblical understanding of marriage and human sexuality, as the Book of Discipline currently states. Many U.S. bishops and clergy, however, do not affirm the teachings of the Discipline in this regard.
  • The bishops of Africa have repeatedly stated that they want the church to stay united and at the same time remain committed to the current teaching of the Discipline. Given the refusal of many U.S. annual conferences to adhere to the church’s standards, that option is not possible.

Under the current circumstances in the UM Church, many parts of the church are frustrated at their inability to have the church they want to have.

My colleague Rob Renfroe likens our situation to the church being engaged in a cage match, where fighters are locked in a cage and required to fight until one of them is victorious. But because of how the church is structured, no side in the fight is able to win a victory. So, we are locked in perpetual combat with no end in sight.

For years, Good News has asked, “Can we unlock the door to the cage match and end the fighting in our church?” Conversations at the 2016 General Conference were an attempt to do that. The resulting church Commission was unable to bring a solution that ended the fighting, only perpetuated it. The Protocol is the first legitimate proposal that could unlock the door and end the fighting.

Two factors have kept the door of the cage locked. First, the trust clause prevents local churches from easily choosing to exit from the denomination in order to find a ministry context that is amenable to their beliefs. Second, church leaders have in the past valued structural unity over resolving our theological impasse.

The Protocol unlocks the door by providing a mechanism to release the trust clause and allow annual conferences and local churches to make choices about their future unhindered by an unrealistic financial penalty. The Protocol also unlocks the door by representing an acknowledgement by church leaders across the theological spectrum that the kind of unity the church currently has is not working. While structurally part of the same denomination, our vast differences of belief and vision lead to endless conflict that causes pain on all sides and detracts from our church’s ability to successfully pursue our God-given mission.

Self-Determination under the Protocol

The Protocol provides a process that enables parts of the church at all levels to make choices about their future. A new Methodist denomination that affirms a theologically conservative view of Methodist doctrine, including marriage and sexuality, will be formed under the Protocol. Other groups of United Methodists are empowered by the Protocol to form a denomination in line with their beliefs. Any group could do so, including those seeking a liberationist Methodist church or those seeking a different form of centrist understanding. Even a second traditional denomination could be formed. The possibility is there for any group to form a new thing if they are willing to do the work.

Central conferences (with all their annual conferences) are allowed by a two-thirds vote to choose to separate from the UM Church and align with a new Methodist denomination. Annual conferences (with all their local churches) are allowed by a 57 percent vote to choose to separate from the UM Church and align with a new Methodist denomination, or to align with a different Methodist denomination than their central conference. Local churches are allowed by either a simple majority or a two-thirds vote (as determined by the church council) to choose to align with a different Methodist denomination than their annual conference. Every level of the church has the opportunity for self-determination. (Jurisdictions will not vote.)

On an individual level, bishops can choose to transfer from the UM Church to a new Methodist denomination, regardless of what their annual conference decides. Clergy can choose to transfer from the UM Church to a new Methodist denomination, regardless of what their local church decides. Individual members can exercise self-determination through their local church’s decision. If they disagree with the decision of their local church, they will need to decide whether to remain with that local church anyway or seek out another local church more in line with their beliefs. The new traditionalist Methodist church will seek to support groups of members who do not have a traditional congregation available to them to start a new church where feasible.

The Unique Possibilities in the Central Conferences

The statement coming from some of the African bishops laments the fact that some are uncomfortable remaining in the UM Church after separation, but also unwilling to align with a new traditionalist Methodist denomination. Other options are available for United Methodists in the central conferences, which are outside the United States.

If other new denominations are formed in addition to a traditionalist one, central conference Methodists could consider aligning with one of them.

Alternatively, a central conference could form an autonomous Methodist church, which would essentially be its own new denomination. Instead of being formed based on theology, the autonomous Methodist church could be formed geographically. For example, a United Methodist Church of Africa could form as an autonomous church under its own governance and Book of Discipline. It could choose to work cooperatively with any or all of the other denominations forming out of the Protocol process, including the continuing United Methodist Church. Such a process is available now in our United Methodist Discipline (¶ 572), but it is a 4- to 8-year process. Under the Protocol, that process could be shortened to less than two years and would be far less bureaucratic.

