united methodist separation

January 6, 2020

Episcopalians’ Appraisal of the United Methodist Separation Protocol

A diverse group of United Methodists has negotiated and released a proposed protocol to divide the denomination. This potentially concludes decades of internal conflict centered upon marriage and human sexual expression. IRD President Mark Tooley has a write-up of the proposal that can be viewed here.

In evaluating the separation protocol, it is instructive to examine the legacy of the litigious and ugly split that occurred in the Episcopal Church.

That split remains to be fully sorted out: theological revisionists continue their consolidation within the denomination, requiring dioceses to permit same-sex rites that were once optional. Revisionists also aim to revise the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) with those same-sex rites and “expansive” gender neutral language, undeterred by the defeat of a BCP revision proposal at the 2018 General Convention. Costly and time-consuming litigation continues in the cases of the Dioceses of Fort Worth and South Carolina that now affiliate with the Anglican Church in North America.

In the Episcopal Church, there is presently no accepted canonical way – short of an act of General Convention – for a parish or diocese to peaceably depart unchallenged by church authorities. This contrasts with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which permits congregations to re-affiliate with another Lutheran denomination with two successive votes by two-thirds of church members present. The Presbyterian Church (USA) allows for congregations to seek “gracious dismissal” with property via negotiated agreements that vary widely across presbyteries but always provided some (often costly) route for departure.

The negotiated United Methodist protocol establishes a 57% vote threshold for annual conference (the regional equivalent of dioceses or presbyteries) re-affiliation. Requiring traditionalists to meet a higher threshold to determine an annual conference’s affiliation — while revisionists only have to obtain 44% to win an annual conference — is an inconsistent standard, but at least there is a defined standard.

On the congregational level, local churches can re-affiliate with a simple majority vote. While there are provisions for the funding of pension liabilities, churches can depart with property intact.

If these same terms were in place during the Episcopal split, traditionalists would have likely been able to launch with 14 intact Episcopal dioceses rather than five, and probably 600+ parishes rather than the approximately 300 that came from the Episcopal Church. Former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was famously advised by Episcopal Church Chancellor David Booth Beers in 2006 that a heavy-handed strategy of litigation against departing Anglicans was necessary to prevent additional dioceses and parishes from departing.

Episcopalians’ legacy of internecine warfare has been stark. It contributed to the uninterrupted decline of the church from 2,205,376 members and 787,271 attendees in 2005 (the year before Jefferts-Schori’s election when most departures began in earnest) to 1,676,349 members (-24%) and 531,958 attendees (-32%) in 2018.

At the same time, the Anglican Church in North America has grown gradually to 134,649 members and 88,048 attendees in 2018. A strategy of church planting and joining together with groups already outside of the Episcopal Church, including the Anglican Mission in America (AMIA) and the Reformed Episcopal Church (REC) was generally fruitful, but probably a larger number of theologically orthodox parishes remained within the Episcopal denomination.

Under an equivalent separation protocol within the Episcopal Church, we more likely would have seen the vast majority of the Common Cause Partners / Anglican Communion Network (a theologically orthodox network of Anglican and Episcopal dioceses and parishes roughly equivalent to the Wesleyan Covenant Association or the Fellowship of Presbyterians) depart to establish a new traditionalist denomination. At its height in 2004, the ACN counted 200,000 congregants and 900 affiliated parishes. That is 33% more members than the ACNA counts today.

In short, from an Episcopal/Anglican perspective, the proposed United Methodist separation protocol seems much more favorable to traditionalists who wish to uphold biblical teaching and retain properties that serve as ministry outposts.

I realize it is a significant difference between the two denominations in how revisionists had a clear dominant majority at Episcopal General Convention, while the global UMC is majority orthodox, even if the U.S. leadership is in a different place.

As Mark Tooley notes, this unfolding process will be messy and often tragic. But division will allow evangelistic-minded Methodism to plant new congregations and grow. This is especially valuable in geographic parts of the denomination now controlled by theological revisionists, such as the Western Jurisdiction, where young evangelical church planters are discouraged from planting within United Methodist ecclesial structures.

One final anecdote: this is not a promise “if you take down the rainbow flag, they will come.” Theological orthodoxy is a prerequisite for church growth, but it is not in itself sufficient. There must be a strong missional pull to reach people outside of United Methodism, and a group of cranky disaffected ex-United Methodists does not a vibrant church plant make.

