Who Opposes Separation?

Members of the diverse group of bishops and other United Methodist leaders who reached agreement on a proposal that would oversee the seperation of The United Methodist Church and allow traditionalist congregations to separate into a new denomination.
​​Photo courtesy of the Mediation Team.

By Thomas Lambrecht –

As the resolutions passed by annual conferences indicate, many United Methodist leaders have come to endorse the concept of separation as the best way to resolve the decades-long theological conflict within United Methodism.

While reluctant to support separation, these leaders have become convinced that separation offers the best opportunity to end the divisive conflict in our church and allow two or three new denominations (including the post-separation United Methodist Church) to start fresh in pursuing their God-given mission, as each understands it.

While it appears that a majority of United Methodist leaders at this point supports separation, there are a number of church leaders who still oppose it. So far, that opposition has not been an organized effort, but more the opinions and influence of individual leaders. Leaders opposed to separation generally fall into one of two camps: those who are hopeful opponents and those who are principled opponents.

Hopeful Opponents

Hopeful opponents might be described as those whose reluctance to support separation has not yet been overcome by reality. They hold out the hope that something has changed since the February 2019 General Conference that will enable The United Methodist Church to continue living and working together as one church.

These hopeful opponents often point to the Pandemic and claim that our church’s response to the Pandemic shows that we are better together and can continue to do ministry together, despite our differences. The more “charismatic” among these opponents might even say that the postponement of General Conference from 2020, when it seemed the Protocol was sure to be adopted, was a sign from God that we should reconsider and not endorse separation.

It is true that the Pandemic has pushed many other church priorities aside. Church leaders and local churches have rightly focused on how to adapt ministry to this new situation. For many churches, this has become a threat to their survival. From what I am hearing, churches that were thriving before the Pandemic were generally able to thrive during the Pandemic. For churches that were in decline before the Pandemic, the crisis has often worsened their situation in terms of membership and finances.

In all of this, however, nothing has really changed regarding our denominational conflict. The deep theological differences remain. The Pandemic may have camouflaged those differences a bit, but as the situation eases, the conflict is coming back into focus.

Since the introduction of the Protocol in January 2020, traditionalists have scrupulously avoided filing complaints over pastors who perform same-sex weddings or non-celibate gays and lesbians ordained as clergy. We have sought to maintain a truce in the conflict, as we await the opportunity to move forward in a healthier direction following the 2022 General Conference. But the existence of a truce does not mean that the conflict has ended or been resolved. If the truce were ended by a failure of the Protocol, the conflict would return full-bore, and we would be back in the same situation we experienced in 2019.

The hopeful opponents should recognize that hope is not a strategy. Yes, God could do a miracle. In this case, the miracle would be to convince one side or the other to surrender their position entirely. Liberals would need to feel comfortable in a denomination that stands for what they consider to be unjust treatment of LGBTQ persons. Or traditionalists would need to become convinced that Scriptural teaching on marriage and sexual ethics does not rise to the level of essential doctrine.

It is time for the hopeful opponents to recognize that the kind of shift that would be necessary by one side or the other is highly unlikely. Absent the direct intervention of God in the situation, the reality is that the conflict will continue unresolved, apart from separation. Rather than continuing to equivocate in the hope that “something will happen” to make separation unnecessary, true leadership is to face an unpleasant reality and prepare for it in advance. Hopeful opponents can prepare for the worst, even as they continue to hope for a miracle. Preparing for the worst, while hoping for the best, is an effective leadership strategy. The hopeful opponents should adopt it.

Principled Opponents

Another group of opponents might be classified more as principled opponents of separation. This is not to imply that hopeful opponents do not have a principled objection to separation. Rather, it is to focus on the attitude of principled opponents that they will refuse under any conditions to endorse separation. It might be expressed as: separation will happen “over my dead body.”

Some of these principled opponents believe that any kind of institutional separation of the church is wrong and sinful under any circumstances. As I expressed in an earlier blog , those opponents have to wrestle with the fact that institutional separation has been part of the Protestant DNA in general for 500 years, and specifically part of our Wesleyan DNA ever since our movement was founded. To maintain this principled position is to equate “church” with the institution/denomination. By contrast, Wesley’s understanding of “church” was the gathering of faithful people, under whatever denominational banner, growing into the likeness of Jesus Christ. There can be the unity of love and cooperation among “faithful people” across denominational lines, while still respecting institutional differences.

