The Heavens Declare

The Heavens Declare

By David Wilkinson

The first images from the James Webb Telescope were astonishing. A patch of the universe showing objects from which the light started its journey over 13 billion years ago and the distorted shapes of galaxies whose light had been magnified by the gravitational presence of dark matter. Then there was a region of star formation which showed in dramatic relief the dust and molecular hydrogen cloud which is a maternity hospital for newly born stars. And then, if that is not enough, a planet around a distant star with the indication of water molecules in its atmosphere, one of the things necessary for the emergence of life. 

Even as someone with a PhD in theoretical astrophysics, the sheer beauty was as jaw-dropping as the multi-billion dollar and three-decade long project which had built, launched, and assembled the telescope to operate one million miles above the earth. And as a Christian this sense of awe naturally turned into worship “as the heavens declare the glory of God.”

However, these pictures of the universe do not lead everyone to belief in a Creator. Science is a complicated business both in its process and its interpretation. While NASA has chosen some awe-inspiring and intriguing first photographs, the hard work of scientists will continue in the background. Science does have its wow moments, but a lot of the time it is tedious, tough, and frustrating.  It is about experiments which don’t work, about papers that are rejected by journals, about colleagues who don’t do what you think they should be doing, and about proposals that are never funded! 

The long delays of the Webb Telescope, its ballooning budget, and even press conferences which don’t go smoothly illustrate this. Yet scientists continue for the wow moments which show us that the universe is even more spectacular than we thought it was, and for that sense that science is progressing to a tighter description of the reality around us.

The interpretation of science is also complicated, not least in its relationship to belief in God. The media has had many voices who see science and Christian faith as incompatible. Celebrity scientists such Stephen Hawking in The Grand Design, Lawrence Krauss arguing that the Universe came from nothing, and, of course, Richard Dawkins, have all argued that science demolishes the “God delusion.” They argue that science says one thing about the origin of the Universe and the Bible says something different and you have to choose which is correct. Then some say science is all about fact but Christianity is just about faith, implying that faith is a kind of blind belief which bypasses the mind and reasonable argument.

As a scientist and a Christian, I find such voices naïve and somewhat simplistic. That science and the Bible describe the origin of the Universe in different ways does not immediately mean that one is right and one is wrong. Such a conflict model is far too easy and not true to the nature of science and the nature of the Bible. 

If I ask why is the kettle boiling I can have two answers. One because heat energy increases the velocity of the water molecules to a point where bubbles form. Two, because I desperately need a cup of tea. One describes the mechanism, the other describes the purpose. Therefore “the Universe came about through a quantum fluctuation leading to a Big Bang,” and “the Universe is the creation of a sovereign God” are for me complementary descriptions of the same reality. Both are true but different. 

However, what about the fact/faith opposition? This assumes that science and Christian faith explore the world in completely different ways and are therefore incompatible. But science is a subtle interplay of observations and models, involving human judgment of data and assessment of models. It is based on observations but it is more than that. It thrives on questions but it also involves faith, that is, actions which arise from trust in the evidence. 

To launch the Webb Telescope is a huge act of faith. Christianity has some parallels here. I became a Christian because as I read the gospel accounts of Jesus and saw him at work in the life of Christians, I was confronted with evidence which needed to be interpreted. My Christian faith is an outworking of trust in that evidence and the interpretation that this cannot be explained in any other way than this was God in the space-time history of the universe in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  

As both a scientist and a Christian, faith involves questions, some of which I continue to struggle with, but questions which have always led me to further excitement about both science and Jesus.

The science that will flow from the Webb Telescope will allow us to learn more of the origin of the Universe and perhaps whether we are alone in the Universe. In all of this I don’t want to believe in a “god of the gaps” who simply is rolled in to fill gaps of ignorance. The God whom I believe in is far greater, sustaining all of the physical laws throughout the billions of years of the Universe. The Bible understands that the whole Universe is the result of God’s working and sustaining. 

It is fascinating that science does not answer all of the questions. First, “why is there something rather than nothing” is not only a question about mechanism it is also a question about purpose and meaning – the why question behind the Universe’s existence. 

Second, where do the scientific laws themselves come from? If the Universe emerges as a quantum fluctuation leading to a Big Bang, we need to ask where quantum theory itself comes from? Where does the pattern of the world come from and how is it maintained? This is not a “god of the gaps” argument, as science itself assumes these laws in order to work. There is a long tradition stretching back to Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) who saw the laws of the Universe as the work of the divine lawgiver. “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being…,” Newton wrote in 1687. “The Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of His dominion He is wont to be called Lord God.” German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was “carried away by unutterable rapture” as the correlation between orbital periods and mean diameters, which showed that the planets moved in elliptical orbits, was disclosed. 