In 2006, I was part of a congregation that voted to depart the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. For years we longed to plant daughter congregations in the inner suburbs of the Washington metropolitan area. Diocesan policy required the permission of neighboring Episcopal congregations in order to plant, something unobtainable from half-empty progressive parishes which saw neighboring evangelical Episcopalians as unwelcome competition.

Upon departing the Episcopal Church, the Falls Church Anglican was immediately able to plant free from ecclesiastical restriction. In the following decade, eight congregations were planted, two of which have gone on to plant daughter congregations of their own. All this was done amidst the distractions and financial expense of a multi-year lawsuit brought by the Episcopal Diocese.

What could evangelical Methodists accomplish, without the lawsuits and with the freedom to plant anywhere the Holy Spirit led? I foresee a new landscape in which orthodox graduates of Asbury or United Theological Seminary could plant in places like Washington, D.C., Boston, or Seattle. Methodists from the Global South could more easily plant among their immigrant communities, knowing they have partners rooted in the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

None of this is guaranteed: it requires much prayer and the providential work of the Holy Spirit. But compared to the harmful legacy of the Episcopal Church, United Methodists are being presented with a better option.


Correction: An earlier version of this blog entry stated that the ELCA “permits congregations to re-affiliate with another Lutheran denomination with two simple majority votes.”

According to the ELCA News Blog, “Generally, congregations that want to leave the ELCA are required to take two votes, at least 90 days apart, and must achieve a two-thirds majority of voting members present for each vote. They are also required to ‘consult’ with the synod bishop between votes to leave.”


31 Responses to Episcopalians’ Appraisal of the United Methodist Separation Protocol

  1. Scott says:

    My concern is that the plan promoted last Friday provides for the progressive position to be the default position for local churches, with local churches having to affirmatively vote to be traditional. The “middle” in local churches will likely remain in the local church regardless of what the GC decides . The Jan. 3 plan therefore forces out traditional Methodists from their local churches unless their local churches are majority traditionalists. I do not think the Jan. 3 plan really benefits the majority of traditional Methodists but, instead, benefits the progressives AND those local churches already firmly in the Welesyan Covenant Association camp.

    • td says:

      Yes, this is my take also.

      You can not call something a “splitting” if one side gets to stay and the other side has to go. A splitting means that both sides leave. And 44% to stay is just absurd.

      The sticking point on all these “plans” revolves around the defaults for those annual conferences and local churches who choose to not choose. The reality is that if a plan passes, those defaults will be determined by whichever coalition has the majority at general conference and we won’t know that until the general conference meets and the legislative committee begins their work.

      The other wrinkle is that the liberal umc and us bishops have already indicated by past behavior that they will not abide by any decision made by general conference with which they disagree. Which means that if the defaults are to traditional beliefs, we have no reasonable guarantee that they will follow the plan that has been passed.

      What i am saying here is that this institution is probably dead simply because its liberal leaders have decided not to follow the rules that they are required to follow – whether it be about personal conduct or respecting legitimately determined institutional rules and procedures.

      Unfortunately, we as local members can’t trust our clergy and bishops to do anything except follow their own personal wishes.

      • Paul W. says:

        Also, according to Walter Fenton’s article on the proposal, a congregation needs to get approval from their DS in order to even vote on whether to depart. This alone gives the liberal bureaucracy everything they need to effectively subvert the intended process, hold evangelical congregations hostage, and punish evangelical pastors who might have the audacity to not actively discourage their churches from voting.

        This is a terrible document. I’ve been in business dealings in the past with parties that actively intended to “reinterpret” the letter of an agreement rather than follow the intention of the agreement; this is what we are dealing with with the progressive/revisionist faction. In these cases, the agreement needs to be made as ironclad as possible through the addition of explicit definitions and clauses to close every possible “barndoor”. In reading this document, it appears that none of this was done. I don’t know if this was due to naivete on the part of the “traditionalist” negotiators, but, just with a cursory reading, I see multiple “barndoors” that I fully expect the revisionists to gleefully exploit.

        I would also bet the farm that the 57% threshold for an annual conference to depart was selected explicitly by the revisionist side based on their detailed research regarding how many revisionist delegates they can count on based on their last full-court press to stack the annual conference and GC delegate counts. Under this 57% proposal, after another revisionist push to stack the annual conferences, I’d be surprised if more than a total of 2 or 3 AC’s would vote to depart.

