Opposition to impending United Methodist schism maybe more generational than ideological. One example is retired seminary chief William Lawrence, who’s declared as “truly appalling” the recently unveiled Protocol proposal to divide the denomination.
According to Lawrence, “for decades, ‘traditionalists’ and their allies have held the denomination hostage over legislation on homosexuality.” And the Protocol’s payment of $25 million to a new traditional Methodist denomination is a “ransom note.”
Lawrence is upset that potentially “more than $50,000,000 [could be paid] to a new Methodist denominations that might continue advocating discrimination on the basis of human sexuality without having to define the theological, ethical or moral basis on which it will deny the ‘sacred worth’ of all persons.”
Of course, Lawrence doesn’t admit that traditionalists are the global governing majority of United Methodism and could instead theoretically lay claim to all $800 million in general church agency assets.
Lawrence “wonders if a progressive group might arise, ask for similar privileges, and seek equal amounts of funding for some new Methodist denomination of its liking.” The Protocol potentially provides $2 million to any other new denomination. But progressives are essentially, under this plan, inheriting most United Methodist assets. Apparently he thinks the traditionalist majority should get nothing and, as in other Mainline denominations, simply flee as refugees.
The Protocol is backed by liberal and conservative caucus groups who collectively realized schism was needed and inevitable. Traditionalists have a governing global majority thanks to the growing churches in Africa. Liberals still firmly control the declining USA part of the denomination.
Some older institutionalists are more firmly committed to preserving United Methodism structurally as it is, even as that structure implodes. But the age of great denominational bureaucracies in America is ending as deep loyalties to denominations are ending. American Christianity for better or worse has become post-denominational and congregationalist.
Older liberal institutionalists like Lawrence are nostalgic for bygone decades when evangelicals in USA United Methodism were a barely tolerated disdained minority. Liberal bishops and church agency bureaucrats dictated denominational policy nonchalantly and indifferent to dissenting traditionalists. They assumed that United Methodism as a wealthy liberal Mainline church was a permanent reality. This assumption began to collapse, at least for younger church elites, as membership and finances glided ever downward.
Older liberal church elites, along with nearly everybody else in the USA church, were unprepared for the sudden rise of United Methodism in Africa, which gave traditionalists a new governing majority. Under this new demographic reality, United Methodism gained a new trajectory very different from its sister liberal Mainline denominations. Unlike they, it would not liberalize its teachings on marriage and sex. And unlike some of them, it would not effectively expell traditionalists and seize their church properties.
For older liberal church institutionalists like Lawrence, the last 10 years in United Methodism, climaxed by the 2019 Special General Conference, where liberal elites were defeated on sex, have been an unexpected nightmare. Traditionalists who were supposedly defeated and made irrelevant early in the last century are now ascendant, getting a “ransom,” and a large chunk of USA congregations plus the overseas church, collectively the majority. What’s left of the liberal USA church will face accelerating decline while saddled by unsustainable archaic bureaucracy. Even without schism and the Protocol, the USA church faces this grim future, plus continued civil war.
Lawrence offers no alternative to the Protocol. He only heeps sarcasm on its organizers for their “appalling” presumption, with their “bold requests,” “aggressive claims,” and demands for “special privileges.” He wants all the fuss to go away and to pretend as though it’s still 1985 when confident liberal institutionalists still smoothly steered a slowly sinking tanker, bringing us to the present moment of schism.
Fortunately, 2020 offers more opportunity for Methodist revival than did the suffocating decades of liberal institutionalism, when steady unquestioning decline, managed by an aloof bureaucracy, was the only appalling option. Lawrence warns that “breaking up is really hard to do.” He’s right but it’s far preferable to near certain denominational death.