Medieval Illuminiation

Medieval Illuminiation

By Steve Beard —

Dublin was still rubbing sleep from its eyes. It was the crack of dawn. Well, not literally – it just seemed that way. The sidewalks along historic statue-lined O’Connell Street were largely empty as I paced toward Trinity College on the south side of the Liffey River. In just hours, tourists would once again be shoulder to shoulder up and down the popular thoroughfare.

But for the moment, it was a crisp and peaceful morning. For a city known for its literary superstars such as James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, and Seamus Heaney, the most celebrated and valuable book in town is a Latin text created around 800 A.D. by a team of obscure monks on a tiny wind-whipped island 200 miles north of the Irish capital. This was my opportunity to see the mysterious and captivating book.

Believed to have been developed in a monastery on the island of Iona off the coast of Scotland, the Book of Kells is a 1,200 year old “illuminated manuscript” of the Four Gospels of the New Testament. “You can imagine the monks inside their beehive-shaped stone huts, battered by sea winds with squawking gulls outside, bent over their painstaking work,” observed Martha Kearney, a British-Irish journalist, for the BBC.

Within historical context, Johannes Gutenberg would not create the printing press for another six centuries. The mere existence of the Book of Kells is remarkable.

Surviving an assortment of vicious Viking raids on Iona, the sacred text was moved to the monastery of Kells in County Meath, northwest of Dublin. The magnificent volume measures 13 x 10 inches and contains 340 folios (thus 680 pages) made of calfskin vellum. The collected manuscript – created by a team of scribes and artists – was eventually sent to Dublin for safe keeping at Trinity College in 1661.

There is kind of a bittersweet irony that the elegant scribes of the world-famous Book of Kells are known simply as Hand A, Hand B, Hand C, and Hand D. The artistic collaborators – probably three – produce portraits and scenes that are simply otherworldly. Some of the mind-boggling precision can only be fully appreciated with a magnifying glass.

Weeks prior, I had signed up with a private early morning lecture group to learn more about the treasured medieval book. It was also a crass move on my part to skip the legendarily lengthy lines to see the masterpiece. One couple in my group was from Hawaii, another from Texas, still yet another family was from Italy. We joined millions of previous tourists that have filed past the heavily-secured manuscript in order to be within close proximity of such an utterly unique combination of sacred text and enigmatic art.

More than a thousand years ago, it was described in The Annals of Ulster as the “chief relic of the western world.” It was also reported that it had been stolen from Kells in 1006 and later discovered – without its richly bejeweled cover – and possibly buried under ground.

Today, the same engineers who designed the protective cases for the Crown Jewels and the Mona Lisa were assigned to the Book of Kells. In his book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, Christopher de Hamel reports that the security surrounding the Book of Kells is “as complex as presidential protection undertaken by the secret services of a great nation.” In order for him to view the manuscript personally, he sat at a “circular green-topped table, prepared in advance with foam pads, a digital thermometer, and white gloves.”

He was granted truly privileged access. Nevertheless, to those without the white gloves, the luster of the treasure still shines through as a testimonial to faith, devotion, and imagination. The sacred and exotic art includes the first full-page portrait of the virgin Mary and Jesus in western manuscripts, intertwining snakes, eucharistic chalices, intricate knotwork, a stunning Chi-Rho (Greek monogram for the name of Christ), vivacious peacocks, tightly coiled spirals, knotted ribbons, Christ tempted by the devil, and a portrayal of the gospel evangelists as the “four living creatures” (a tetramorph): Matthew as the man, Mark as the lion, Luke as the ox, and John as the eagle.

The colorful palette includes black, red, lilac, pink, purple, and yellow ink.

The 12th century historian Gerald of Wales is assumed to have been describing the Book of Kells when he wrote: “Fine craftsmanship is all about you, but you might not notice it. Look more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies – so delicate and subtle, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colours so fresh and vivid – that you might say that all this was the work of an angel, and not of a man.”

Even modern day scholars have a hard time hiding their astonishment. “The writing, in huge insular majuscule script, is flawless in its regularity and utter control,” writes de Hamel, an expert on medieval manuscripts. “One can only marvel at the penmanship. It is calligraphic and as exact as printing, and yet it flows and shapes itself into the space available. It sometimes swells and seems to take breath at the ends of lines. The decoration is more extensive and more overwhelming than one could possibly imagine. Virtually every line is embellished with color or ornament.”

We will never know the names of these saints of quill and ink with a mindfulness for bewildering detail, righteous pizzazz, and fantastical beasts. The ancient Scripture teaches that we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” In that number are the artists and scribes who painstakingly stretched their imaginations and devotion to create the Book of Kells. To those saints, with all gratitude, thank you. 

