On May 5, liberal United Methodist caucus group Mainstream UMC held a livestream “town hall” where its Director, the Rev. Mark Holland, spoke on the status of the denomination and answered questions. The full video of the online presentation can be viewed on YouTube.
Mainstream UMC was an ardent proponent of the “One Church Plan” submitted to General Conference last year. Their goal, along with other self-identifying “centrist” groups like Uniting Methodists, is for the UMC’s to loosen its current traditional standards on human sexuality and marriage, and allow churches and clergy to decide for themselves what standards to uphold.
While the IRD and UMAction are often at odds with Holland, including warning about false and misleading claims of his, some of his statements merit support.
However, the three proposals of Mainstream UMC’s “Call to Grace,” the main focus of the online town hall, may seem attractive on a first glance, but are all very flawed and unworkable when we look closer.
Notably, Holland, in response to a question by an audience member during the Q&A session, said that he would love a moratorium on the closing of small churches: “Small local churches are struggling, and I would love to have a moratorium on closing them.” Holland noted that in many towns and communities, especially rural ones, local United Methodist congregations are sometimes the last witness for Jesus Christ.
It is a welcome comment, as conservatives raised concerns about liberal bishops heavy-handedly closing small, rural, generally conservative-leaning congregations to strengthen the liberal side’s political position within their annual conferences. Perhaps more importantly, in a time of pandemic and a restructuring of the denomination on the horizon, empowering and placing faith in the smallest of churches could do a lot of good towards making disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world, both right now and in the years to come.
In a sign of apparent good will, Holland also explicitly encouraged those traditionalists who want to form a new denomination to continue pursuing that goal, saying “We would invite those groups that are forming a new denomination to keep doing [their] work.” Such “work” would seem to include the meeting of thirty conservative leaders across the denomination, including IRD’s Mark Tooley and John Lomperis, in Atlanta in early March to discuss the future of orthodox Methodism. With all the tensions that irreconcilable differences in beliefs have caused, it was helpful to see Mainstream UMC advocating separate theological camps within the UMC seeing each other off with kindness as a healthy step for the future.
Holland also made it clear that Mainstream UMC as a whole will continue advocating for the passage of the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, often referred to as simply “the Protocol.” Rev. Holland also expressed a clear preference to the Protocol’s proposed financial settlement, which would $25 million to the new traditionalist denomination that forms (which is really compensation for the Protocol’s provisions for the liberal side to take over all of the denominational agencies currently part of the officially traditionalist UMC, which have much larger assets), over spending tens of millions of dollars on property lawsuits, as seen in other denominations like The Episcopal Church. Holland said, “The Episcopalian Church, for instance, spent tens of millions of dollars in litigation after a division over similar issues. If we could spend $25 million to seed groups that are moving forward, that would be a great blessing. And I would much rather contribute finances to the group, to seed their ministry, than to just feed the lawyers.”
Mainstream UMC’s “Call to Grace” is a three-point proposal for United Methodists in this time of preparing for separation. Each is predictable but highly problematic.
The first part of this “Call to Grace” is asking bishops and annual conferences to impose and extend a moratorium on accountability processes against non-celibate LGBTQ clergy and those that perform same-sex weddings.
Unfortunately, this part of Mainstream UMC’s platform ignores the fact that traditionalists believe that when clergy choose to break their vows, they create real harm, whether by engaging in or endorsing any form of sexual immorality. The call for a moratorium on trials on these issues may only be helpful if theological liberals committed to exercising restraint and not violating the church’s standards, at least in this interim period. However, if clergy refuse to exercise such restraint and choose to take actions that harm the church, they should expect formal complaints to be filed against them. In such cases, UM church law still requires bishops to process such complaints.
Further, a moratorium extending well over a year until General Conference convenes likely sometime in Fall 2021 is far weightier than a four-month moratorium (from January to May 2020) as originally envisioned by the creators of the Protocol.
United Methodists would also do well to remember that the wishes of Holland or any bishops or caucus groups cannot change what parts of church law are in effect and which will be changed – ONLY General Conference can do that. No many how many internet-connected, English-speaking members of the global denomination sign an online petition, this can never override the decisions made by General Conference, which last met in February 2019. The Discipline also requires timelines and deadlines at different stages of processing complaints, and no bishop, annual conference, or caucus leader has any right to disregard them.
Second, Holland also asked both bishops and annual conferences to work with congregations that wish to depart the denomination “in the spirit of the Protocol” and to let them leave according to even more generous terms than those of the Protocol before General Conference reconvenes next year. He said that the sooner churches are sorted according to their beliefs on sexuality, the sooner healing can occur and everyone can move forward. Holland claims that bishops already have all the authority they need to allow congregations to separation from the UMC, and that fair and generous terms could, in theory, be arranged before any new legislation is enacted, such as the petitions stemming from the Protocol.
There are, however, several problems with this request. Contrary to liberal myth-making, theologically orthodox United Methodists are generally NOT eager to simply “leave the United Methodist Church,” but rather to continue their ministries within the denomination for orthodox United Methodists expected to emerge from the coming separation. But before General Conference meets, there is no such traditionalist denomination to transfer into. Premature departures would divide and scatter conservatives rather than keeping them as a unified group. Furthermore, it would be to the strategic advantage of liberals hoping to take over theologically-split annual conferences if conservative congregations moved on before any vote that could see the whole annual conference go traditionalist, because by then some reliably traditionalist votes would no longer be present.