Third, why is the Universe intelligible? In 1936, Albert Einstein said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Yet why should this be the case, that the mathematics of our minds resonates with the mathematics of the Universe. Some scientists, including the noted British physicist/clergyman John Polkinghorne, suggest that the natural answer is that there exists a Creator God who is the basis of the order in the Universe and the ability of our minds to understand it.

None of these insights prove to me the existence of God. My own belief in the existence of God and understanding of God’s nature comes from the Christian claim that God revealed himself into the space-time history of the universe supremely by becoming a human being in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It is from that perspective that I welcome any scientific work on the story of the universe. For me science is a gift from God. As Kepler believed, being made in the image of God allows us to “think God’s thoughts after him.” It is also to be filled with awe at God’s work and to worship this God who creates with such extravagance and joy. So I give thanks for the Webb Telescope, the thousands of scientists and engineers who built it, maintain it, and then interpret its observations. And I look forward to the new questions, puzzles, and insights that it will give us.

David Wilkinson is Principal of St John’s College, Durham University in Durham, England. He is author with Dave Hutchings of God, Stephen Hawking and the Multiverse (Monarch, 2020). Professor Wilkinson is a British Methodist minister, theologian, astrophysicist, and academic. He is a professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, has a PhD in astrophysics, and is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Image: NASA: “What looks much like craggy mountains on a moonlit evening is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by … NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals previously obscured areas of star birth. Called the Cosmic Cliffs, the region is actually the edge of a gigantic, gaseous cavity within NGC 3324, roughly 7,600 light-years away. The cavernous area has been carved from the nebula by the intense ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds from extremely massive, hot, young stars located in the center of the bubble, above the area shown in this image.” Photo: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScl.  

Is the Protocol Doomed?

Is the Protocol Doomed?

By Thomas Lambrecht

For nearly the last ten years, Good News has advocated for an amicable separation in The United Methodist Church. Following the 2012 General Conference, it became apparent that the different understandings of Methodism could not continue together in one church and remain healthy. That conclusion was only reinforced over the years since that time, with efforts at resolving our differences having failed amid the refusal of many U.S. clergy and bishops to accept the decisions of General Conference.

My colleague Rob Renfroe, president of Good News, has likened our conflicted situation to a cage match, where two opponents are locked in a cage and forced to fight one another until one or the other is defeated. Only then would the cage door be unlocked to let the fighters out. Renfroe’s point was that the cage could be unlocked and the fighting ended without the need for one fighter to lose and the other win, if the denomination were willing to release the trust clause and allow separation to occur.

Leaders from across the theological spectrum arrived at an agreement for such a release in the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. It promised an end to the cage match of our conflict via an orderly and peaceful separation process. It was negotiated by a mediation team of progressives, centrists, traditionalists, and bishops under the guidance of renowned mediator Kenneth Feinberg, Esq. It provided for central conferences, annual conferences, local churches, and clergy to have a clear way to separate from The United Methodist Church in order to form or join a new Methodist denomination. The costs involved were low, and the process was manageable.

The Protocol still represents the best chance the denomination has of resolving its conflict through an orderly and gracious separation, ending decades of conflict and opening the door to renewed focus on mission and ministry. 

None of the Protocol’s signatories or the groups they represent was entirely happy with the terms of the Protocol. But they were willing to sign off on the deal, conceding some terms they did not like in order to gain terms that were favorable and provide for a resolution of the church’s conflict. The focus was on how to amicably end the conflict, knowing that the alternative was to return to the dysfunctional and vicious disputes that characterized the 2019 General Conference.

Unfortunately, it now looks like the Protocol is on life-support. In early June, progressive and centrist leaders withdrew support for the agreement.

All the living signatories to the Protocol representing centrist and progressive viewpoints have signed the repudiation statement. The centrist and progressive groups that had endorsed the Protocol have withdrawn their endorsement, including Uniting Methodists, Methodist Federation for Social Action, Affirmation, Reconciling Ministries Network, UM Queer Clergy Caucus, UMCNext, and Mainstream UMC. 

Reasons for backing out. Some of the reasons given in the statement for their repudiation of the Protocol include:

• The passage of time and “long delays.” We, too, are frustrated by the continued unnecessary postponement of General Conference until 2024. It is this delay that caused the Global Methodist Church to be launched. However, many traditionalists have made the commitment to stick with the UM Church in order to seek enactment of the Protocol. One cannot help but wonder if the postponement was part of a plan to provide an excuse for centrists and progressives to withdraw support for the Protocol.

• “Changing circumstances within The United Methodist Church, and the formal launch of the Global Methodist Church in May of this year.” What has changed is that those traditionalist congregations that are able are moving to disaffiliate from the UM Church. Perhaps the centrist/progressive calculation is that such a move will reduce the number of traditionalist delegates at General Conference enough to allow a change in the church’s position on marriage and sexuality to a progressive one. They may be thinking that then there will be no need to allow traditionalists a gracious way to separate. 