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

Bishop Mark Webb Joins Global Methodist Church

Bishop Mark Webb Joins Global Methodist Church

 

By Walter Fenton, Global Methodist Church

United Methodist Bishop Mark J. Webb, the former leader of the UM Church’s Upper New York Episcopal Area, has resigned from the episcopacy and withdrawn from the denomination. Webb has joined the Global Methodist Church.

The GM Church’s Transitional Leadership Council (TLC) announced it has hired Webb as a bishop in the GM Church. Its Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline provides that UM Church bishops may be received as bishops in the GM Church to serve until the latter’s convening General Conference; Bishop Webb has been received in this capacity. Initially, he will serve as one of the general superintendents of the GM Church and will not be appointed to a specific residential area.

“I am humbled to be a part of a fresh expression of Methodism that seeks to capture and live the fullness of our Wesleyan DNA and equip individuals and congregations to boldly and urgently live out God’s call to offer the good news of Jesus Christ to a desperate world,” said Webb regarding his new role with the GM Church. “I’m also grateful for the leadership and gifts faithfully offered by so many in the formation of this movement and look forward to becoming a part of all that God is doing and will do in and through the Global Methodist Church.”

Webb served as the bishop of the Upper New York Annual Conference of the UM Church for over 10 years. Prior to his role as a bishop, he pastored three local churches and served as a district superintendent in Pennsylvania for 23 years. His clergy colleagues elected him as a delegate to General and Jurisdictional Conferences in 2004, 2008, and 2012. He received the Harry Denman Evangelism Award in 2002, and in 2018 he was named as one of the top 100 leaders by the John C. Maxwell Transformational Leadership Award.

“We are honored to have Bishop Webb join us and to immediately assume leadership responsibilities in the Global Methodist Church,” said Cara Nicklas, Chairwoman of the TLC. “His humble spirit, his courageous witness, and above all, his fidelity to the core confessions of the Wesleyan expression of the Christian faith are inspiring. I am confident his creative leadership will contribute to the growing health and vitality of our Church.”

A graduate of Shippensburg University (Shippensburg, Pennsylvania) with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, Bishop Webb also holds a M. Div. from Asbury Theological Seminary (Wilmore, Kentucky) and a graduate certificate in nonprofit management from the University of Connecticut (Storrs, Connecticut). He currently serves on the Board of Trustees of United Theological Seminary (Dayton, Ohio).

“What has impressed me most serving under and alongside Bishop Webb has been his keen ability to use his gifts of leadership and discernment to cast vision and work with others to implement that vision in often complicated situations,” said the Rev. Steven Taylor, Lead Pastor of Panama UM Church (Panama, New York). “He unapologetically proclaims that hope and salvation are found only in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible and through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.”

Former United Methodists who have already transitioned to the GM Church and United Methodist hoping to follow them have long regarded Bishop Webb as a courageous and gracious leader, willing to speak up on their behalf. He was very warmly received at the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s 2022 Global Gathering in Indiana, where he offered the closing devotion and served as the celebrant for Holy Communion.

“The entire staff is excited to welcome Bishop Webb to the team and is looking forward to working with him,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, the GM Church’s Transitional Connectional Officer. “His experience, and the gifts and graces he brings to us will bless and increase the GM Church for years to come. We praise and thank God for his willingness to serve among us during the denomination’s critical transitional period.”

Just launched on May 1, 2022, hundreds of local churches in Africa, Europe, the Philippines, and the United States have already aligned with the Global Methodist Church, and many more are hoping to do so over the next few years.

“Many people are coming to the Global Methodist Church with a passion to follow Jesus and be the Church, but also with a deep weariness and pain from past experiences and struggles. We are a broken and wounded people, called to offer Jesus to a broken and wounded world. We will need to help one another heal,” said Bishop Webb. “We must choose to trust and encourage one another, while fully depending upon the power of God’s Spirit in this new journey. I strive to give thanks for the formation my past provides, but I also know that the Gospel message invites me to lay the past behind and focus on the vision and hope God is birthing today. The battles of yesterday are no longer our battles. There will be new struggles, but I know God will be faithful, and I trust that God has already equipped us to be faithful to the glory of God and for the increase of His Kingdom.”

Bishop Webb lives in Lititz, Pennsylvania and is married to Jodi. They have two sons, Tyler, who is married to Lyndsay and Benjamin, who is married to Mary.

The Rev. Walter Fenton is the Global Methodist Church’s Deputy Connectional Officer. Link to original story HERE.

Photo: Bishop Mark Webb, formerly of the Upper New York Conference, gives the closing devotional at the May 7 Global Gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. (Photo by Sam Hodges, UM News.)