The unity of the church cannot be equated with having one and only one institutional expression. That would be to make the institution of the church into an idol. Institutional preservation can then take priority over gospel faithfulness, leading to an ineffective or disintegrating institutional expression of the church. Interestingly, many liberals have consistently stated their preference for a smaller church that could be more effective in promoting their vision of social justice. However, when presented with that opportunity, some liberals who are principled opponents of separation revert to institutional preservation at all costs.

For some principled opponents, it really does boil down to institutional preservation. They cannot imagine a denomination different from the one we have (with a few minor tweaks). Unfortunately, the current institutional expression of United Methodism is dying. Membership and attendance are declining rapidly. Financial support for the denomination is crumbling.

United Methodism, with or without traditionalists, needs to be reborn into something new. Only a reborn United Methodism will be able to effectively reach new generations with the love of Christ. Clinging to the old institutional expression of United Methodism, and clinging to one’s own position and power within that institution, is a recipe for hastening the demise of the denomination. It would truly be a Pyrrhic victory to maintain some semblance of institutional unity in United Methodism, only to see the denomination collapse in ineffectiveness over the next 20 years.

What strikes the observer is the apparent elitist attitude of some principled opponents. They come across as if they alone know what is best for the church, and they are determined to engineer that outcome. Despite what the rest of the church – even a majority of the church – thinks and decides, these principled opponents seem determined to resist separation every step of the way.

Such an approach would result in the widespread attempted coercion of churches, as if United Methodist members have no choice but to remain in their congregations, regardless of what General Conference decides. These principled opponents seem to think they can force congregations and individual members to stay in the UM Church and continue their financial and participatory support, regardless of the situation. They will be cruelly disillusioned, left with a denomination that is a shadow of its former self, even if they would get to keep all the empty buildings to sell in order to keep the denominational machinery running.

What Is the Alternative?

Whether hopeful or principled, opponents of separation need to keep in mind the alternative. If the Protocol were to fail and separation not take place, the denomination would return to the level of conflict seen during and after the 2019 General Conference. Complaints would be filed against clergy who perform same-sex weddings and against non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy. Lawsuits over church property would tie up dozens of U.S. annual conferences.

Recent conflicts over pastoral appointments in North Georgia, Greater New Jersey, and California-Pacific point to the depth of frustration and anger laity are experiencing. Those conflicts generated unprecedented public demonstrations against a bishop and public confrontation of a bishop via newspaper ad. In a denomination where separation is defeated, this level of conflict would spread and grow throughout the U.S. and touch annual conferences overseas, as well, even as current overseas conflicts indicate.

If principled opponents truly wanted to avoid separation at all costs, they would promote and defend the teachings of the UM Church, which have been affirmed and strengthened at every General Conference since 1972. Our leaders, and particularly many of our bishops, have failed to promote and defend the church’s teachings, which has led to the divided state we are in today. But even this attempt to preserve institutional unity would fail because so many of our U.S. clergy and members are unwilling to subscribe to the decisions of the General Conference.

The inescapable conclusion is that our church is irretrievably broken. All attempts to put Humpty Dumpty back together again are doomed to failure. It is likely that separation will happen, one way or another. It can happen in an orderly and relatively amicable way via the Protocol, or it can happen in a chaotic, costly, and vitriolic way. Opponents of separation are urged to rethink their position in light of this reality. Attempting to preserve our church’s institutional unity at the expense of a winsome gospel witness by our church would be a losing bargain.

 

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

Comments

  1. Erin Grimm says

    This was a mature and fabulous take on the situation. I’ll add another reason for graceful separation: the world is watching and how you act is your witness. The liberals are doing the witness for their integrity and will attract liberals who desperately need Christ and LGBTQ folks who genuinely deserve to feel fully respected and included. The traditionalists will be able to attract more traditionalist believers and people in recovery who need a lot of structure. Or who just read the Bible in a way that makes traditionalist takes the obvious choice. Missionally speaking a broken church can’t heal the world or even its own people it’s called to witness to. I just read a very liberal UM book from 2014 and the absolute hate against traditionalists was shocking. Their witness is damaged on the one hand, but on the other hand think of all the jaded former Christians who could be brought into the fold by this abrasive stance. Similarly, think of conservatives of other religions who could be swayed by traditionalists to become respectable god fearing Christians with stricter rule of life and gratitude for the law and the spirit that helps its followers bear fruit?