It would be wise to remember that traditionalists can still hinder the progressive agenda by defeating the Christmas Covenant regionalization of church government, which requires a two-thirds vote. Traditionalists can also refuse to fund a denomination that has turned its back on the clear teaching of Scripture. A coerced covenant is not a legitimate covenant. A church that thinks it can force people to remain in a denomination they do not support is not operating by Christian principles. It is best for all sides to promote amicable separation on reasonable terms to allow agendas supported by all sides to move forward unhindered.

• Serious misgivings voiced by bishops and church leaders in the Central Conferences, concerned about potentially disruptive impacts in their geographical regions. Obviously, the signers of this statement are talking with different bishops and church leaders than we are. Traditionalists heard universal support for the Protocol from our European and African colleagues. Three bishops who attended a recent leadership and prayer summit of the Africa Initiative stated clearly their desire to wait for any decision on disaffiliation until the 2024 General Conference could enact the Protocol. We have been told that if the UM Church adopts a progressive position on marriage and sexuality, there is no way that many African annual conferences will remain in the UM Church, whether they are “allowed” to leave or not. 

• “Growing opposition to the Protocol within the constituencies [they] represent [and] dwindling support among General Conference delegates.” One wonders how much these leaders advocated for the Protocol within their constituencies. Most of the progressive and centrist leaders who signed the Protocol seem to have believed that their job was done once their name was on the dotted line and the group photo-op was taken. 

Frustratingly, these leaders did not consult with traditionalist groups who have also endorsed the Protocol. Their statement says, “Out of a spirit of transparency, trust, and accountability, members of the mediation team have reached out to the organizations that initially supported the Protocol agreement, General Conference delegates, and others within our broad constituencies.” But they did not reach out to us. There was no transparency, trust, or accountability toward traditionalists. 

What Now? While the Protocol may be on life support, it is not quite dead, yet. We believe that new delegates will need to be elected for the 2024 General Conference. It is possible a slate of delegates could be elected that is more favorable to providing for amicable separation, rather than the doctrinaire progressives that were elected in 2019 in reaction to the Traditional Plan. We will await those elections to determine whether the Protocol is a viable path forward.

Other legislative options exist, as well. The General Conference could reinstate para. 2553 of the Book of Discipline (which will have expired by then). The General Conference could also create special provisions for Central Conference members to disaffiliate without going through the arduous, four-year-plus process mandated by para. 572 in the Discipline. 

Disassociation blues. With the launch of the Global Methodist Church, more local churches are seeking separation under processes currently available in the Book of Discipline. Good News has asked for and hoped for an amicable and reasonable response to this desire to move forward with separation now. Some bishops and annual conferences have accommodated the need for separation with grace and integrity. Others seem determined to keep the church locked in its cage match indefinitely.

It is important to note that, for decades, bishops and annual conferences have allowed individual congregations to withdraw through a negotiated settlement, sometimes involving the “closing” of the church and reselling the property to the departing congregants. While always a sad occasion, congregational disaffiliation is nothing new in The United Methodist Church.

Faced with the prospect of larger-scale disaffiliations due to deeply held theological convictions, the 2019 General Conference adopted a process for disaffiliation in a new Discipline para. 2553. The intent was to provide a straightforward process that cared for clergy pensions and provided a bit of a transitional cushion for the annual conference through an extra year’s apportionments. While annual conferences could flesh out the disaffiliation process in different ways depending upon their context, the authors of the provision never intended that annual conferences could add financial terms to the requirements. Unfortunately, through a clerical error, the language in the paragraph did not explicitly state that.

Now, some bishops and annual conferences are adding costs that make disaffiliation under para. 2553 so costly as to be prohibitive. Some are demanding a percentage of the congregation’s property value or total assets, anywhere from 20 to 67 percent. Others are demanding reimbursement of any annual conference legal fees. (I have yet to see a reasonable accounting of what legal fees an annual conference might be expected to incur. Such fees should be minimal or nonexistent.) Other conferences are requiring the repayment of any grants given the local church by the annual conference up to ten years or even 20 years in the past (ignoring the benefit the annual conference received in higher apportionment payments in the intervening years due to grant-facilitated congregational growth). At least one annual conference has added just about any costs they could think of, including 18 months’ salary and benefits for the pastor (in case the pastor does not withdraw with the congregation), expenses for two pastoral moves, $500 honoraria for conference-approved representatives to make presentations to the local church extolling the virtues of the UM Church, and more.

To add insult to injury, one bishop is saying that none of that annual conference’s churches can disaffiliate because they do not meet the qualifications of para. 2553, which requires the churches disagree with the General Conference’s position on marriage and sexuality or with the annual conference’s action or inaction regarding those issues. As this bishop is interpreting the situation, a traditionalist church can only leave if its annual conference is in violation of the Discipline, since the denominational position remains in line with a traditionalist position.