Faith in a Time of Transition

Faith in a Time of Transition

By Thomas Lambrecht

This is the final week of Advent, a season of preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and preparing for his coming again. Advent reminds us that we are in the time “between the times.” We are in the time between Jesus’ first and second Advents (comings). As Professor George Eldon Ladd reminded us, we are in the transition between the already and the not yet.

God’s Kingdom has already come to earth in the form of King Jesus and in the hearts and lives of Jesus’ followers, including us. But God’s Kingdom awaits its full realization when Jesus comes again “to judge the living and the dead.” The book of Revelation and other Scripture passages paint a glorious picture of what the fullness of God’s Kingdom will mean.

But it is uncomfortable to be in between, to be in transition. We have an idea what is coming, but we are not there yet.

Some of my grandchildren have a problem with transitions. It is hard for them to stop doing one thing in order to do a different thing. My daughter has to prepare them for the transition by warning them, “We are going to stop playing and get in the car in five minutes.” That warning enables them to adjust their minds and expectations to what is coming next.

We are in a transition time in The United Methodist Church. At last count, over 2,000 congregations have disaffiliated from the denomination. That represents 6.6 percent of all United Methodist churches in the United States. It is estimated that about that many more are in the process of discernment toward disaffiliating next year before the opportunity to disaffiliate ends on December 31, 2023.

Those remaining in The United Methodist Church are in the process of revisioning what the church will look like and how it will operate with 10-15 percent fewer members and churches.

Those joining the Global Methodist Church are in the process of constructing new annual conferences in various parts of the U.S., as well as in countries overseas. Critical decisions have yet to be made, such as how to elect and assign bishops.

Those churches becoming independent are figuring out how to operate without the support of a denominational structure.

In all cases, we are leaving behind what is familiar and heading into uncharted territory. We have some idea what the future might look like, but there are also many unknowns.

It is tempting to want to stay with what is familiar, even though that world of the past is no longer available to us. The Israelites in the Wilderness longed to go back to slavery in Egypt, at times. Yet the slavery they would have gone back to would have been different from the slavery they left. There is no such thing as going back to what we once knew.

That is why Paul reminds us, “We live by faith, not by sight” (II Corinthians 5:7). Often, we cannot see the pathway to the future God has for us. However, we can trust the One who leads and guides us each step of the way. We can stay stuck in the past, or we can follow the living Lord into the incredible future he has for us. Each day, we can take the next step God has for us, knowing it will eventually lead us to our true home with him.

Mary and Joseph did not know what the future held when they agreed to become the human parents of the Savior of the world. No father or mother knows what the future will hold on the day their child is born. Yet, we have children in hope for the future and in faith that God will lead and guide us into and through that future.

The decisions we are making now in our churches, whether to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church or remain, are decisions guided by faith and hope in a future held by God. They are decisions that should not be guided by fear or a desire to cling to the past, but are decisions based on a confidence that God will not let us down.

Transitions remind us we are not in control. The wisest saying I have ever heard is, “God is God, and I am not!” That saying has become a mantra for me, acknowledging my life is not my own, but God’s. He is in control. My role is to respond to his leading and be faithful to what he is calling me to be.

Yes, transitions are uncomfortable. Journeying into an unknown future can be intimidating. We can walk through this transition with confidence by adjusting our expectations. Things will not be like they once were. In this season, there is no way to keep what once was. Our only course is to walk into a future we choose, guided and empowered by God, just as Mary and Joseph did. All the rest is up to the Lord.

I pray you experience a blessed and rich Christmas celebration, filled with the joy and peace of Christ.

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

An Incoherent Judicial Council Decision

An Incoherent Judicial Council Decision

By Thomas Lambrecht

This week, the United Methodist Judicial Council (the equivalent of our church supreme court) handed down Decision 1451 regarding the processes to govern the 2024 meeting of the General Conference. This decision responded to requests from the Kenya-Ethiopia, Western Pennsylvania, and Alaska Annual Conferences.

The Judicial Council decided that the 2024 meeting of the General Conference will be considered a postponed session of the 2020 General Conference, rather than the regular 2024 General Conference session. As a result, all legislation already submitted to the 2020 General Conference remains to be considered by the 2024 session. Additional legislation may be submitted by September 2023. More importantly, there is no need to elect new delegates to serve at the 2024 General Conference. Delegates elected for 2020 will continue to serve.

This decision and its rationale reinforce the idea that the Judicial Council appears to have lost its moorings to church law and is making up its own rules as it goes along. The advent of the Covid pandemic and its resultant meeting and travel restrictions has created a situation not envisioned or provided for in our Book of Discipline. The Judicial Council appears to be taking advantage of that situation to create church law and make decisions based on the whims of the Council, rather than holding to precedent and providing consistent interpretation and guidance of the Discipline, which is their job.

