Will some liberal United Methodist leaders abandon the spirit of compromise embodied in the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation,” even despite its already rather lop-sidedly favorable terms for the liberal side?
The simple fact that leaders from so many different constituencies of the United Methodist Church were able to agree on a negotiated path forward for United Methodists in light of our irreconcilable internal differences was nothing short of amazing.
Fundamentally, both traditionalist and liberal sides want the same basic thing: a denomination in which they could pursue their vision of what the church should be without being blocked by the other side, and in which as many like-minded United Methodists as possible could join them.
It appeared such a win-win resolution was close.
But now after all of the professionally mediated negotiations, carefully crafted compromises, and major, one-sided concessions from the theologically traditionalist side, it seems like some liberal leaders may be effectively seeking to re-negotiate the terms of the separation to immediately grab more “wins” for their own “side,” at the expense of others.
The compromise has been repeatedly described as “balanced on a knife’s edge.” It would not take too much push in one direction or another to topple the broad but delicate pro-Protocol coalition.
The first-elected delegates from the radicalized U.S. Western Jurisdiction issued a statement in which they expressed their view of the Protocol as “working in tandem with regionalization of the denomination.” “Regionalization” refers to a recycled proposal (which liberals have unsuccessfully pushed in various forms at every General Conference since 2008) to let American United Methodism establish its own moral standards on sexuality and other matters without input from generally orthodox non-American United Methodists.
The Western delegates did not spell out how exactly they want to make regionalization and the Protocol a packaged deal.
But then the very liberal delegation of the Florida Conference went a step further by “unanimously” endorsing a resolution that professed support of the Protocol…but with a major new catch. This rather partisan group sought to move the goalposts, by calling for the next General Conference to act FIRST to adopt the liberal regionalization agenda, before even addressing the Protocol. It is noteworthy that the delegates unanimously endorsing this resolution include several key hand-picked lieutenants of Bishop Ken Carter, the president of the Council of Bishops and one of the negotiators of the Protocol.
Then another very liberal delegation and a liberal caucus group issued their own statements echoing the liberal Floridians in calling for the Protocol to be yoked with the liberal regionalization agenda, and with the latter prioritized first.
Theological traditionalists around the globe remain strongly opposed to regionalization plans, which have been nicknamed “the Global Segregation Plan” and amount to a power grab for the benefit of liberal Americans.
I and others have already extensively argued against such plans. They are all essentially the same basic plan which keeps getting tweaked and repackaged. For traditionalist United Methodists around the world, all such proposals are fundamentally contrary to our commitments to traditional biblical standards, not viewing morality as something that changes from one continent to another, and eradicating racism and colonialism from our denomination.
The Protocol’s packaged deal already asks A LOT of traditionalist delegates considering whether or not to vote “yes.” It puts the burden of initiative on folks who support the UMC’s historic doctrinal and moral standards to “withdraw from The United Methodist Church.” It requires central and annual conference votes to be blatantly “rigged” with double standards favoring the liberal side. Although every dollar of denominational agency assets is money entrusted within an officially traditionalist denomination, the Protocol gives most of that to the liberalized denomination, effectively letting the denomination continuing historic UMC doctrinal and moral standards keep only a relatively small minority share.
Even if such provisions are necessary bitter pills to swallow for the sake of the packaged deal, that cannot make them morally defensible.
Importantly, the Protocol does not go as far as directly, permanently removing the traditionalist language from the Discipline on marriage and sex. That would be an absolute deal-breaker for whether or not many traditionalist delegates’ consciences would allow us to vote “yes,” even if all the rest was perfect.
Even Mark Holland and the liberal Mainstream UMC caucus have publicly acknowledged that asking us to go along with this would be asking too much:
“It is unrealistic to expect Traditionalists in the US and the Central Conferences to vote this language out at General Conference 2020. If the shoe were on the other foot and we were leaving, would we do them a favor and put the harmful language in? Of course not. This means that we need patience for the next steps. We need to do the next steps with a sense of urgency; but we also must do the next steps right. The church is too important for a hastily cobbled structure. The abeyance buys us time to do this prayerfully and thoughtfully with maximum input from around the globe.”
In the above-linked statement, Holland goes onto characterize decisions about the nature of regional structures in the liberal Post-Separation UMC (PSUMC) as something best determined in a future General Conference. This would be composed of delegates who would only come from conferences that have chosen to be part of the liberal PSUMC, delegates who “will be elected with a different purpose” than those elected as delegates to the pre-separation 2020 General Conference.