  2. robert denney says

    I particularly liked the part which read:

    “Liberals would need to feel comfortable in a denomination that stands for what they consider to be unjust treatment of LGBTQ persons. Or traditionalists would need to become convinced that Scriptural teaching on marriage and sexual ethics does not rise to the level of essential doctrine.”

    This, of course, is a rhetorical “not going to happen.”

  3. David Livingston says

    There is nothing more than a handful of individuals who oppose separation at this point. The only question is the right way for it to happen. The large majority of progressives support the Protocol as long as it is clear that regionalization will happen at the same time.

    On another subject you raised, when can I expect a response to the outrageous abuse of authority by Bishop Yohanna in Nigeria? Or an acknowledgement of of concern about Bishop Webb’s appointments? Or are you only concerned about overreach from those who you oppose theologically?

    • Hello, David. Thank you for your thoughts.

      Regarding the situation in Nigeria, my understanding from people on the ground and from secular news reporting is that Bishop Yohanna did not precipitate the involvement of legal authorities in dealing with Ande Emmanuel and his colleagues. Emmanuel made the mistake of breaking the law by photographing secure areas in an attempt to garner sympathy for being brought in for questioning regarding threats he had made. Yes, it is regrettable that civil authorities got involved. That was not due to any action by Bishop Yohanna, as far as I can determine. According to the news reports, Yohanna asked that the people be released from custody and that the dispute be resolved internally to the church.

      I am not aware of a concern about Bishop Webb’s appointments. Please share that information with me.

      We are concerned that licensed local pastors are being summarily fired in some annual conferences due to their willingness to try to keep their churches informed about the Protocol and options under separation. If those licensed local pastors indicate they may go with the new Global Methodist Church, they are being discontinued. Unfortunately, there is a fair amount of jockeying for power ahead of the General Conference, and we have advocated for it to stop — on both sides.

      In Christ,
      Tom Lambrecht

  4. Tondra L Bolinger says

    While I can see that the United Methodist Church as we know it may need to separate into a more liberal group and a traditional group, what I don’t understand is that the group that wants to stay with the traditional doctrine would be the one to splinter off. Surely, the more liberal group is the one that is reinterpreting scripture to fit our culture.

    • Thank you for your question, Tondra. I have written about this question here: http://tomlambrecht.goodnewsmag.org/are-traditionalists-leaving-the-united-methodist-church/ and also http://tomlambrecht.goodnewsmag.org/a-fresh-start/. I’ve also mentioned it in some of my other writing. Bottom line, it would take more to return the UM Church as a denomination to faithfulness than we would be able to invest. It will be much easier and more fruitful to start fresh.
      In Christ,
      Tom Lambrecht

    • The progressive leadership of the UMC has built a large and top heavy organization with excessive overhead. As I understand what the folks from both Good News and WCA have proposed, is to establish a traditional and scripturally sound church, with much less overhead and leaving far more resources for work in the local community. Maybe Rev. Lambrecht can clarify any misunderstanding on my part, by I am all for local congregations being ‘taxed’ so much for overhead and having more of their annual budget available to support local outreach to their communities. The church needs to get outside of their own 4 walls and do more in the community to reach those that have left the church, or have never been in a. church. Can’t remember which article I read it in, but it quoted some younger folks stating, and I am paraphrasing a bit, ‘church doesn’t need to be like society, it should be a little weird’.

  5. Charles Lummus says

    “Institutional integrity” is a humanist concept which breeds the exact opposite result– that is, “institutional disintegration,” a result that is obviously well underway. The only alternative is to drop our individually humanist inhibitions and resort to our foundational principal…Love!

  6. Gary Bebop says

    Thanks, Tom, for patiently enduring. You have that very rare gift of taming your critics and confounding your adversaries even as you keenly clarify and narrate the birthing of this new orthodox and Spirit-filled global Methodism. The correction of false reports (though a humble scullery task) is crucial to passing of the Protocol.

  7. I think it boils down to money. Traditionalists contribute more than Progressives. A progressive church might lose 30% of its members in a split but that would likely equate to 50% of its income. Multiply that across The UMC and you can see the problem. This is one reason the Traditionalists are OK with a split because it would be self-sustaining on their end. It is also the reason the Progressives fear a split. There will be a lot of churches closing and leftist pastors looking for work. Difficult to quantify at this point but some extrapolations can be made from the separations that have occurred so far.
    Knowing this we can look forward to Bishops trying to liquidate assets especially those of conservative churches before the protocol allows them to leave intact. This can be done by assigning progressive pastors to traditional churches driving members out the door. The now insolvent church can be closed and assets sold off. The longer the delay before the protocol is approved the more opportunities the bishops have to sell off the real estate and scoop up trust funds.
    Since the protocol will not be up for a vote before next GC in 2024 that gives our bishops plenty of time to work the system.