Local churches in the U.S. or elsewhere might not want to align with any of the denominations coming out of the Protocol. They could decide to join an already existing denomination, such as the Wesleyan Church. (One large congregation in the Texas Annual Conference has recently joined the Free Methodist Church.) Or the local church could choose to become an independent congregation under ¶ 2553 adopted by the 2019 General Conference. The disadvantage to this last choice is the need to pay upfront pension obligations and an extra year of apportionments, but that choice is still available to congregations. More than a dozen congregations across the theological spectrum in the U.S. have taken that route over the last year.

The bottom line in this discussion is to understand that under the Protocol all parties have the maximum self-determination possible. It provides the opportunity to unlock the cage door and end the fighting in our church. It allows each group to form itself and move forward in a way conducive to its unique beliefs and mission.

The Protocol offers the best opportunity for our church to focus on effective ministry undistracted by internecine conflict. It offers the maximum freedom for each individual and church unit to choose its preferred future.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. 

Comments

  1. For years we have seen The UMC head down the progressive path and we stood by and watched it happen. Most of us traditionalists could only shake our heads in disbelief as same sex marriages were conducted, gay pastors were ordained and Annual Conferences were passing progressive resolutions. The few times that actual charges were filed turned into a public circus and traditionalists threw up their hands and quit going down that path. Too nasty or unloving was the excuse. That was a tactical mistake. The pressure needed to be applied and maintained. The Western Jurisdiction ordained a lesbian bishop and we let that slide. As a refugee from the Episcopal Church I could see The UMC future. Put facts on the ground and ignore the rules until there are so many violations no one would be able to turn the clock back. The traditionalists tried and passed the Traditionalist Plan at Special General Conference. And then they were surprised that many were going to fight it or ignore it. Having won that legislative victory the traditionalists again refused to fight to keep it and declared it to be a strategic defeat. I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me.
    “My colleague Rob Renfroe likens our situation to the church being engaged in a cage match, where fighters are locked in a cage and required to fight until one of them is victorious.” Maybe but one fighter is still fighting viciously using every little dirty trick while the other keeps whining to the referee that the rules are not being followed. More like a wrestling match where the referee is distracted and one wrestler hits the other with a chair.
    So now we have a new plan that will allow traditionalist churches to exit. Fat chance. Institutional inertia will keep almost all of the American conferences within The UMC. That same inertia will also keep most churches within their Annual conferences. Even if they vote to leave the loss of members after such a divisive vote will likely kill the church, especially now that the COVID 19 restrictions have reduced attendance and income. The locals well understand this and will be unlikely to even take a vote. Just keep on muddling through.
    Pushing the Protocol is proving difficult since The UMC cannot even hold a General Conference. The traditionalists behind this doomed plan seem intent upon keeping The UMC institution or one like it going. It is like hanging on to vapors. If a local church wants to leave they should do so now and dare the Annual Conference to take them to court. Given the weakened state of annual conference budgets it should not be too difficult to reach a deal. The COVID 19 situation should be seen as an opportunity. Take it. Waiting until a protocol passes next year or the year after will simply be waiting for a slow death. More gay pastors will be ordained and then sent to traditionalist churches. Traditionalist pastors will be sent to backwater churches or pressured to retire. It won’t take long before the purge is complete. The disillusioned will have walked away by then and will have no interest in joining any new organization.

    • JESUS SAID:
      “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

      ————————————————————————————-

      No doubt at all — the gates of Hell, in the first quarter of this 21st century, are working overtime to “overcome it”, especially in America. As for our denomination, those working on the inside have joined up with secular forces to overcome orthodox Wesleyan Christianity. At this juncture in the United Methodist Church, our only hope is with the new emerging traditional Wesleyan Methodist denomination (actually, a continuation and revitalization of the original Methodist movement). And no, the gates of Hades will not prevail, thank God.

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