Other bishops and leaders are saying that the Global Methodist Church does not qualify as “another evangelical denomination” or as a recognized denomination with which clergy and congregations can unite. They maintain that a denomination must be recognized by General Conference before it fits these descriptions. Never mind that annual conferences receive clergy from dozens of other denominations, including various Baptists, Evangelical Free Church, and others that have never been “approved” by General Conference. All of these actions are purely designed to stonewall traditionalists and delay or prevent separation from occurring.

Alternative Metaphors for Separation. In promoting the idea of amicable separation, Good News has pointed to the examples of Abraham and Lot in Genesis 13 and Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15. In Genesis 13, we read that Abraham and Lot both had large herds and flocks, and that there was not enough room in the land to sustain both of them. Conflict arose between their respective herders. But Abraham told Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives.” Abraham allowed Lot to choose which part of the land he wanted, and Abraham would take what was left. 

Similarly, Good News has said that those wishing to pursue a more progressive agenda could keep the UM Church structure and traditionalists would be willing to withdraw to start something new, rather than attempting to force progressives out of the church against their will. In an effort to resolve our differences in a fraternal way, we advocated for a peaceful, voluntary separation, allowing each group to go its own way. We are not interested in perpetuating the conflict unless forced to do so by not being allowed to separate.

In Acts 15, we read that Paul and Barnabas had a sharp disagreement over whether or not to take John Mark with them on their second missionary journey. Paul did not want to take John Mark because he had abandoned them during their first journey. Barnabas wanted to take him along and give him a second chance. Neither was willing to compromise. So they agreed to go their separate ways. For the sake of the mission of the church, they separated and ended up multiplying the mission. In the same way, Good News has argued that, for the sake of the mission of the church, the two groups should separate and go their own way. Doing so would end the conflict, allowing each group to focus on its mission and ministry, allowing both to become more effective. 

Unfortunately, neither of these examples describes some of the more punitive approaches UM leaders are taking. Instead, we find ourselves in a situation more analogous with the conflict between Moses and the Egyptian pharaoh. Moses persistently requested and then demanded that the pharaoh let the people of Israel go. But pharaoh kept hardening his heart and refusing to let the Israelites leave.

Good News has argued that traditionalists need to depart from the UM Church because we worship in different ways, under different theologies, with different understandings of Scripture and even different approaches to our denomination’s governing Book of Discipline.

Unintended Consequences. One thing some UM leaders fail to recognize is that their heavy-handed tactics only serve to make the case for why churches and clergy should withdraw and join the GM Church. Most Methodists do not want to be part of an autocratic church run by power-conscious bishops who impose top-down conformity. Most Methodists do agree with their baptismal promise to resist injustice. Traditionalists are determined to resist the injustice being perpetrated against us by some UM bishops and conferences.

Those promoting a “big tent” Methodism are acting inconsistently with that vision when they attempt to coerce congregations to remain United Methodist against their will. The actions of militant leaders in these days are poisoning any possible future relationship.

It did not have to be this way. We have been and still are prepared to engage in a peaceful, fair separation. We are prepared to follow the model of Abraham and Lot or Paul and Barnabas. But if forced into a corner, we are determined to boldly stand for our understanding of the Scriptures and the Gospel. 

It is time to move past this conflict in our church. The Protocol represented the best opportunity to do so in a gracious way. It looks doubtful to pass at this point. There are other options that could lead to a gracious separation, and we will work for them. Even if the separation has to be won through conflict and struggle, we believe in the end it will be worth it. 

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Image: World renowned mediator Kenneth Feinberg, Esp. volunteered his time and expertise to help progressives, centrists, and traditionalists reach an agreement on a proposal that would maintain The United Methodist Church but allow traditionalist congregations to separate into a new denomination. In June, progressive and centrist leaders withdrew their support of the Feinberg proposal. (Photo courtesy of the Protocol Mediation Team.) 

Methodism’s Division Six-Part Video Series

Methodism’s Division Six-Part Video Series

Hosted by the Rev. Rob Renfroe

  1. The United Methodist Church is Divided and Dividing – the theological and spiritual issues surrounding the division within the denomination.
  2. Our Differences Regarding the Bible – how divergent views about the Bible creates division within The United Methodist Church.
  3. Our Differences Regarding Jesus – how differing views about Jesus creates division within the United Methodist Church.
  4. Our Differences Regarding Sexuality – how United Methodism’s departure from traditional views on marriage and sexuality has created division within The United Methodist Church.
  5. Why It’s Time for Traditionalists to Leave The United Methodist Church.
  6. Where Should we Go? The Rev. Rob Renfroe makes the case for moving from the United Methodist Church to the Global Methodist Church.
Commentary: Florida Conference board caused the harm

Commentary: Florida Conference board caused the harm

By Jack Jackson
June 21, 2022 | UM News

Since June 9, much has been made of the vote by Florida Conference clergy to reject a slate of 16 candidates recommended for provisional membership, an important step toward becoming an ordained elder or deacon.

