Wesleyan Covenant AssociationPresidentKeith Boyette offers an update on The United Methodist Church’s impending schism. Boyette helped craft the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation unveiled earlier this year. It was endorsed by liberal and conservative caucus groups that have battled each other across 50 years over differences about theology and sexual ethics. TheProtocollikely would have been enacted in May if the denomination’s governing General Conference, now rescheduled for August/September 2021, had not been postponed by the pandemic.
Boyette answers questions about how United Methodism’s division into separate traditional and progressive denominations possibly will unfold. The global nearly 13 million member church would be the first major Mainline Protestant body formally to divide since before the Civil War. Boyette insightfully explains an historic development in USA and global Christianity.
Mark Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, DC, although I’m sitting in Alexandria, Virginia today with the pleasure of speaking with my fellow Virginia Methodist Keith Boyette, who is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and a longtime leader of traditional beliefs within the United Methodist Church. He was a leading participant and the team that created the Protocol for the potential division of United Methodist Church that likely would have been enacted in May this year had the governing General Conference of the United Methodist Church not been postponed by the pandemic. That conference will now at least is scheduled to meet next August and September. But meanwhile, there’s a lot of conversation, and some people are wondering about the status of this proposal to divide the United Methodist Church. So Keith Boyette, having been at the center of its creation and ongoing conversation, thank you so much for joining us.
Keith Boyette: Well, it’s a joy to be with you today. Mark, thanks for the opportunity and glad to provide people with some insight and updates.
Mark Tooley: And I should point out that Keith before becoming president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association was a pastor in Virginia for almost 30 years, correct?
Keith Boyette: 24, yeah.
Mark Tooley: He founded a church outside Fredericksburg, Virginia. And if I recall correctly, he and I first met 30 years ago at the Virginia Annual Conference when he was still an attorney in Richmond and heading off to seminary to begin his ministerial career.
Keith Boyette: That’s correct. You would have been in the mid 1980s. I think that we first encountered each other.
Mark Tooley: As as first started going to Virginia annual conference as a college student, I think in 1985.
Keith Boyette: So there you go.
Mark Tooley: Right.
Keith Boyette: Well, I think we almost immediately encountered each other.
Mark Tooley: Well, the fates were behind us. Keith, where do we stand in terms of the Protocol? I have surmised that this additional year of preparation for the potential division was actually more positive than negative and that it allowed people to adjust to the idea of division. But what are your impressions?
Keith Boyette: Well, I do think this has been a crisis that has given us the opportunity to accomplish many things that would have been rushed perhaps if we had gone to a major General Conference. And it has enabled a whole lot of people to become informed about the Protocol and its implications and the plans for the future that probably would not have been as informed, if we went forward. I certainly would have preferred that we could have gone on to the main General Conference. There was a lot of momentum building at that point. I think it is a widespread understanding across the United Methodist Church that separation is necessary now. Whereas in the past, there was a lot of uncertainty about that, but across the theological spectrum people understand that separation is necessary. None of no one is rejoicing that separation is necessary, but we have seen are the consequences of conflict across the church and how it has impacted our churches’ ministry, both at a general church level, but especially at a local church level, how it’s being destructive and hurtful to local churches. So the momentum for separation. The acceptance that separation was going to be necessary certainly was achieved before the postponement of General Conference. With the postponement of General Conference that sentiment I don’t believe has changed by and large, people still understand it. There has been the passage of time, which means that it’s not right on the horizon. It’s 11 months away now. And so we tend to deal with the immediate and what we’re dealing with. And so it is gone somewhat on the back burner, but also we’ve had really significant matters for local churches and denominational leaders to focus on, the Covid-19 response, you know, has, of course, have taken a whole lot of the energy of leaders across the church, rightfully so. And then second, the racial strife, tension and addressing of racial justice issues have also been a preeminent concern in many churches. And so what is happening denominationally is still there, but it’s taken a little bit of a backseat in terms of priority and energy.
Mark Tooley: There has been some online speculation that perhaps some institutionalists in the denomination have lost some enthusiasm for the Protocol, because of the impending financial crisis for the institutions of the Church with the coronavirus compounded by the division of the denomination. But you see any substantive signs of that?
