By Thomas Lambrecht
It is hard to wrap our minds around how things have changed in The United Methodist Church over the past year.
Last January, we were looking forward to a General Conference meeting in August 2022. The Protocol of Grace and Reconciliation through Separation was on track to be adopted and provide an amicable and uniform way for congregations to separate from the denomination in order to join a new Methodist entity (for traditionalists, the Global Methodist Church – GMC). The value of the Protocol was that it allowed annual conferences to separate, negating the need for hundreds of local church votes that could be divisive in a congregation. It allowed United Methodists outside the U.S. to separate with their property. The Protocol allowed local churches to vote to separate by a majority vote, rather than two-thirds, and without making any payments to the annual conference. It allowed the unfunded pension liabilities to be transferred to the new Methodist denomination, so that churches would not have to pay it up front. It created a uniform pathway and rules for separation that did not allow annual conferences to jack up the price or create onerous discernment processes.
The Protocol was our chance as a denomination to do what other mainline denominations had not done – provide an amicable way to separate while blessing each other through the process. It could have given a witness to the world that it is possible for Christians to resolve their differences in a loving and respectful way. It would have allowed the vast majority of United Methodists to fairly and equitably choose the future that best reflected their beliefs, without pressure or coercion.
Unfortunately, it was not to be, and the opportunity was lost. In February, the Commission on the General Conference made the decision to further postpone the General Conference until 2024. Good News believes that behind-the-scenes pressure led to that decision, as bishops and conference leaders began to realize how many annual conferences and local churches would indeed separate when the trust clause and financial obstacles were removed. In a panic, they determined to fight separation and keep as many conferences and churches in the fold as possible, regardless of the preferences of those church members.
In response to this unjustified delay, many traditionalist Methodists had had enough. Members and financial support for local churches were slipping away. In order to preserve the integrity of their faith commitments, many local churches saw a need to act, rather than wait for two more years under a growing progressive tidal wave carrying the denomination away from those traditional faith commitments.
As a result, the leaders of the Global Methodist Church announced their intention to launch the new denomination on May 1. They invited all local churches that desired to separate and align with the new denomination to take steps immediately to do so under provisions already in the Book of Discipline that allow local church disaffiliation.
The defeat of the Protocol became more certain when all the centrist and progressive leaders and organizations that had negotiated and endorsed the Protocol withdrew their support in the spring. They cited “changed circumstances” as their reason for backing off from the commitment they had made in 2020 to pursue the Protocol as a means toward an amicable resolution of the church’s conflict. Sadly, in failing to promote the Protocol and in withdrawing their support, they sealed the change in approach from negotiation to confrontation. Most of the dire consequences the Protocol was meant to avoid have become a reality.
Again unfortunately, the Council of Bishops and some individual bishops decided to fight against separation and create an adversarial relationship with separating churches. They first argued that, without the Protocol, annual conferences should not be able to vote to separate, and they got the Judicial Council to agree, closing that door. Next, they argued that annual conferences should not be allowed to reduce the terms of separation below what Par. 2553 requires, and they got the Judicial Council to agree, closing the door to the use of Par. 2548.2. (This was after a team of bishops had already spent months negotiating with Wesleyan Covenant Association leaders on possible terms for using Par. 2548.2. The abrupt reversal of course by the Council of Bishops was breathtaking.)
Then, a number of bishops led their annual conferences to impose additional financial costs for disaffiliation, on top of the two years’ apportionments and unfunded pension liability payment required by Par. 2553. Initially, there were about a dozen annual conferences making disaffiliation practically impossible due to heavy financial burdens. A couple conferences have backed off their requirements, leaving currently ten conferences in that next-to-impossible category.
An additional dozen conferences have added financial burdens that increase the cost or lengthen the process, but not so much as to make disaffiliation nearly impossible. These conferences are discouraging disaffiliation, but are not preventing it. At the same time, fortunately, over 30 annual conferences are following a straight 2553 process with no added terms, and a few conferences have taken action to reduce the payments by applying annual conference reserves.
Then many bishops outside the U.S. have not allowed congregations to disaffiliate with property because they say Par. 2553 does not apply outside the U.S. This is happening even though the actual language of 2553 says, “This new paragraph became effective at the close of the 2019 General Conference.” With the lack of accountability for bishops, there is no effective way to force bishops to abide by the Discipline in this matter. And the Council of Bishops appears to support this wrong interpretation.