        I really wish the WCA and other reform groups would respond to the criticisms being posted. I want to know whether there are key points we’re missing in this.

        • JR says:

          Sigh.

          This isn’t the actual legislation (which will have to be written, voted on by an AC, and submitted to GC) – this is the broad based agreement done via mediation.

          Example:
          “A vote on a motion to opt for a different affiliation shall occur in a church conference held not more than 60 days after the request for such a vote is made by the church council. Such church conferences must be held in consultation with the District Superintendent who shall authorize such church conferences to be conducted. Decisions about affiliation by a local church pursuant to this Protocol must be made by December 31, 2024.”

          While the DS is involved, there’s also a 60 day requirement. The implications you make are a little silly.

          Similarly, on the 57% – NUMEROUS articles mention that the 57% is an agreeable point between the 50%+1 vote (from the WCA side) and the 2/3 majority (from the Progressive side). It’s not some conspiracy, it’s a negotiated middle ground.

          • Paul W. says:

            JR, I hope you’re right and my concerns turn out to just be, as you state, “silly”. Remember, though, the other side has a long history of looking for and finding “barndoors” to avoid the clear intent of GC legislation. I still see the same here: If the DS chooses simply to not authorize the church conference, the 60 day time limit becomes moot; this is clearly not the intent, but can easily be claimed as “their” understanding. You may choose to trust these jokers even after all their antics at GC and all the lies they continue to actively promote even while participating in this “negotiation”; I don’t.

          • JR says:

            Hi Paul,
            I see no benefit for a DS in trying to cause problems here. I’d have to assume that the legislation that is actually issued (these are the guideline principles, after all) would address the point, e.g. DS “MUST” schedule the meeting within 60 days unless a different schedule is agreed upon by all parties, etc.

            The guidelines seem pretty clear. And if a DS tried to play games, every constituent group to this protocol should be advised and should forcefully address the issue.

        • JR says:

          So I’m interested in your farm. Where is it, and how many acres? 🙂

          • td says:

            For future reference, you should not ask someone how large their farm is. That question is the same as asking how much money someone makes.

          • JR says:

            If one is not willing to discuss the size of their holdings, one should not bet them. QED. 🙂

        • Reynolds says:

          I am not sure they want to respond. They folded a winning hand and got their teeth kicked In. This agreement was a shakedown and shows that the WCA wa unwilling to fight for another 4 years.

          • Gary Bebop says:

            You misunderstand a mediated process. The beauty of the Protocol is that local churches may separate to a new denomination with a simple majority vote, or 2/3 if the Church Council so decides. The local church gets to separate with their property (and pension liabilities) without further penalty. This is a very low bar for separation. And about all the supposed wealth left behind: Do you really want to inherit the progressive agencies and thickets of administration in a new, Traditional denomination? There’s no way to “wave a hand” over this mess and have it magically sort itself out. There’s no magisterial authority to do this by fiat (to speak and it’s done). A lot of these reactionary complaints sound like Israel longing for the flesh pots, the leeks, the onions, the melons, left behind in Egpt.

  2. Mark says:

    I agree completely, Scott and td. This proposal benefits everyone except the rank and file orthodox believers who aren’t already in a WCA affirming congregation. We’re booted to the curb. I just hope somehow it all eventually benefits Christ’s church. Meanwhile maybe I can round up a few misfits and an Asbury grad near me and start over.

  3. Greg M says:

    Any insight on how the overseas conferences will vote? If I read things correctly there is even a higher percentage needed to leave—66 percent.

  4. Eric J LeFevre says:

    “This contrasts with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which permits congregations to re-affiliate with another Lutheran denomination with two simple majority votes”

    Picking nits here, but the ELCA’s model constitution dictates two 2/3s majority votes, not two simple majorities (lutheran here).

  5. Dean says:

    I would be willing to bet that the Free Methodist will be there to welcome all of the non WCA affiliated Traditional Methodist Congregations who fall through the cracks.

    The ultimate decision in it all will be the individual. Jesus doesn’t need the UMC to move through the population, Jesus needs people. It has always been, the Church needs the people, not the other way around. I for one, a praise and worship leader, will not stay at a Church that refers to me as a homophobic bigot in its heart and behind closed doors in personal conversations. If my Church chooses to affiliate with a non biblical theology, then I will leave. It is simple as that.