Keith Boyette: I do not. I would just share that the advocacy groups that are spread across the theological spectrum in the church had indicated their endorsement and supportive of the Protocol before the postponement of General Conference on the day that General Conference would have convened. All of those advocacy groups in one way or the other held events or issued statements that indicated their continued expectation that the protocol would be adopted. And those groups have continued to speak into the expectation that separation is going to occur that the Protocol will be adopted.
Keith Boyette: The 16 member team that negotiated the Protocol, that mediated the Protocol has met twice and now is scheduled to meet a third time in the very near future. All after the postponement of General Conference, all focused on and committed to working for the adoption and the Protocol, and we all understand that we have committed to support the Protocol. You know, and it’s in the form that it has been negotiated. Now I do anticipate, I mean, obviously the timeline in the Protocol was positioned on General Conference occurring in May of 2020 and so that timeline is going to have to be adjusted for when General Conference occurs, but I am not anticipating other significant changes or modifications in the Protocol. And and quite frankly, I would say the jury is still out, as it were, on, on the overall financial implications of what we’ve been through on the church. Certainly we’ve heard denominational executives speak about declining giving during certain periods of the pandemic. But during those periods, the general church also received significant funds through the Payroll Protection Plan, which were of course loans that were forgiven. That was the way that was designed and the only publicly available information made available by the general boards and agencies at their last audited statements which would have been as of the end of 2018 actually indicate that the reserves of the United Methodist Church, these are the unrestricted and designated reserves, actually have increased in value over what they were at the time the Protocol team made its financial, just had its financial discussions. So I do know that there are some institutionalists who would hope that we would continue to muddle along. Their reasons for wanting us to muddle along are rather obvious. They’re institutionalists and their livelihoods are in part tied to the continuation of the church, but I think they are few a number, and I do not believe that there is support for their position of muddling along.
Mark Tooley: And if I understand correctly, both Reconciling Congregations, which is the one of the major LGBTQ caucuses, and the Western Jurisdiction have issued recent statements that seemed to support or assumed the passage of the Protocol or some kind of division.
Keith Boyette: That is correct. And in addition to those groups I’m aware of other groups or persons who would characterize themselves as centrists or progressives who are working on plans for what we have come to refer to as the post separation United Methodist Church. And those plans would not be able to achieve, be achieved if we journeyed along without separation. Those plans are contingent upon separation being approved. And substantial energy and resources are being put into that planning, so that underscores for me that the momentum is still there.
Mark Tooley: And if you had to predict, to the best of your ability, what will unfold assuming the General Conference next year does approve the Protocol as written? How quickly would the new denominations emerge?
Keith Boyette: Well, the new denomination composed of theologically conservative Methodists or traditional Methodists will be ready to be launched upon the adjournment of the General Conference in September of 2021. We have a group that came out of a dialogue in Atlanta in March of 2020, which you Mark were a part of. That is the transitional leadership council that is doing the work to have everything in readiness for that launch to occur. And we were fully confident that all of that work will have been completed and so the new denomination will be operational upon the adjournment of General Conference and under the Protocol legislation. Central conferences, annual conferences and local churches can begin making decisions almost immediately. Now obviously church central conferences and annual conferences will likely wait until a scheduled conference to do that, whether it be there regularly scheduled or a special session, but local churches could begin the process almost immediately to withdraw, and we will be fully operational ready to receive churches and clergy who would want to align. They will align in a transitional period under the leadership of the transitional leadership council, and we will be moving toward a convening conference for the new denomination that would occur in I believe the fall of 2022, which would allow time for these central conferences, annual conferences to make decisions and then have meaningful participation in the convening Conference, which is something we think is important for them to do.
Mark Tooley: So the new traditional Methodist Church would emerge immediately, but its founding General Conference likely would not be until a year afterwards.
Keith Boyette: That’s correct, it would it would begin to function and it would be in transition, basically, but its founding or convening conference would be that next year, essentially.
Mark Tooley: And the old United Methodist Church, presumably its leaders would want to reconvene fairly quickly to liberalize the teachings about which we’ve been fighting for the last almost 50 years. How fast you think that would unfold?
