By Thomas Lambrecht –
Last week, the Western Jurisdiction announced that it “is beginning preparations for the next General Conference by recommitting itself to be a faithful, inviting, open, safe and loving place for all people.” Its nearly year-long campaign, called “Where Love Lives,” is designed to promote “the faith values that have undergirded the jurisdiction’s long-term commitment to a scripturally based fully inclusive ministry.”
Importantly, the campaign advocates approval of the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” that would provide the mechanism for the formation of a new traditionalist Methodist church, allowing annual conferences, local churches, and clergy who want to align with that new traditionalist church to separate from The United Methodist Church and keep their property and pensions.
“The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation offers a way forward to begin easing the five decades of pain created by the wounds inflicted on LGBTQ persons by the church,” said the spokesperson for the campaign, Bishop Karen Oliveto, the denomination’s first openly lesbian bishop. The campaign affirms, “the carefully crafted and negotiated Protocol offers the opportunity to jump start the process” of “resetting and reforming” The United Methodist Church in light of the church’s current financial reality.
The campaign is a continuation of the Western Jurisdiction’s commitment in 2019 “to be a safe harbor for LGBTQ+ clergy from across the denomination.” It aims to provide “an alternative vision for people to embrace.” This is an alternative to the “Traditional Plan” that was adopted by the 2019 General Conference and has been steadfastly resisted by numerous annual conferences in the U.S.
The Western Jurisdiction points toward its vision for what The United Methodist Church would look like after separation takes place. It advocates for its belief “that God’s church is open to all.” “The United Methodist Church is and will be safe, secure, open, and built on faith in God, trust in one another, and with love for all in all we do.”
Of course, traditionalists could utter these same aspirations, as well. Those ideals could easily describe the new traditionalist denomination envisioned by the Wesleyan Covenant Association and others. The WCA is also committed to a church “that welcomes all, in Christ.”
What distinguishes the Western Jurisdiction’s vision is its determination that the church “will have a right to conduct same-sex marriages and ordain qualified lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons.” LGBT persons will be represented in leadership roles and policy-making processes at all levels of the post-separation UM Church. This is what is meant by “full inclusion.”
From a traditionalist standpoint, this campaign is a positive development. It continues to advocate adoption of the Protocol, which traditionalists also support, as a fair means of allowing separation to occur in The UM Church. It would end our 50-year conflict over our understanding of Scripture and the church’s moral teachings, allowing each group to pursue its vision of church unhindered by the other.
The campaign is positive also in recognizing that The United Methodist Church cannot continue as it currently is. When asking what would happen if the Protocol does not pass General Conference, the campaign reiterates, “The United Methodist Church is at a point where it must take steps towards resetting and reforming. … No matter what happens, The United Methodist Church needs to look at its structures and processes and discern how to streamline in the church’s current financial reality to maximize opportunities for mission and ministry.”
Both centrist and progressive groups, as well as the WCA, are looking for ways to reconfigure the church to make it more effective in the current reality to carry out its mission and ministry. There will be no such thing as maintaining the status quo.
It is highly appropriate that centrists and progressives flesh out their vision for the post-separation United Methodist Church. Annual conferences and local churches deserve clear choices when making decisions about separation next fall. The WCA and other traditionalist groups are working diligently to craft our vision for what a new faithful traditional Methodist church could look like. Centrists and progressives are right to be doing the same thing.
Obviously, traditionalists will have deep differences with the Western Jurisdiction and others who are crafting visions for the future of the church. How we define and understand our doctrines, moral teachings, and theological method are vastly different. Many traditionalists will be unable to participate in the post-separation United Methodist Church as defined by “full inclusion.”
At the same time, the Western Jurisdiction and other groups are to be commended for doing the hard work of beginning to envision a new understanding of church that will be effective for the 21st century. The near-universal support for the Protocol that we continue to hear from leaders and grass-roots constituents across the spectrum means that we need to be prepared for what comes next. We cannot wait until General Conference approves the Protocol to get started on defining our options for the future.
At times in my life when I had a suitable yard, I loved to garden. I learned that there are times when you can see nothing happening above ground, but the seeds are germinating below ground and sending out roots to nourish the budding plant. It is from the invisible roots formed underground that the explosive growth of the plant above ground takes place. I had to learn to be patient for the underground work to be completed in order to begin seeing the above ground flourishing of the plants.
We are in one of those waiting times now, when not much is happening above ground in moving toward a new and more vibrant future for the church. But this campaign by the Western Jurisdiction and the work by the WCA and other groups happening below ground is preparing the way for the explosive growth that can happen in the aftermath of General Conference next year. That work will make us much better prepared to start strong, give clear options for people to make their decisions, and refocus on the mission of the church in making disciples of Jesus Christ and spreading scriptural holiness across the globe.
May God guide our preparations, that he may bless and make fruitful our efforts toward a new direction for Methodism.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.