    • JR says:

      The problem with that, as I see it, is if a church doesn’t decide to go to a UMC carve out group, the trust clause still applies.

      I would hope that some smart folks in the areas where there’s a split plan ahead – in mixed areas, help figure out that Church A can have a critical mass to go WCA, and support the transferral of membership to that church, while then suggesting any non-WCA folks in Church A flow to the other(s).

      The difficulty with that is, changing churches is hard – even if you are theologically on the same page.

      • td says:

        You have a lot of hope. Why do you think any of our liberal leaders would follow anything with which they disagree? They certainly have not followed the decisions of the last gc.
        There is no recent history of them respecting traditional believers in any fashion.

        • JR says:

          Hi td,

          I’m a hopeful guy. The best thing that we could do (all of us, all the way through) is to act as thoughtfully and kindly as we can on this.

          The mess of the last few years has really hurt the Church. We should work to reverse as much of that as possible.

          The realist in me says that most areas are NOT going to think ahead enough. Everyone is going to be so focused on their own mess that they don’t even look at their neighbor. But if you have 3 churches, all of them near the thresholds, a managed split would allow 2 strong churches in one direction and 1 strong church in the other. But if you hold the line, then you have 3 weak churches (as people will leave if they disagree with their personal church outcome).

          Heck, I wanted this to be already figured out. I had hoped that we’d have started up a national UMC Census, which would help leadership figure out the best way to manage the split.

  6. AARON FRAUSTRO says:

    Is it hypocritical for progressive Christians to talk about racial diversity but by doing this they are, I assume, removing so much of their racial diversity from their denomination? The power of Africans and Asians within a denomination grows and because you don’t like their beliefs you separate them into a new denomination? I do not believe progressive UMC members are prejudiced but this feels wrong.

  7. Scott says:

    For all those traditionalists out there consider the alternative. If we win control of the UMC to the point where we can enforce discipline on the church and bishops (this is years away) then we have a tremendous job ahead of us that will consume enormous amounts of time and personal capital. We will have to clean out the staffs of the agencies and eliminate much of the bureaucracy. We will have to either disaffliate, close, or clean out the professors of most of our seminaries and replace them with traditional professors. There will be numerous church trials eliminating clergy that disobey the rules and we will need to develop a whole new class of traditional clergy to replace the 60%+ of elders who are progressive. This will require enormous emotional effort and a hugh hit on the reputation of the UMC. Not to mention the financial hit of the pension plans which will most fail eventually, as pension plans are essentially pyramid schemes that work only with a rising population of support. Do you think the above is going to grow or shrink the number of congregations and laity that will be available to pay all those pensions. Or we can walk away and start fresh. Which one will cause us to serve Christ better, which is the real goal of our efforts. I feel sorry for those traditionalist that live in liberal areas and are likely to see their churches turn progressive. I have pastored churches like that and there will be pain. However look at what happened to Falls Church in the article. We will be able to plant traditional churches in all the areas now controlled by liberals. It is a myth that those areas are uniformly liberal. They are not. Hopefully some of the small country churches in the liberal areas will go traditionalist and provide a nucleus for revival in those areas. BTW I am the Scott that comments often on websites adressing these issues, but not the one who commented earlier or who has posted many negative comments about this plan on other sites. I support it as the best possible compromise and pray my church can be set free.

    • JR says:

      Sounds like you’ve already come to the conclusion that a HUAC-option for the UMC isn’t feasible, or at least publicly viable.

      I do agree that a split could work for both sides – less fighting each other, more positive action for others. I pray that it works out.

      • Scott says:

        Hi JR! what do you mean by HUAC? I too am praying that this plan works out. I have zero expectation that any of the others will be approved. The alternative is a big ugly fight where nothing gets done and we spend another 4 years arguing amongst ourselves and not serving the Lord. I do hope that the progressive church does become more evangelical and the traditional church becomes more interested in social justice.

        • JR says:

          HUAC – House Un-American Activities Committee, i.e. McCarthyism. Trying to root out all those who aren’t in alignment with a particular purity test.

          I agree with you that this might work, if only because of the amount of support from a wide spectrum of opinion. I hope it does, if only to smooth the process and let us all get on with the Jesus business, instead of fighting each other.

          And I like your last line, too. Both sides of this need some of what the other has. It’s a shame we couldn’t work together while together.