Also, recent history suggests that, despite Holland’s assurances, current church law is not sufficient to protect traditionalist congregations who may want to separate from their annual conferences. One such congregation in Arizona went independent in 2017 and, according to a UMNS report this April, was forced out of its property after a judge ruled that the Desert Southwest Conference (DSW) was “entitled to take possession” of it. Bishop Robert T. Hoshibata said: “We tried to have conversations with the pastor and members of the church. We agreed to professional mediation. None of it was met with any success.” Apparently, years passed without the conference offering a worthwhile settlement that would have allowed the congregation to keep their building and move on from their extremely liberal conference.
The congregation, now known as Camp Verde Community Church, is now needlessly kicked out of its building. The conference will not be using the building for another congregation, but instead its trustees have decided to simply sell the church campus and the pastor’s parsonage, which helps the budget of the financially struggling annual conference.
The provisions proposed in the Protocol make it much easier and less costly for congregations to continue in a new traditionalist denomination without losing their property. Here is how:
- It would allow such a transfer to be done by a simple-majority vote of the congregation’s membership instead of a two-thirds vote threshold, as currently required.
- The congregation would not have to pay any exit fee, but would continue to be responsible for its share of the conference’s unfunded pension liability, something that they would take with them as a debt into the new denomination. Current church law requires departing congregation to pay for this upfront, which in some cases can be prohibitively expensive, at the level of hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single congregation.
- Annual conferences could not impose additional burdens that they see fit, as we are currently seeing in some cases
- Congregations separating from their annual conferences to align with another denomination emerging from the split would not have to get the approval through a vote of the annual conference, as is currently required.
- A vote within the local church on whether to change its affiliation would be required to happen within 60 days after the request is made. Without this provision, bishops and DS’s could stall for much longer.
The third piece of the “Call for Grace” is advocating for the “Christmas Covenant,” which is one of the regional conference plans that would make the United States a regional conference and would convert central conferences the Africa, the Philippines, and Europe into regional conferences. Each regional conference would be explicitly empowered to set its own standards of qualifications, powers, and accountability for its clergy, with regard to sexual morality and other matters.
Holland admitted that the “Christmas Covenant” is simply another version of similar plans that have come before General Conference but have always failed: “Its different likenesses has been before the United Methodist Church a number of times, but getting defeated at General Conference.” Holland blames its defeat (in part) due to conservative delegates rallying against it to “prop up their worldview in the United States” with international votes. But some have called such regionalization proposals, “the Global Segregation Plan.” UMAction Director John Lomperis has noted that
The effect of the Global Segregation Plan would be to simply empower the U.S. wing of the church, where the UMC’s power, money, and key institutions are already concentrated, to make unilateral decisions without consulting more orthodox United Methodists overseas. This would do nothing to empower United Methodists in overseas central conferences.
Holland admits that altering the church structure like this is a complex process and one that should be done deliberately, not hastily, and would require another, later special General Conference. In a post on Mainstream UMC’s website, Holland wrote that “We must remember, the delegates to General Conference 2020 were voted in with a purpose. The next General Conference delegates will be elected with a different purpose, to build a new global structure so we can be in mission together.” You can read John Lomperis’ analysis on these and more statements from Holland here.
During the livestream, some progressive United Methodists expressed concerns. UM Forward and UM Queer Clergy Caucus (UMQCC) leader Alex Da Silva Souto twice questioned Holland’s characterization of non-American delegates, first writing that “the historical account [given by Holland] comes across as blaming UMC leaders outside the US,” and then “I’m sorry, but the level of institutionalism, tokenism, condescension, patriarchy, and white-privilege in Mainstream [is] very discouraging….” In addition, outspokenly liberal General Conference delegate Ian Urriola asked if it would have been acceptable for Methodists to “adopt a regionalization approach to the ordination of women… or desegregation.” Such comments are reminiscent of rhetoric criticizing the One Church Plan voiced by the denomination’s most progressive caucuses, such as UM Forward and the UMQCC, who protested that plan’s (temporary) tolerance of what they viewed as pockets of discrimination.
Holland responded first by saying that this is a common critique. He said, “in hindsight, we would say no, it would not be acceptable” but continued to explain that there were conferences such as the Kansas Conference that elected women to be delegates to General Conference before the church allowed it. “It was a regional decision, and was the right thing for Kansas to do,” he explained, even though General Conference refused to accept it. On segregation, he said that “even though it’s not on the books, segregation persists” and that there are regions where it is starker, and it relates to the racial and ethnic diversity of those areas. It happens on a regional basis he says, but certainly would not have been right in the past.
In the post-separation UMC, in which liberals had a much stronger position, it is not clear how long regionalization would last. Non-American United Methodists hoping to keep their traditional standards while remaining within the psUMC would face deeper and more frequent challenges as liberals pushed to make their own standards universal.
While finding points of agreement with Mark Holland is pleasantly surprising, Mainstream UMC’s three main proposals are not workable or particularly helpful for traditionalist United Methodists. We would love to see tensions eased until General Conference comes, but this online town hall reveals all the more that it is urgent for General Conference to bring a lasting solution for managing the denomination’s separation.