The Protocol negotiations sought to merely establish the separation process. Therefore, attempts to define the governance or other internal matters within the PSUMC or other new denominations on the other side after the separation were not included in the final Protocol legislation, beyond rather vague, non-binding, and brief statements about the future “we envision.” This is ultimately left up to each denomination to decide on its own, after separation.
If even Mainstream UMC and the very liberal Protocol negotiators can wait only a short time longer, others certainly can as well. (Even if the Coronavirus was not forcing all of us to get a lot more used to the practice of waiting.)
Remember, the Protocol is not the first major negotiation effort among leaders of different “sides” to seek an amicable way forward. Earlier efforts failed, thanks in large part to liberal leaders’ choosing to insist on unreasonable demands, and/or preferring to abandon efforts at “bipartisan” negotiation to instead try their luck at getting enough votes for their side to “win” and making others “lose.”
As a result, the last General Conference adopted the Traditional Plan last year, with no buy-in from the liberal side.
Part of liberal refusal to exercise a bit more grace and restraint in such negotiations may perhaps be driven by liberal leaders telling each other that “the conservatives” all want to leave anyway, and so they can seek terms as stacked in liberals’ favor as they please, since traditionalists will settle for any deal. But that thinking was wrong then and would be wrong now.
The Protocol has already pushed traditionalists far enough, and then some. We have limits. If liberal leaders now insist on renegotiating the path towards separation along the lines of the Florida resolution, then they would be needlessly repeating the same approach that resulted in the adoption of the Traditional Plan. Remember, petitions to reinforce our traditionalist standards on sexual morality and close the remaining loopholes in accountability have already been submitted to General Conference, and I would expect these would be on the agenda if attempts to pass a bi-partisan separation agreement unravel.
Now some may ask, “John, what do you care what governance the PSUMC adopts for itself if you’re leaving anyway?”
To be clear, I and many other traditionalists were most certainly NOT “leaving anyway.” I was excited to sign the vision statement for the new, orthodox denomination that would be formed for traditionalist United Methodists IF the Protocol happens.
But if no acceptable separation plan is adopted, I and others would expect to remain where we are.
So before we even know whether or not the Protocol legislation will be adopted, of course we can expect traditionalist delegates to strongly oppose any partisan liberal plan for our denomination – whether on Global Segregation, seminaries, abortion, or any other issue.
To any liberal friends reading this, I would ask you to consider how you would feel about the following proposal for the next General Conference (whenever it happens): Make the very first item of business be considering and possibly adopting a package of traditionalist proposals to reinforce our current standards on sexuality with enhanced enforcement, the Traditional Plan 2.0. And then we would realistically only move on to consider the bi-partisan Protocol legislation, if we first tried and failed to get enough votes to pass the Traditional Plan 2.0.
And even if a majority of General Conference delegates voted to adopt the Protocol legislation, there is the risk of it later being invalidated by the Judicial Council. With the Traditional Plan, even after the Judicial Council had issued two separate rulings upholding several key pieces as constitutional before we delegates adopted it in February 2019, and even after the Judicial Council’s April 2019 ruling upholding the validity both these key petitions and the process by which they were adopted, over six months later, three Judicial Council members expressed their support for a request from Mark Holland, Adam Hamilton, and other liberal leaders to reconsider and reverse its earlier rulings upholding the Traditional Plan. That unfortunate incident gives us a precedent so that even if the Judicial Council issues multiple early rulings that the Protocol would be constitutional, we cannot necessarily trust that enough Judicial Council members would not later reverse such rulings.
There is also the fundamental question of if the Protocol is enacted, will bishops and others entrusted with implementing it actually honor its terms? Will they allow for fair and free decision-making at the central conference, annual conference, and congregational levels? Frankly, most of what I have seen thus far from liberal bishops, agency officials, and caucus leaders is anything but re-assuring.
Whether or not the Protocol will both get enough votes to pass and actually be implemented according to its own terms is something we will not know for sure until sometime after whenever General Conference is held.
We all wish we could have definitive answers much sooner. But for those seeking to dramatically change two thousand years of consistent Christian teaching on sexual morality, and to conclude a campaign they have been waging in the UMC since 1972, being allowed to get your way in just a couple more years is not that huge of an extension.
If any liberal friends are truly concerned about not being allowed to re-create the denomination they want after the passage of a separation agreement, then there is an obvious solution for you: let us go our separate ways in peace. Have patience. Do not try to “cheat” additional conferences, congregations, and people into your side of the divide by misinformation, bullying, or refusing to play by the rules. Honor the letter and spirit of the Protocol. Lay down our swords.
Let us have ours, and we will let you have yours.
And please, stay healthy.