      • td says:

        HUAC is not a comparable thing. This issue is about or clergy following the stated rules and teaching the stated doctrines of our church. Mccarthyism made things up and ruined people’s lives based on lies and their personal beliefs and acquaintances.

        When a bishop refuses to enforce the explicit rules for their clergy or refuses to follow the decisions of gc and the judicial council, they are the one abusing their powers and perverting the institution.

        Now, that does not mean that i don’t agree that the main problem is that our clergy, bishops, seminaries, and almost all our agenicies and adminatrators disagree with and won’t uphold our rules due to their personal beliefs. And because of this, our church is in serious institutional trouble. So, yes, for traditional christuanity to survive in the umc, there would need to be a great moving of the holy spirit to produce a turnover of these individuals, agencies, and schools. I personally believe this is possible. However, i think most of our leaders, on both sides, are fairly faithless. A faithful response by our bishops at gc last year probably would have supported the connectional plan, but they said, “no, that’s too hard”. I supported both that and the traditional plan.

  8. Bret Dixon says:

    The root problem is the Bishops are choosing their pensions over the convictions of the Church they agreed to serve. A. They are hoping to deflect the vocal minority criticism by caving to their demands, which is the popular position in American right now. B. They want to shed the potential of non-American deligates due to their conservative voting record. C. Avoid a vote to change the book of Disciple and create a coup for the liberal agenda because no matter what they say, they can’t be sure a new American Methodist Annual Conference will remove the bans on homosexual ordination and marriages. D. They know the majority of the denomination churches are small and have no funds or energy to pursue another Church structure so they are banking on them staying in the new liberal structure (forced upon them) due to apathy. Not many Bishops will have the courage to step outside the UMC. They know a true split will ruin their pensions plans, current and future, and they want to deflect controversy. The end result, and true sin….will be a disaffected traditional majority, where many will drop out completely leaving hundreds of thousands out of any church and no legacy to re-establish a conservative, family centered Methodist Church.

  9. Gary Bebop says:

    All this yakking obscures an important fact: Methodism doesn’t govern itself by direct vote of the people. It deliberates through representative bodies. So while there may be a hypothetical majority of Traditionalists in Methodism, those members do not have a mechanism to overthrow their episcopal leaders to get a better modus vivendi. That’s one reason why getting the Protocol is remarkable. All the relevant powers, the special interest groups, came to an agreement through a difficult but fair-minded mediation. Nothing short of an act of mercy.

    • Ric Cisco says:

      Yakking. As I read through these comments and replies, the thought, “blah, blah, blah.” came to mind. Sorry if that turns anyone off. It was not intended to do so.
      Jesus’ presence and purpose here was not limited to being the Lamb of God. The curtain at the entrance to the Holy of Holies was rent through. Admission to the Throne Room was opened to each individual. Access to God was open to all.
      We don’t need priests, popes, ministers, pastors or rabbis. Nor do we need denominations, churches, districts, councils, or committees.
      The communist’s “Long March through the Institutions” is over. The campus radicals from the 1960’s are retiring. They have used the aforementioned offices and organisations to divide us in order to conquer us. They have not yet completed that goal. This IRD blog proves they have not succeeded yet but neither have they failed. Believe this: they will continue until they conquer us if they are allowed to do so.
      My personal solution was to join (or form) a small house church where everyone serves as a minister. Everyone also serves as a preacher or teacher when he or she is led to do so. Our tithes and offerings are managed by our board of elders so none may be siphoned off by obligations to national or church wide funds and/or organisations which work against our prayerful judgment. The sheaves are brought into the storehouse during the fat years so that they will be available during the lean years. We are not a tax exempt entity that must distribute in equal to what we contribute. No one is paid. We are a true “first century church” and wish to continue on that path.
      We welcome homeschooling families and parents who choose not to burden children with a social(ist) security number.
      We welcome our congregants to carry open or concealed arms. We include arms training and cleaning with bluegrass gospel and wholesome family activities before and after our communion as a whole meal.
      When our congregation becomes larger than we may accommodate, we help those who travel the farthest to start another house church thereby continuing The Great Commission. It works for us.

  10. Charlotte says:

    Did anyone watch the Q & A of the group that came up with this proposal? It is over an hour long. The 57% was decided by the mediator since the tradisionalist and the progressives could not decide. Archived on the UM website. Very interesting to say the least.

  11. JT says:

    So if given leaving denomination before all this in May compared to waiting what options are offered then, what choice do you make. Very weary of all this.

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