Some European districts and annual conferences took matters into their own hands, regardless of what the Discipline says. Bulgaria was the first conference to vote to separate from the UM Church and became the first annual conference in the GMC. Other Europeans are in the process of following suit. GMC churches are being planted in the Philippines, and some districts or annual conferences there may still try to separate. The GMC is forming in some parts of Africa, while other parts of Africa are working toward the eventual goal of separating as annual conferences. (U.S. law does not apply in other countries, and the laws in those countries sometimes enable changing the trust clause.)
The Council of Bishops determined that only Par. 2553 should be used for disaffiliating churches. That paragraph expires on December 31, 2023. Comments by episcopal leaders indicate a desire to turn the page and move on from conflicts over separation, so it is unlikely most bishops will support an extension of Par. 2553 or a similar disaffiliation process past the deadline. We know of two conferences that have promised to do so.
The summer and fall saw about 17 U.S. annual conferences hold special sessions to approve the disaffiliation of local churches. At this point, over 2,000 U.S. congregations have been approved to disaffiliate and will be separated by January 1. Hundreds more are in the process to disaffiliate at regular annual conference sessions next spring. By the end of next year, we could see a total of 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. churches having disaffiliated. Congregations continue to work through the particular requirements and processes of their annual conference, as each annual conference is different.
At the same time, in some conferences where the terms of disaffiliation are egregious, churches have resorted to legal strategies, including filing of lawsuits against the annual conference. This is the very litigation that negotiators of the Protocol hoped to avoid. This unfortunate situation was entirely preventable.
This fall brought new clarity about what to expect in the post-separation United Methodist Church. The five jurisdictions in the U.S. met to elect bishops. Not one traditionalist was elected. All five jurisdictions passed overwhelmingly three resolutions affirming LGBTQ+ persons, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians as clergy, as well as urging a moratorium on all complaints and charges related to such. The momentum is toward removing from the Discipline the traditional language regarding the definition of marriage and sexual ethics.
That momentum received a boost in December from the decision by the Judicial Council to disregard the Discipline’s requirement that delegates to General Conference be elected no more than two years prior. The delegates to the 2024 session of General Conference will be (for the most part) those elected in 2019, which saw a marked swing toward a more progressive delegation. The decision also deprives Africa of the estimated additional 44 delegates to which they would otherwise be entitled, reducing the traditionalist vote by over five percentage points.
It seems clear that the 2024 General Conference will have a progressive-centrist majority, in contrast to previous General Conferences that have had a narrow traditionalist majority. The makeup of General Conference encourages one to believe that the language in the Discipline and church policy will take a progressive turn. It also calls into question whether General Conference will pass a new disaffiliation process to replace the expired Par. 2553. Such an effort will require the support of some progressives or centrists, who will have little incentive to do so beyond an inclination to do what is right and loving under the Golden Rule. One hopes that will be enough, but there are no guarantees.
So, a year that started off with great promise for a clear and amicable resolution of the church’s conflict through a plan of separation ends with the parties engaged in conflict and litigation, penalizing churches that want to disaffiliate and creating animosity between the parties that bodes ill for any future cooperation.
Despite the changed situation, individual congregations and clergy are choosing (and in some cases fighting) to disaffiliate from a denomination that is making a swift shift toward a more theologically progressive church. Once the most theologically conservative mainline denomination, the UM Church is fast joining its mainline sisters in pursuing a progressive ideological agenda.
Working through adversity will help solidify congregations’ theological commitments and the decision to align with a new Methodist denomination. It will eventually make the Global Methodist Church stronger. Even as congregations disaffiliate, many are experiencing new growth and vitality, as well as the miraculous provision of God for their leadership and finances. The more difficult the situation, the more clearly we can see the hand of God at work, doing what only he could do when we are beyond our own abilities and resources.
2022 has been a momentous year, filled with bewildering twists and turns in the development of the Methodist story. It has also been a momentous year, filled with evidence of the Lord’s leading and empowerment. As we end this year, we can be encouraged by the last words of our founder, John Wesley, “The best of all, God is with us.” May you experience the presence of Immanuel – God with us – now and in the year ahead.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.