Blame, both within the conference and on social media, is almost universally directed at the almost 30 percent of Florida clergy who agree with the denomination’s stated belief that practicing homosexuals should not be ordained. While traditionalists certainly prevented progressives from reaching the 75 percent threshold necessary for electing candidates, fault for all harm to the 16 candidates and the conference as a whole lies with the board of ordained ministry.

Boards of ordained ministry play a critical role in The United Methodist Church. They are almost the last stop in assessing a person’s call to ordained ministry.

Conference clergy and laity place a great deal of trust in boards to do their job according to the church law as found in the Book of Discipline. Candidates recommended by the board still face a final high hurdle: a 75 percent vote of approval by the conference clergy. This is the highest voting threshold in United Methodism. Nevertheless, in all my 28 years in the Florida Conference, I had never seen any candidate receive a vote against approval. The clergy’s trust in the board of ordained ministry in Florida has been implicit. Until this year.

Many of us were surprised when a few months before the clergy session, rumors began that two or perhaps three candidates identified as LGBTQIA persons. There would turn out to be three such candidates. Many traditionalist clergy, and even some progressive clergy, worried that the board itself was acting in willful disobedience to its appointed task of bringing forth candidates fit for ministry according to denominational guidelines.

Requests by traditionalists for a conversation about the candidates were rebuffed by the chair of the board of ordained ministry. Traditionalists, concerned that all 16 candidates might be rejected if they were only presented as a slate, as is the common practice, appealed to the bishop’s office for an individual vote. These requests were also denied. Tensions were high as the clergy session began.

Before the candidates were even presented, Bishop Kenneth Carter invited a senior retired deacon to speak. That clergyman made a passionate speech about the changing world and how the clergy needed to embrace all the candidates regardless of whether they met the Disciplinary requirements on sexuality.

Several speeches were then made for and against approval of the candidates. One speaker appealed for the candidates to be voted on individually so the 14 not in violation of the Discipline could be approved. That request again was denied. Ultimately a vote was taken on the slate of 16 with about 70 percent of the clergy approving, short of the required 75 percent. All of this took place with the candidates sitting in the sanctuary with the clergy.

Immediately, most clergy seemed aware of the pain being caused all the candidates, as well as the clergy in the room. Traditionalists and progressives spoke about the pain. Within a short time, a member of the board of ordained ministry came to the microphone, admitted he knew the candidates were in violation of the Discipline when he voted for them at the board meeting, and called for a reconsideration of the vote. After a long delay, two clergy who initially voted “No” agreed to the reconsideration and another vote was taken. Again, an individual vote on the candidates was rejected in favor of a slate.

Approximately 20-30 traditionalist clergy were absent from the second vote due to leaving the session for a Wesleyan Covenant Association lunch. Furthermore, just approved elders and deacons became eligible to vote. To the surprise of many, the second vote also fell short, with only 72% approval.

Everyone at the clergy session on June 9 was harmed. The 16 candidates were by not being approved after being led by the board to believe they would be. The progressive majority of the clergy were harmed by seeing potential colleagues rejected. The minority group of traditionalist clergy were also harmed by being asked to support a clear violation of their ordination vows — namely, to uphold the Discipline. But make no mistake, the members of the board of ordained ministry, not traditionalists, are responsible for the harm.

The board, in partnership with the bishop’s office, willfully broke trust with its Disciplinary obligation to identify candidates who meet The United Methodist Church’s requirements for ordination. The board took it upon itself to rewrite ordination requirements as its individuals saw fit, not as the denomination, or even the Florida Conference as a whole, had together discerned. As numerous persons from the bishop’s office reminded us during annual conference, the Book of Discipline has not changed. Yet board members acted as if they could change the Discipline by fiat. The clergy session rightly rejected this egregious overreach.

Due to the likely departure of hundreds if not thousands of congregations across the denomination over the next 18 months, The United Methodist Church will almost certainly change its position on human sexuality in 2024 or 2028. The members of the Florida Conference Board of Ordained Ministry simply could not wait. Instead, the board acted arrogantly and irresponsibly by forcing the issue prematurely. In the process, the board harmed not only the people they intended to help, but the entire conference and the whole denomination.

Jack Jackson is a Florida Conference elder and the E. Stanley Jones Professor of Mission, Evangelism and World Methodism at Claremont School of Theology. Beginning July 1, Dr. Jackson will be the Visiting Professor of Evangelism and World Methodism at United Theological Seminary. This commentary first appeared via UM News.

To read more about the Florida situation, UM News’ Sam Hodges posted this story.

Progressives and Centrists repudiate Protocol

Progressives and Centrists repudiate Protocol

By Thomas Lambrecht

June 10, 2022

In a statement issued this week, progressive and centrist leaders have withdrawn their support for the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. The Protocol was negotiated by a mediation team of progressives, centrists, traditionalists, and bishops under the guidance of renowned mediator Kenneth Feinberg, Esq. It provided for central conferences, annual conferences, local churches, and clergy to have a clear way to separate from The United Methodist Church in order to form or join a new Methodist denomination. The costs involved were low, and the process was manageable.