Keith Boyette: Well that’s difficult to say, obviously they’re in control of that. And I don’t know that they have developed a clear strategy on that. I believe they want to try to do that as quickly as possible, but there are uncertainties for them in that. For example, the delegates to the General Conference in 2021 would be delegates to any special General Conference and obviously a significant percentage of them are theologically conservative or traditional. And so they would want to ensure that their new church is defined by delegates that are theologically aligned with them, so there’s a number of procedural sorts of things they’d have to do. So I don’t know how quickly they will hold either. I’m assuming it would probably be a special General Conference at which they would seek to change the relevant language in the existing Book of Discipline.
Mark Tooley: And you assume there’ll also be at least one more Methodist body that will be on the theological left?
Keith Boyette: Well, certainly the Protocol contemplates that possibility. And there are some folks on the so-called progressive side of the church that generally have taken on the label “liberationist” and they aren’t content with a church that would meld together those who want the possibility for ordination and marriage to occur, but don’t want to compel it. They want a church that they would describe as being fully inclusive that would mandate that ordination and marriage, according to the terms that they have, would occur. And so, but whether there is sufficient strength and an organizational ability to see a liberationist church emerge immediately after the General Conference, I would say is questionable. I’m not aware of anyone doing the kind of work that has been done on the traditional side of the church to prepare for that.
Mark Tooley: And what are the possibilities of next year’s General Conference taking place virtually rather than physically?
Keith Boyette: Well, obviously we’re in a period of significant uncertainty with respect to the progress and treatment and prevention of the Covid-19 virus. And so there’s a lot of uncertainty, whether an in-person General Conference will be able to be held. But I am aware that the Commission on General Conference has directed its staff to proceed full-speed ahead with all of the work to prepare for an in-person General Conference. And I think it’s incredibly premature at this point to make a decision that an in-person General Conference will not be held. But I am aware that there are a number of different groups that are exploring the possibility of a virtual General Conference, where the delegates would perhaps connect technologically for General Conference. There’s also a significant amount of conversation about a simplified agenda that would perhaps limit the business of that General Conference to vote on the Protocol implementation legislation, which can be very helpful as well. Many other organizations, including a number of churches, have already had virtual conferences equivalent to our General Conference. And I believe we do live in unusual times and that is going to require us to adopt unusual measures to do the business of the church, but I think it’s absolutely essential that we do so, and I believe there’s a way for us to get there.
Mark Tooley: So the Presbyterian Church USA’s General Assembly met this summer virtually, as I recall. There may have been one other major denominational convention in a similar fashion. Do you recall how much a United Methodist General Conference cost, is it $10 million or so?
Keith Boyette: I believe it approaches that number. I mean the special General Conference, which was only, you know, what, a three-day General Conference, was around $4 million, and the typical General Conference of courses is a nine to ten day event. And I do believe that the overall cost approaches that $10 million or so.
Mark Tooley: Who will have the final authority to make that kind of decision?
Keith Boyette: Under the Book of Discipline, the Commission on General Conference is the one who sets the dates of General Conference. So they’re the only ones that have the authority to modify those dates in some way or modify the arrangements. For conference, of course, they have made significant contractual commitments, reserving the convention center hotels and all of that. So a cancellation of the General Conference would impose significant expense upon the church as well. But certainly a virtual General Conference likely would be significantly less expensive, even if we had to help delegates in various parts of the world have access to more sophisticated or advanced technologies in order to be able to participate. And I think we would still save money.
Mark Tooley: Millions of dollars.
Keith Boyette: I think so.
Mark Tooley: And then finally, Keith, where do you anticipate we’ll all be five years from now in the year 2025?
Keith Boyette: Well, I hope will be on the other side of this, that a vibrant vital global Methodist Church will be operating that holds to the historic Christian faith and the Wesleyan tradition that will be planting churches, will be engaged in vigorous discipleship, will be contending for the faith in a Christian worldview. And the kingdom of God will be advancing and we’ll be part of that. So that is my vision, that’s my hope and dream. And that’s where I expect that will be.
Mark Tooley: Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, thank you for a very educational conversation.
Keith Boyette: Thank you so much, Mark, a joy to be with you today.
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