Readers not interested in the technical analysis to follow may skip to the last section on Fallout from the Decision to see its practical effects.

New Delegates

The crux of the matter is whether new delegates needed to be elected for the 2024 General Conference (whether that conference is called a postponed 2020 session or a regular 2024 session). The Discipline is clear. Par. 502.3 requires, “Delegates to the General Conference shall be elected at the

session of the annual conference held not more than two annual conference sessions before the calendar year preceding the session of the General Conference.” At face value, this means that delegates elected before 2022 could not serve at the 2024 session of the General Conference. Delegates for the 2020 General Conference were elected, for the most part, in 2019 and therefore should not be able to serve in 2024.

However, the Judicial Council disregards the plain meaning of Par. 502.3 and states, “Under this disciplinary paragraph, elections conducted at either the 2018 or 2019 session of annual conference would be valid and operative for the 2020 General Conference.”

The Judicial Council ignores its own precedent in previous decisions. In Decision 1429, the Council asks, “Hence, the issue boils down to one question: Does ‘opening session’ of the General Conference mean (a) the original date or (b) a future scheduled event?” The decision goes on to find that “it clearly describes the term [opening session] in a way indicating an event, not a date.” The decision cites the Plan of Organization and Rules of Order of the General Conference. “Here too, ‘opening session’ is understood to be an event composed of various segments such as worship and call to order. We cannot find anything in The Discipline or the Plan that would suggest otherwise. The textual basis is sufficient to support the interpretation (b) above.” The effect of this interpretation in Decision 1429 was, “The deadlines for petitions submission in ¶ 507 are based on the date of the postponed General Conference and reset with each postponement.”

Under Decision 1429, the “session” of the General Conference is the “future event” when it actually convenes and is reset with each postponement. In line with that precedent, the election of delegates “more than two annual conference sessions before the calendar year preceding the session of the General Conference” would be illegal. Yet, that is precisely what new Decision 1451 allows. It now defines the “session” as the originally scheduled date. The Judicial Council wants to have it both ways, depending on which outcome it desires.

Why a Postponed 2020 Conference?

The rationale given by the Judicial Council for why the 2024 session of the General Conference should be regarded as the postponed 2020 Conference is very weak.

Decision 1451 states, “The Constitution further establishes the minimum frequency at which the General Conference must convene, not the actual year when this occurs. ‘The General Conference shall meet once in four years at such time and in such place as shall be determined by the General Conference or by its duly authorized committees.’ Constitution. Par. 14. A cancellation would cause the number of General Conference sessions to drop below the quadrennial minimum and violate this constitutional mandate.”

I have news for the Judicial Council: the postponement of the 2020 General Conference until 2024 already causes “the number of General Conference sessions to drop below the quadrennial minimum and violate this constitutional mandate.” We were in violation of the constitutional mandate in 2021 when it had been more than four years since the previous General Conference. Exigent circumstances prohibited the conference from meeting in 2020 or 2021, but not (we would argue) in 2022 or 2023. By postponing the conference until 2024, we are already dropping the number of General Conferences below the quadrennial minimum. The Judicial Council is not requiring the church to hold two General Conferences in 2024 to restore the correct number of General Conferences.

Decision 1451 finds “no basis in Church law” for “cancelling or skipping the 2020 General Conference and requiring new elections to be held.” There is no basis in church law for postponing the General Conference beyond the fourth year after the previous conference, either. Yet, the Judicial Council has allowed that postponement. By postponing the 2020 General Conference until 2024 and not holding two General Conferences in 2024, the church is already skipping a session of the General Conference. Fear that church law does not allow skipping a General Conference is therefore not a valid reason for requiring the postponed 2020 General Conference to be held in 2024, since such a postponement already skips a General Conference.

Decision 1451 states, “Viewed from the last regular session of General Conference in 2016, the  postponed 2020 session falls squarely within the time window of ¶ 14.” Except that it does not. The time window of Par. 14 requires General Conference to meet “once in four years.” In 2024, it will have been eight years since the previous General Conference met – clearly outside the four-year time window.

Begging the Question

Another reason the Judicial Council gives for treating the 2024 session of General Conference as the postponed 2020 General Conference is the fact that, “From the beginning, the Commission on the General Conference – the body authorized to fix the time and place of General Conference – understood its action to be postponement, not cancellation.” But that simply begs the question. The purpose of the requests for a Judicial Council decision was to determine whether the Commission was correct in styling the 2024 conference as a postponement, rather than a cancellation. The fact that the Commission did so does not form a legal basis for its being right.