The Protocol represents the best chance the denomination has of resolving its conflict through an orderly and gracious separation, ending decades of conflict and opening the door to renewed focus on mission and ministry. It was widely assumed the Protocol would pass at the 2020 General Conference. Covid-related postponements, however, have lessened enthusiasm for the deal.

None of the Protocol’s signatories or the groups they represent was entirely happy with the terms of the Protocol. But they were willing to sign off on the deal, conceding some terms they did not like in order to gain terms that were favorable and provide for a resolution of the church’s conflict. The focus was on how to amicably end the conflict, knowing that the alternative was to return to the dysfunctional and vicious disputes that characterized the 2019 General Conference.

All the living signatories to the Protocol representing centrist and progressive viewpoints have signed the repudiation statement. The centrist and progressive groups that had endorsed the Protocol have withdrawn their endorsement, including Uniting Methodists, Methodist Federation for Social Action, Affirmation, Reconciling Ministries Network, UM Queer Clergy Caucus, UMCNext, and Mainstream UMC.

It appears that these leaders and groups have taken their eyes off the mission of the church and focused once again on the conflict and the desire to “win” as much as possible. This attitude has prompted a number of bishops and annual conferences to levy impossible fees on churches that desire to disaffiliate from the UM Church. They have abandoned to some degree the spirit of the Protocol in favor of a win-lose approach to conflict. Doing so will only set the church up for more decline and alienate more members.

Reasons Given

Some of the reasons given in the statement for their repudiation of the Protocol include:

• The passage of time and “long delays.” We, too, are frustrated by the continued unnecessary postponement of General Conference until 2024. It is this delay that caused the Global Methodist Church to be launched. However, many traditionalists have made the commitment to stick with the UM Church in order to seek enactment of the Protocol. One cannot help but wonder if the postponement was part of a plan to provide an excuse for centrists and progressives to withdraw support for the Protocol.

• “Changing circumstances within The United Methodist Church, and the formal launch of the Global Methodist Church in May of this year.” What has changed is that those traditionalist congregations that are able are moving to disaffiliate from the UM Church. Perhaps the centrist/progressive calculation is that such a move will reduce the number of traditionalist delegates at General Conference enough to allow a change in the church’s position on marriage and sexuality to a progressive one. They may be thinking that, once the church’s position becomes progressive, there will be no need to allow traditionalists a gracious way to separate. At that point, they may be thinking, progressives and centrists will hold all the cards and be able to determine what should happen in the church.

However, it is important to note that traditionalists are not without power of their own. Traditionalists can still hinder the progressive agenda by defeating the Christmas Covenant regionalization of church government, which requires a two-thirds vote. Traditionalists can also refuse to fund a denomination that has turned its back on the clear teaching of Scripture. A coerced covenant is not a legitimate covenant. A church that thinks it can force people to remain in a denomination they do not support is not operating by Christian principles. It is best for all sides to promote amicable separation on reasonable terms to allow agendas supported by all sides to move forward unhindered.

• Serious misgivings voiced by bishops and church leaders in the Central Conferences, concerned about potentially disruptive impacts in their geographical regions. Obviously, the signers of this statement are talking with different bishops and church leaders than we are. We heard universal support for the Protocol from our European and African colleagues. Three bishops who attended the recent leadership and prayer summit of the Africa Initiative stated clearly their desire to wait for any decision on disaffiliation until the 2024 General Conference could enact the Protocol. One must ask what would be more disruptive – an orderly process of informed decision-making by Central Conferences or a piecemeal and irregular action by annual conferences to disaffiliate outside the provisions of the Discipline? We have been told that if the UM Church adopts a progressive position on marriage and sexuality, there is no way that many African annual conferences will remain in the UM Church, whether they are “allowed” to leave or not. It would be cultural suicide for them to remain.

• “Growing opposition to the Protocol within the constituencies [they] represent [and] dwindling support among General Conference delegates.” One wonders how much these leaders advocated for the Protocol within their constituencies. Certainly, the primary public voices promoting the Protocol were traditionalists. Most of the progressive and centrist leaders who signed the Protocol seem to have believed that their job was done once their name was on the dotted line. But effective leaders know how to build support for a course of action they know is for the good of the church. We estimate that the support of only 20 percent of progressives and centrists would be enough to enact the Protocol. It appears that, in this case, rather than lead their constituencies toward a better future, these leaders are following their constituents.

No Consultation

Frustratingly, these leaders did not consult with traditionalist groups who have also endorsed the Protocol. Their statement says, “Out of a spirit of transparency, trust, and accountability, members of the mediation team have reached out to the organizations that initially supported the Protocol Agreement, General Conference delegates, and others within our broad constituencies.” But they did not reach out to us. There was no transparency, trust, or accountability toward traditionalists. They did not hear our perspective before making their decision, nor did they have an opportunity to consider evidence contrary to their other sources of information.