  8. Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth says

    Rev. Lambrecht, your commentary always instructs.
    “Who Opposes Separation?” (June 24) I, for one, do.
    Over the last several years, for obvious reasons, we United Methodists have begun to prefer the discussion of organizational possibilities over the declaration of Biblical-doctrinal truths. Busy talking about charts and probabilities, we have neglected the “one thing [that] is needful” (Luke 10:42a, RSV). Have we lost the ability to ask and answer, What is the word of God for The United Methodist Church? In contrast to us, the church’s constitution and doctrine address not only organizational topics but also the word of God.
    So, what exactly is the word of God for The United Methodist Church today? General Conference 2022 will decide. It will formulate — through discussion, debate, and decision-making — the church’s response. All proposals forwarded to General Conference (including the Protocol legislation), and commentaries on those proposals, contribute to this denomination-wide effort at Christian conferencing in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God that no one in, and no group or institution within, United Methodism “controls” the church. In humility and hope, delegates will gather at the next General Conference to discern the word of God for the people of God.
    Rev. Lambrecht rightly declares: “the hopeful opponents [of separation] should recognize that hope is not a strategy [for resolving the church’s predicament].” Nor is an organizational-political plan the only available “strategy.” Another “strategy,” for United Methodists, could be trusting and obeying the word of God. Such obedience would mean practicing unity in Jesus Christ (which involves sacrificial love, not dead institutionalism) and reforming the church through God’s word (not through another razzle-dazzle program).
    Rev. Lambrecht claims: “United Methodism, with or without traditionalists, needs to be reborn into something new.” Amen. The United Methodist Church cannot go on as is — in chaos, with clergy and laity saying and doing whatever is right in their own eyes. Could this signal the rebirth: The United Methodist Church gratefully declines the Protocol, unifies in Jesus Christ, and welcomes the word of God to reform its faith and life? Key words: unity and reformation in the word.

    • Unfortunately, I don’t see the progressive wing of the UMC turning away from their embrace of progressive social agendas to return to a more traditional understanding of scripture. The wishful side hopes I am wrong, the practical side can’t see that happening.

  9. Traditionalist were wrong to remain silent while liberals in the denomination violated church law. This is tantamount to being in agreement with their sin. I meet with dozens of former United Methodist who have left the denomination over past two years regularly. All believe they have been failed not only by progressive liberals but by traditionalist that seemingly have given up.

  10. Michael Daniel says

    Speaking (writing) as a licensed local pastor, I have more questions than there are answers. The Global MC has not exactly assured me a place, and the UMC has not exactly affirmed that my conscience will be respected (I will not perform gay weddings). Yet I am not all in on separation, perhaps because I’m nearer to the end than to the beginning (I’m 63 this year). Though I never quite envisioned retirement (I absolutely love what I do), that may be my only option.

    There is one other sticking point: what “resolution” will be accomplished by separation? The issue itself will not be resolved. As I have stated before, those who deliberately undermine the witness of the Church are like the biblical “locusts”, intending only to devour and destroy. Once that “crop” is gone, they move to the next. I have yet to be fully assured the same thing won’t happen to every other “connectional” denomination. To simply say, “It just won’t” is hardly an assurance.

    My 2 cents, anyway

    • Thank you for your thoughts, Daniel. If you subscribe to the doctrinal and ethical statements of the new Global Methodist Church, you would be welcomed in ministry there, not just as a licensed local pastor, but as an ordained deacon or elder (depending upon your education level). There will be a place for you to serve!

      The resolution to be accomplished by separation is the end of the conflict. The PSUMC will affirm same-sex marriage and the ordination of partnered gays and lesbians. The GMC will not. Those who join the GMC will have to agree with and affirm its stance. Thus, the conflict in the GMC will be ended, and we will be able to focus on building a scripturally faithful, strong, and effective ministry.

      In Christ,
      Tom Lambrecht

  11. Stephen Rogers says

    The Methodist Church in the UK seems to have managed to overcome the difficulties of the questions around Human Sexuality without dividing. We gotta wonder why we cannot do the same in a denomination formed from the same Wesleyan foundation.

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