By Rob Renfroe
Will the post-separation United Methodist Church be “the big tent” denomination that centrist pastors and bishops claim it will be? Leading centrists tell us that there will always be a place for traditionalists. The beliefs of conservatives will be respected and valued, we’re told. Some centrists will even go so far as to say that the future denomination needs traditionalists to be at its best. The promise is conservatives will never have to do anything they don’t feel comfortable doing and they certainly do not need to leave. You know, open hearts, minds, and doors – open enough to embrace even the likes of you and me.
Can we trust what our centrist brothers and sisters are telling us? In a word, no. I’m sad to say this is a lesson I have learned after working with leading centrist pastors and bishops for the past two decades. What they promise they will do today is completely forgotten tomorrow if it proves inconvenient. There are exceptions, of course; but at the upper level, those who can be depended upon to be true to their promises are just that – exceptions.
In Portland at the 2016 General Conference, progressive, centrist, and traditional leaders were called together by the president of the Council of Bishops to discuss moving forward with respect. What was to be one two-hour meeting turned into four. Before we were done, everyone in the room agreed there was no position that could hold the church together, not even “the one church plan” that progressives and centrists had supported. Out of those meetings came the Commission on a Way Forward that was to propose a new solution that would end the fighting.
However, the Commission brought to the church not a new solution that would lead to a respectful separation, but the same plan that had been defeated in 2016 – the same plan that centrist leaders had agreed could not hold the church together. Their commitment to a gracious parting that was made in Portland was forgotten, and they lobbied fervently for the passage of a plan they had agreed could not hold the church together. Why? Because they were convinced that with the full support of the bishops and with the misinformed belief that a good number of African delegates had changed their position, they could win. So, they reneged on their commitments, they broke the bonds of trust we had created and forced a fight that did not need to occur.
General Conference 2019 was billed as the Conference that would settle our differences once and for all. We would pray, we would engage in holy conferencing, and this special called Conference, dedicated to this one issue, would declare who The United Methodist Church was to be and how we would live together. Of course, when the progressives and the centrists lost, they refused to see the Conference as God giving us his will. Instead, it was decried as mean-spirited traditionalists and Africans infecting the church with a terrible virus (those were the words of a leading centrist pastor). In full-page statements in leading newspapers across the nation, the prayerful deliberations of General Conference were excoriated as prejudiced and hateful. Who signed these statements? Hundreds of centrist and progressive pastors and leaders. Why? Because they lost. All their talk about how together at GC 2019 we would receive God’s will for our future sounded so good. But, of course, their words meant nothing when the result was different from what they believed it would be.
Later in 2019, a group of leaders representing the vast spectrum of theological opinions within the UM Church met to create a plan to end our fighting. Miraculously, they did. Called The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation, it was endorsed by every special interest group in the denomination. However, even before General Conference 2022 was postponed, some centrist leaders who had supported the Protocol began to speak against it, saying that it would have to be renegotiated. Why? Because they believed they were gaining the upper hand and could negotiate a more favorable deal. Again, their word meant less than their desire for a political victory and greater control.
When GC 2022 was postponed until 2024, many traditional churches decided it was time to disaffiliate. Without the Protocol each bishop now has enormous power in determining what will be required for churches wanting to leave. Bishops can be gracious or punitive. Ironically, those who have accused traditionalists of being legalistic are requiring that exiting churches pay every cent that is required by the Book of Discipline. Some “centrist” bishops are even requiring that churches pay what the Discipline does not require. In addition to apportionments and the unfunded pension liability specified in the Discipline, they are demanding anywhere from 25-50 percent of a church’s total assets before allowing them to leave. These bishops know that these fees will either make it impossible for many churches to leave or will cripple them financially, if they leave, and greatly diminish their future ministries for the Kingdom. Why are they doing it? Because they can. Because they are angry institutionalists.
How can we trust centrists who have lectured us about having hearts of peace if they are now demanding their piece of flesh? One UM pastor said, “Well, Christians should not begrudge paying a price for their convictions.” She seemed to miss the part that those requiring us to pay that price were other Christians.
Can we trust these centrist leaders when they tell us that our views will be respected? Views that we have been told are unloving and unjust? Leaders who have proven themselves duplicitous and hypocritical and willing to use their power to control and damage faithful congregations who simply want to live by the standards General Conference has set?
The post-separation UM Church – a place of peace, a big tent, a denomination where traditionalists will be respected? How can we ever believe such a claim? We should not trust those who do not keep their commitments. From my experience, those making the promises are the same leaders who see those who disagree with them as hatemongers and bigots.
So, when centrist and progressives assure you the big tent of the UM Church will be grand enough for you, trust me, sometimes past results do predict future performance. Some will tell you we can all get along because they are naïve enough to believe it to be true. Others know it’s not true, but they will say it anyway. Why? Because they can. Because it makes them feel better about themselves when they pretend to be open-minded. Because it serves their purpose of keeping as many traditional churches as possible within the UM Church until they can appoint a centrist or a progressive pastor to serve those congregations and turn them into “a real United Methodist Church.” Why? Because they know some good-hearted traditionalists cannot believe that their bishop or their pastor would ever tell them something that’s untrue.
You may want to stay in the UM Church. You may be progressive in your theological views and that’s your prerogative. But if you are a traditionalist, think twice about trusting the assurances and the promises made by centrist bishops and pastors. Their track record of keeping those promises speaks for itself. Do not stay because you hope you’ll be treated well if you remain. You won’t.
There are many centrists and progressives of character who desire a peaceful solution to our division that does not create winners and losers. For them we are grateful, especially for those bishops who are working in good-faith with traditional churches. But those who are telling you that the UM tent will always be big enough for traditionalists – I cannot think of a single reason you should stake the future of your church upon their promises.
Rob Renfroe is a United Methodist clergyperson and the president of Good News. This editorial appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Good News.