Also frustratingly, these leaders have never come to us and said which terms of the Protocol were deal-breakers for them. They say they can “no longer endorse the Protocol Agreement and its enabling legislation as a whole.” Which parts can they endorse, and which parts can they not endorse? We could have had a conversation about these areas, in light of “the changing circumstances within the UM Church.” We might not have come to a new agreement, but at least we would have a better understanding of where we all stood and why.

What Now?

While the Protocol may be on life support, it is not quite dead, yet. We believe that new delegates will need to be elected for the 2024 General Conference. It is possible a slate of delegates could be elected that is more favorable to providing for amicable separation, rather than the doctrinaire progressives that were elected in 2019 in reaction to the Traditional Plan. We will await those elections to determine whether the Protocol is a viable path forward.

Other legislative options exist, as well. The General Conference could reinstate ¶ 2553 (which will have expired by then). The statement voices support for “individual congregations to disaffiliate from the Unite Methodist Church using BOD ¶ 2553. We, therefore, implore bishops, district superintendents, and conference trustees to facilitate amicable departures after congregations pay their required pension liabilities.” Are these leaders taking the floor of their annual conferences and advocating that no extra expenses or fees be added to what ¶ 2553 requires? That is what it will take to allow churches to depart. It is our understanding that Wespath may be proposing additional provisions that will make the pension liability payment less onerous. The General Conference could revise ¶ 2553 to make departure affordable for local churches.

The General Conference could also create special provisions for Central Conference members to disaffiliate without going through the arduous, four-year-plus process mandated by ¶ 572 in the Discipline. If the denomination adopts a progressive definition of marriage and endorses the practice of homosexuality, some central conferences and certainly a number of annual conferences outside the U.S. will unquestionably withdraw. Why not make that process easier and more amicable, rather than risk alienating people who already feel that this whole conflict is a result of U.S. members pushing their agenda on the whole church?

Once again, we have seen that many progressive and centrist leaders cannot be trusted to keep their commitments. This repudiation is a vivid example of the types of backtracking and double-dealing that we have seen in the past. Nevertheless, Good News remains committed to leading traditionalist Methodists to a faithful future. We will continue to fight for a fair and equitable disaffiliation process at General Conference 2024. We will not abandon churches and pastors who are stuck where they do not want to be, due to the high cost imposed by some bishops and annual conferences and the outright refusal of other bishops to even allow disaffiliation.

It is time to move past this conflict in our church. The Protocol represented the best opportunity to do so in a gracious way. It looks doubtful to pass at this point. There are other options that could lead to a gracious separation, and we will work for them. Even if the separation has to be won through conflict and struggle, we believe in the end it will be worth it. We “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called [us] heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). For the sake of the mission.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Image: Photo courtesy of the Protocol Mediation Team.

 

 

A Bishop Says Goodbye to The United Methodist Church

A Bishop Says Goodbye to The United Methodist Church

Firebrand Magazine: May 1, 2022, was the official launch of the Global Methodist Church. This begins a season of transition for many pastors and churches. UMC Bishop Mike Lowry has stated that, effective on that date, he withdrew from the UMC Council of Bishops to unite to the Global Methodist Church. He takes this step in response to a notice from the Council of Bishops that the Book of Discipline prevents him from serving on the Transitional Leadership Council of the Global Methodist Church while simultaneously holding credentials in the UMC. What follows is both the initial letter from the Council of Bishops and Bishop Lowry’s response. 

Letter sent to Bishop Mike Lowry from Bishop Cynthia Harvey, President of the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church:

April 21, 2022

Bishop Michael J. Lowry
[Address deleted]

Dear Bishop Lowry:

Greetings to you in the name of the risen Christ. I pray you and your families are well and that you have found time during this season to experience God’s ongoing grace and power in your life that becomes so profoundly evident in this season of Easter.

Today, I write to ask for clarification on your relationship to the Global Methodist Church as we anticipate the pending launch on May 1. In your current role on the Transition Leadership Council, should you choose to remain on the TLC once the GMC launches, I trust that you understand that you will be required to surrender your United Methodist Clergy credentials as there is no disciplinary provision authorizing an ordained United Methodist minister to hold membership simultaneously in another denomination. Upon joining another denomination, membership in The United Methodist Church is terminated. This was upheld by the Judicial Council in decision 696. In the case of bishops, you will also be expected to resign from the episcopal office in accordance with paragraph 408.4 of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016.

I would hope to have a conversation with you by May 1 as to your current standing with the Global Methodist Church and your decision. This is a matter of ultimate integrity to the covenant relationship you entered into at your ordination and to the United Methodist Church that ordained you, elected you, and consecrated you.