Decision 1451 further argues, “Likewise, the Judicial Council adhered to this understanding by consistently referring to ‘the postponement of the 2020 General Conference’ in JCD 1409, 1410, and 1429.” Again, this begs the question of whether this remains true regarding a session held in 2024. The earlier decisions were issued before the conference was postponed until 2024 for the third time. That third postponement fundamentally changed the situation and the facts of the case. The first two postponements were required by government actions restricting travel and meetings due to Covid. The third postponement was discretionary, not required by government actions.

Negating Annual Conference Rights?

Finally, Decision 1451 argues that “the members of an annual conference have not only the constitutional duty but also right to vote ‘on the election of clergy and lay delegates to the General and the jurisdictional or central conferences.’ Const. ¶ 33.” But requiring new elections for delegates does not nullify the right of the annual conference to vote to elect delegates. It simply insists that, due to exigent circumstances, new delegates need to be elected by those annual conferences.

Any number of delegates who were elected in 2019 are no longer able to serve for the 2024 conference. Tragically, some have died. Some were elected bishop and are no longer eligible to be delegates. Some laypersons have since been ordained clergy and can no longer serve as the lay delegates they were elected to be. Some have moved away from the annual conference in which they were elected and transferred their membership, making them ineligible to serve. And recently, some delegates have disaffiliated from the UM Church, making them ineligible to serve. The Judicial Council cannot seriously maintain that it is “essential to open and fair elections, the cornerstone of our connectional and democratic polity” that all those delegates originally elected in 2019 must serve in 2024. The passage of time and changing circumstances have made that impossible.

Decision 1451 goes on, “Cancelling or skipping the 2020 General Conference and requiring new elections to be held would be tantamount to overturning the results of the 2019 elections and disenfranchising the clergy and lay members of an annual conference who voted in good faith. It would also deprive delegates of their right to be seated and serve at the session of General Conference for which they were duly elected.”

It is not this Judicial Council decision that “deprives delegates of their right to be seated and serve.” In the first instance, it was Covid and resulting government actions that caused the postponement of the conference. And it was the decision of the Commission on General Conference not to meet in 2022 or 2023 that then “deprived those delegates of the right to be seated and serve.” Jurisdictional and central conferences have met in 2022. General Conference could have, as well. That was the Commission’s decision.

Further, the Judicial Council’s decision not to require new delegate elections deprives the current annual conferences of the right to vote to elect delegates and for delegates who might have been elected for 2024 to serve in that capacity. They now must wait until 2028. That is just as unfair, and to quote the decision, “There is no basis in Church law for such course of action” of skipping elections for 2024 delegates.

Fallout from the Decision

One might wonder why this decision matters. Why spill so much ink dissecting a decision that only a small percentage of United Methodists would be passionate about?

The primary fallout from Decision 1451 is to disenfranchise United Methodist members in Africa. The number of delegates is based on the number of clergy and lay members in each annual conference. The 2020 delegates were based on 2016 numbers. The 2024 delegates would have been based on 2020 numbers.

The 2020 delegation included 278 from Africa and 482 from the U.S. African delegates hold 32 percent of the delegation, and the U.S. 56 percent.

Based on preliminary calculations, a new 2024 delegation would have included 322 from Africa and 440 from the U.S. That shift of 42-44 delegates would have taken African representation to 37 percent and reduced U.S. representation to 51 percent. That five-point shift is a very significant shift in representation and power that the African church will be deprived of. (Through a quirk in the delegate formula, although African members now comprise 52 percent of the global church membership, they would only have 37 percent of the delegates, a separate and further injustice. African membership in 2020 stood at 6.8 million, and the U.S. had 6.2 million.)

It is unconscionable that our African brothers and sisters are being systematically deprived of equal representation in the church by this decision. Now they will not be allocated the number of delegates to which they are entitled by the formula. One cannot escape the impression that this was one of the motivating factors for the Judicial Council decision. The desire to hang on to progressive U.S. representation at the expense of fair African representation bodes ill for the future of the church. It provides a “raw power” explanation for an otherwise incoherent Judicial Council decision. One wonders if the African members of the Council were unaware of the implications of this decision, or they would surely have spoken up against this injustice against their part of the church. In an era when people are rightly concerned about voter suppression in secular elections, one could hardly come up with a better example than what the Judicial Council decision does.

A second and more far-reaching fallout of this decision is to potentially delegitimize Judicial Council decisions. In all the rationales put forward by the Council for its decision, as analyzed above, there is not one solid church law basis for the decision. Instead, the Council twists the Discipline to accommodate its desired outcome and disregards previous recent decisions when they are inconvenient.

A Judicial Council that makes its decisions based on church politics rather than the Discipline is dysfunctional. It joins a Council of Bishops that is dysfunctional and a General Conference that has not been allowed to function (through postponement). All the major institutions of our church government are unable to give consistent, principled leadership to the church. Instead, they have been usurped by an inability to provide stability and legitimacy to denominational processes. The result is chaos, with different parts of the church and different leaders doing what is right in their own eyes, sacrificing any sense of a unified approach. The Covid crisis has given an excuse for different parts of the church to make exceptions to following the Discipline where they want to, while in other instances holding to the extreme letter of the church law. This failure of consistent, principled church leadership is why many lay and clergy members do not trust the institutional United Methodist Church or its governing processes. It provides yet another compelling reason to seek separation, rather than continue in a denomination that has run amok.

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Update of Last Week’s Perspective

In last week’s survey of various Methodist denominations, an error was made regarding Free Methodist bishops. They do not serve until retirement once elected. Instead, they serve four-year terms and may be reelected. The online version of the article has been corrected. The one-page comparison chart has also been corrected, which gives it a new link. The corrected chart may be accessed HERE.

Some have wondered why other Methodist denominations were not included in the comparison. There would not have been space to include the dozens of U.S. Methodist denominations, most of them fairly small. It would also have increased the confusion. Those denominations that have attracted some interest from disaffiliating United Methodists as a potential landing spot were included.

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

A Dunkirk Response to United Methodist Disintegration

A Dunkirk Response to United Methodist Disintegration

By Scott Field

By the end of May 1940, Germany’s rapid advance through north-west Europe had pushed the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), along with French and Belgian troops, back to the coast of the English Channel. Stranded on the beaches of the French port of Dunkirk, they faced certain capture, which would have meant the loss of Britain’s only trained troops and the collapse of the Allied cause. The Royal Navy hurriedly planned an emergency evacuation – Operation ‘Dynamo’ – to rescue the troops and get them to Britain.

To speed up the evacuation, an appeal went out to owners of pleasure boats and other small craft for help. Boats of all shapes and sizes cast off – 850 of them. These privately owned craft, the smallest of which was a 14’ fishing boat, became known as the “little ships.” The effort brought 338,000 soldiers – a third of them French – to safety in England between 27 May and 4 June.  The evacuation, hailed as miraculous by the press and public, was a big boost for British morale. Losses at Dunkirk were still heavy, however. Winston Churchill pointed out at the time that great challenges remained, but the “little ships” response was a remarkable demonstration of resilience by the British people and for the British people. See photos here.

What do the “little ships” at Dunkirk have to do with United Methodists right now?

As I have been meeting with leadership teams from local congregations and responding to emails and phone calls from concerned United Methodists in our region and beyond, the risk-taking resilience of the Dunkirk “little ships” came to mind.

Allow me to clearly state three disqualifiers to what I am writing in this commentary:

  1. I do not want in the least to detract from the heroism of the actual participants in “Operation Dynamo.”
  2. My comparison here is an analogy at best; we are facing the denominational unraveling of United Methodism, not the literal threat of foreign military invasion.
  3. I want to highlight the resilience of local Methodists, akin to the courage of the British citizens who took matters into their own hands, in an unprecedented and challenging situation.

So, what about these resilient Methodists in their local churches?

If you listen to or read some of the progressive-leaning influencers within the United Methodist denomination, you might conclude that the Methodists seeking disaffiliation from the UM Church are narrow-minded, bigoted, uninformed, and under the sway of separatists who have been plotting a denominational revolution for decades. For progressives and liberationists, who normally assume institutions themselves are the source of so much oppression, entitled privilege, legacy discrimination, and the injustices plaguing the world, you would think they might also include United Methodism itself in their indictment of the “principalities and powers” that afflict us all, right?

Well, apparently not so much.

The folks in the High Tower, many of our UM leaders and administrators, seem to regard Methodists considering disaffiliation as an annoyance. We are gumming up the smoothly running machinery of United Methodism and the denomination will be much better off when we leave. In the meantime, while our denominational leaders themselves disregard the standards and accountability processes of the UM Book of Discipline in many cases, each congregation inquiring about the process of disaffiliation is informed with authoritative solemnity that they must follow the “letter of the law” when is comes to the requirements of Paragraph 2553. Though Jesus himself recommended seeking reconciliation, our denomination seems to prefer the alternative Jesus warned against, “And if that happens, you won’t be free again until you have paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:26; parallel in Luke 12:59). Many have suggested that for our leaders in The High Tower, it’s actually all about the money. Perhaps so.

Okay, but what about the resilient Methodists in their local churches?

I’m impressed with the laity taking the initiative in pursuit of a better future for their congregation.

  • Local church administrative councils or boards have held congregational meetings to share information about the current denominational divide and have begun a process of discernment and, potentially, disaffiliation from the UM Church. One administrative team had to hold their information meeting in the local American Legion Hall because the pastor would not allow it to take place in the church building. A full house showed up at the Legion Hall regardless. Resilient Methodists.
  • Others, recognizing that their church would probably not meet the required two-thirds majority vote to disaffiliate, are exploring the launch of “dinner church” or micro church meetings in their area, perhaps as satellite house-sized congregations connecting via livestream or recorded video with a larger Global Methodist Church elsewhere. They are resilient – willing to lean into a completely different model of church in order to cultivate their faith, experience Christian community, and share the transforming gospel of Christ with others.
  • A group of members from seven UM churches geographically near each other are at work planning the establishment of a new Global Methodist Church initially comprised of themselves and other “wandering Methodists” in the area. They are planning to leave their “home churches” to form a new congregation together. Resilient Methodists.
  • A congregation that describes itself as “small, rural, elderly, and on its last legs” has decided to continue providing free meals to the needy in their community. They hope the new Bishop arriving in January will leave them alone because they know they cannot sustain the financial costs of disaffiliation, are concerned that a new pastor might try to “convert them to progressivism,” are very happy with their current pastor’s biblical grounding, and presume they may close the church doors at the time of the next pastoral transition anyway. They are few, but they are stalwart in serving their community. Resilient Methodists.

In no way are these collectives of the narrow-minded, bigoted, and angry. They are warm-hearted and welcoming to all who are on a spiritual quest. They want to worship the Lord Jesus, offer the good news of salvation through faith in Christ, welcome any and all who are searching for redemptive community, and serve the needs of those nearby. These are resilient Methodists.

Three cheers for laity leading toward a new Methodism in their communities.

Scott Field is a retired United Methodist clergyperson and the leader of the Northern Illinois chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Dr. Field has been part of denominational renewal efforts throughout his ministry in the local church. Photo: Dunkirk – Operation Little Ships. British commemorative stamp (2010).

Pension Liability Declines Dramatically

Pension Liability Declines Dramatically

 

By Thomas Lambrecht

One of the important financial costs for local churches to disaffiliate from the UM Church is a payment of that local church’s proportional share of the annual conference’s unfunded pension liability. That liability is calculated monthly by Wespath and shared with each annual conference on either a monthly or quarterly basis (at the request of the annual conference).

For those looking for a good explanation about why there is an unfunded pension liability, Wespath has an excellent 18-minute video that carefully explains what this is all about. Other resources about disaffiliation and pensions are also posted on that Wespath page.

Several years ago, we learned that the unfunded pension liability payment for most local churches would be seven to ten times their annual apportionment. The dramatic growth in the stock market then reduced that liability to about four to six times a church’s annual apportionment.

The good news just received is that the July 1 pension liability calculation has dramatically reduced the liability once again. As of last September 1, 2021, the pension liability was about $2.6 billion. The latest calculation has reduced that liability to $1.35 billion. So in ten months, the liability has been cut almost in half.

According to Wespath, the primary factor in reducing the liability has been the rise in interest rates. As interest rates have risen, Wespath can project a higher rate of return on long-term bonds and other instruments an insurer would use to fund pension obligations. The higher rate of return means less money is needed up front to achieve a target amount down the road.

Of course, pension assets have declined recently, due to the decline in the stock and bond markets. However, the increased interest rate projections have far outweighed the decline in asset value. So the net effect is to greatly reduce the pension liability.

The further good news is that the Fed just raised interest rates another three-quarters percentage point, which should further reduce pension liability on the next calculation. Further interest rate increases throughout the rest of this year will also continue to reduce the pension liability.

The other factor that helps reduce pension liability is a reduction in the premium that insurers charge to assume annuity obligations or defined benefit liabilities. In the past, that premium added ten percent to the liability cost. Recently, Wespath found that the marketplace premium had declined from ten percent to between five and six percent. Beginning July 1, Wespath is now charging a five percent premium instead of ten percent, which helps lower the liability.

The bottom line in all of this is that pension liability payments for disaffiliating churches just got a lot less expensive. While each annual conference’s situation is different, some conferences will experience a drop of less than half, while other conferences will experience a drop of more than half.

The key is that local churches that are disaffiliating should insist that their annual conference use the most recent calculation of pension liability to set the church’s exit fee. Most annual conferences give an up-front estimate of the pension liability cost and then set the exact number based on the calculation closest to when the local church votes to disaffiliate. This would enable the church to take advantage of declining pension liabilities to lower its cost for disaffiliation.

Local churches that have up until now thought that the cost of disaffiliation was prohibitive might find that the new numbers bring the cost within a more reasonable range. Now would be a good time to take a second look.

For most annual conferences, the window for disaffiliating will close next May-June at the regular annual conference session. If churches do not move through the process in time to be approved next spring, there may not be an equitable avenue for them to disaffiliate at all. General Conference may enact a new pathway in 2024, but there is no assurance that will happen, especially with centrist and progressive leaders dropping their support of the Protocol.

If your local church is at all interested in exploring the possibility of disaffiliation, now is the time to get started in that process. The recent reduction in pension liability may be of great help in making that decision.

Updates on Annual Conference Disaffiliation

Since publishing last week’s list of annual conference disaffiliation terms, there are updates to some conferences.

Western Pennsylvania just established their additional terms of disaffiliation. Besides the pension liability and two years’ apportionments, they require the local church to pay 11.1 percent of any unrestricted endowment funds and 20 percent of the value of land and buildings. Unfortunately, this moves Western Pennsylvania into the category of annual conferences blocking disaffiliation, as most congregations could not afford to pay the additional 20 percent of property value, nor is it fair to require them to do so.

Eastern Pennsylvania has also recently added terms to its disaffiliation, most notably the requirement to renounce previously paid-for liability insurance and the local church’s need to purchase retroactive liability insurance. This retroactive insurance is very expensive, and it requires a church to double pay for liability insurance for the same past period of time. In addition, the conference trustees reserve the right to impose additional payments on a case-by-case basis. The local church will only find out about these additional payments at its first meeting with conference officials. The insurance issue alone is enough to block some churches from disaffiliating. And if the additional payments include a percentage of the church’s property or assets, it will block those churches, as well.

The Oklahoma Conference clarified its disaffiliation process, moving it from a conference that facilitates disaffiliation to one that adds additional costs, but where disaffiliation is still possible for most churches. Before a church can proceed with disaffiliation, the conference will make a study to determine if they believe the local church is “viable.” If not, they will recommend against disaffiliation. Oklahoma requires a church to become current in apportionment payments for the previous two years, instead of just one, which could raise the church’s cost of disaffiliation to three years’ apportionments if the church did not stay current. The conference disadvantages local churches that are hoping to avail themselves of the reduced pension liability cost (see the article above) by using a six-month average of the monthly figures. The next average will be calculated in September, which means that the number will only benefit from three months of reduced pension costs out of six months total. The full effect of the reduction in pension costs will only be felt in Oklahoma next March 2023. Uniquely, the Oklahoma conference includes active and retired clergy who relate to a particular local church as eligible to vote on disaffiliation. This may contravene Par. 2553, which requires “a two-thirds majority vote of the professing members of the local church present at the church conference.” Since clergy are not professing members of the local church, they should not be able to vote on disaffiliation.

In last week’s Perspective, I said that the Holston Conference had not yet developed its disaffiliation process. That was incorrect, and I apologize for the incorrect information. They have a process that is currently being used by a number of churches. It is not available currently on their website, but is available through the District Superintendent. Fortunately, the Holston Conference has decided to impose no other costs beyond what Par. 2553 requires. They do require a three-month spiritual discernment process. So the Holston Conference can now be classified as a conference that facilitates disaffiliation in a fair and reasonable manner.

In like manner, the Rio Texas Conference is now classified as a conference that facilitates disaffiliation. They impose no additional costs. I had stated that the church would not find out its cost of disaffiliation until after it had voted. While technically correct, the church would also receive an estimate of its disaffiliation cost at the beginning of the process, so they would not be operating in the dark. This will make disaffiliation in Rio Texas more straightforward. They do still require a six-month discernment process, so churches moving toward disaffiliation should get started soon in that conference in order to meet the deadline.

The bottom line on annual conference disaffiliation processes is that 22 conferences (44 percent) facilitate disaffiliation in a fair and reasonable manner. Four of them have reduced pension costs to zero, and one has eliminated the apportionment payments. Fourteen conferences (28 percent) add costs to what Par. 2553 requires, but disaffiliation is still possible for most churches. Fourteen conferences (28 percent) have added requirements that make it almost impossible for a local church to disaffiliate.

For some annual conferences, it appears the intent is to do whatever they can to prevent local churches from disaffiliating. Sometimes, it appears the extra requirements are just a way for the conference to get more money.

One hopes that the example of the reasonable conferences could influence the holdout conferences to become more gracious. Failure to allow gracious separation will only prolong the battle in the church and sap its spiritual and physical energy for ministry.

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