In these times of transition, our prayer is that we might bless and send each other into new forms of Methodism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Grace and Peace,
Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey
Council of Bishops, President

Response to the Council of Bishops sent by Bishop Mike Lowry:

April 28, 2022

Bishop Cynthia Harvey,
President of the Council of Bishops, The United Methodist Church
[Address deleted]

Bishop Bob Farr,
President of the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops, The United Methodist Church
[Address deleted]

Dear Bishops Harvey and Farr,

I am writing in response to Bishop Harvey’s April 21, 2022 email letter on behalf of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church instructing me that I must either resign from the Transitional Leadership Council prior to the formal launch of the Global Methodist Church on May 1, 2022 or face termination of my membership in the United Methodist Church and resignation from the episcopal office consistent with ¶408.4 of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016 and Judicial Council Decision 696.

Under ¶ 360.1 of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016, I am notifying you that I am withdrawing from the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church to unite with the Global Methodist Church as of May 1, 2022. No certificate of conference membership was issued to me when I was ordained in The United Methodist Church. Effective May 1, 2022 I resigned from the episcopal office in the United Methodist Church per ¶408.4 of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016.

I take this action with a heavy heart and deep grief. I am thankful for the great nurturing and guidance I have received from the United Methodist Church over the course of my life. I have been richly blessed by friendships and support from a numerous cloud of witnesses across the face of the church universal, including members of the Council of Bishops. Nonetheless, Jesus is Lord. It is first and foremost in allegiance to my Lord and Savior that I take this action.  Such a move on my part merits a rendering to Christians of good-will the reasons which impel me to leave the United Methodist denomination after more than 47 years of ministry and join the newly emerging Global Methodist Church.

In your letter you [Bishop Harvey] state, “This is a matter of ultimate integrity to the covenant relationship you entered into at your ordination.” While I agree that this is an issue of “ultimate integrity,” I perceive a significant disagreement over what constitutes “ultimate integrity” and where our ultimate allegiance lays. Both at my ordination as an elder and my consecration as a bishop in the United Methodist denomination my vow was, as of first importance, taken to God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Secondarily, vows were offered to the institutional expression of the branch of the Church Universal known as The United Methodist Church. I pledged to both God and that Church to uphold the Discipline of the United Methodist Church. This I have done with full faithfulness and manifest integrity. Regretfully, I perceive that the institutional expression of The United Methodist Church has strayed in significant ways from faithfully upholding its own stated Discipline and, even more so, departed from the full truth of the gospel.  Psalm 119 reminds us: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. I have sworn an oath and confirmed it, to observe your righteous ordinances” (Psalm 119:105-106, NRSV). The Apostle Paul admonishes us: “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:23-25, NRSV).

The presenting issue, characterized by a dispute over our understanding of human sexuality, more specifically whether or not clergy should be allowed to perform same-gender marriages and whether it is permissible to ordain “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” masks the deeper and truly significant disagreement over what constitutes fidelity to the historic confession of the Christian faith expressed in the normative nature of Holy Scripture as the primary rule of faith, the ecumenical creeds, the Articles of Religion, and Wesley’s Standard Sermons. Put succinctly, the massive iceberg beneath the roiling waters of our looming separation is the ongoing argument over just what constitutes the theological and moral foundations of contemporary Methodism.

I believe “We are in a fight for the faith delivered once for all” (Jude 3, CEB). My decision to withdraw from The United Methodist Church in order to unite with the Global Methodist Church is a response to the ongoing struggle to rediscover and reclaim the historic Wesleyan understanding of the Christian faith anchored in the Holy Trinity and welded to Christ as Lord and Savior. In our day and time, I believe that the expression of Christianity from both the so-called “right” and “left” of North American culture have been captured and co-opted by the cult of contemporary secularism in its various and diverse disguises. Bluntly, the Christian gospel is neither the left-wing of the Democratic party at prayer nor the right-wing of the Republican party soiled by a disdain for the truth. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ transcends all petty pretenders of our idolatrous worship of contemporary culture, including but not limited to hedonism, racism, sexism, greed, and rampant narcissism.

All of us, myself most definitely included, must confess to our complicity to a current cultural captivity and repent of our sin (both individually and corporately). The time for theological toleration saturated with moral indifference is long past. The reality before us is of a diseased Christianity [of both the right and left] that must be countered by “rediscovering radical allegiance to Christ, recognizing the reality of the battle we are in, and reclaiming core Christian orthodoxy” (see A Fight for the Faith Delivered Once for All — Firebrand Magazine, June 29, 2020). The offer of new life in Christ is gracefully given by the Holy and Sovereign Lord of the Universe. Throughout my 47 plus years of ordained ministry, I have been engaged in and remain committed to ministry with, to, and for all people. I believe I see a movement of the Holy Spirit in the current renewal of the Church Universal liberated from cultural Christendom. It is to this higher commitment that I rededicate myself in uniting with the Global Methodist Church on May 1, 2022.

Yours in Christ,

Bishop Mike Lowry

Image by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash