On October 7, leaders of the Western Jurisdiction (WJ) of the United Methodist Church (UMC) announced a year-long campaign called “Where Love Lives, Creating a Fully Inclusive United Methodist Church,” which includes “promoting the Protocol” and promoting a progressive vision for the post-separation UMC (psUMC).
The campaign came from the jurisdiction’s top leadership, namely its College of Bishops and Mission Cabinet. The president of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops is Karen Oliveto of the Mountain Sky Area, who was recently elected to the title for 2020 to 2023.
According to an added Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page, these leaders “want to remind the jurisdiction of the values that have informed the ministries of the region and have provided a home for diverse people, ideas and theological perspectives.” The campaign announcement highlighted the WJ’s history of going against the denomination’s teachings on sexuality, including ordaining LGBTQ persons to be pastors in 1982 and electing Oliveto as the first openly lesbian bishop in 2016, in a defiance of church law that many still do not accept as legitimate.
Not minimizing the change the planned separation will bring, the FAQ page also describes the psUMC as a “new church.” Though this new church will keep the United Methodist name, the webpage admits that much of the structure and financial management of the church will need to be streamlined, or pared down, due to challenging financial realities.
Clear and explicit support from the UMC’s most liberal jurisdiction should help solidify liberal support for passing the Protocol. Some had wondered if the proposed legislation, released by a theologically diverse team at the start of the year, had lost momentum because of General Conference’s postponement due to the coronavirus. After months of hearing little from liberal camps, this announcement increases the chances of some form of this negotiated separation agreement passing General Conference.
The “Where Love Lives” press release importantly affirms key provisions of the Protocol. The document states that those in the new traditionalist denomination “would retain their former United Methodist pension benefits and congregations would be able to keep their buildings.” Keeping these details in whatever eventually passes through General Conference is essential for the UMC to avoid the missionally damaging and extremely costly court cases that have plagued other mainline Protestant denominations that have gone through similar schisms.
Despite the jurisdiction’s long-standing history of disregarding the church’s doctrine on human sexuality, the WJ leaders now profess to pick up the mantle of follows Wesley’s teachings and the Bible. The campaign’s theme for this November is “We will always keep scripture primary.” The WJ leadership also says it hopes to provide a “solid foundation” that all of the psUMC can lean on, one that “focuses on its commitment to Wesley’s teachings on piety and social holiness.”
Oliveto, well-highlighted in campaign materials, has come under fire not only for her election to the episcopacy, which flagrantly violated church law, but also for heterodox teachings. For example, in September 2017, she preached that Christians should not “create an idol” out of Jesus and that He needed to “give up his bigotries and prejudices” as part of his personal growth. In the past she has also cautioned against taking too high a view of Scripture, saying “The text, the Bible, is not God,” and theology requires addressing both “the benefits and flaws” of Scripture. Yet her well-known record of such views evidently served as no barrier for her fellow WJ leaders elevating her as the region’s top bishop for four years.
This Western Jurisdiction campaign is also claims that traditionalists would be welcome and free to follow their convictions in the psUMC, despite the region’s own notorious track record for bullying, marginalizing, and driving out traditionalist believers. In any case, this is an explicitly qualified welcome. In its campaign FAQs page, the WJ leaders say that any traditionalists who wanted to choose the liberal psUMC “must be willing to accept that others … will have a right to conduct same-sex marriages and ordain qualified lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons.” However the WJ leaders claim that “Individual clergy and congregations will not be forced to conduct or host same sex weddings.”
This imagined local option for pastors and congregations to choose their own way would have to be legislated by General Conference in the post-separation UMC. The Protocol does not specifically provide for any clear conscience protections. Creating a church environment with a local option was a pillar of the “One Church Plan” that failed to pass at the special General Conference last year in St. Louis.
As IRD reported in the build-up to the St. Louis gathering, traditionalists are likely to be ostracized in a denomination that by default allows same-sex relationships for their pastors and same-sex marriages in their sanctuaries. As John Lomperis wrote regarding a UMC future under the “One Church Plan,” traditionalist clergy “could not in good conscience support the approval and appointing of LGBTQ-affirming candidates. So traditionalists would become just as excluded from cabinets, boards of ordained ministry, and district committees on ministry as opponents of women’s ordination” currently are. Similarly, many traditionalist clergy candidates could not honestly vow that they approve of the UMC’s government and polity, and so would be effectively barred from ordination. Further, traditionalist congregations would likely not have the freedom to refuse any homosexually active clergyperson appointed over them.
One prominent liberal caucus, UMC Next, appears to have abandoned the idea of conscience protections for traditionalists who wish to remain in the psUMC. The group’s extensive legislative proposals to the next General Conference, totaling 23 petitions (developed before the Protocol was agreed upon), includes zero provisions protecting clergy or congregations from opposing same-sex marriages or same-sex partnered pastors. UMC Next is headed by many of the same leaders who argued most fervently for the passage of the “One Church Plan,” such as Rev. Tom Berlin and Rev. Adam Hamilton. That these leaders, who will be in a dominant majority in the psUMC, gave up on proposing even the incomplete and inadequate conscience protections they advocated for just last year suggests that they do not support even such small measures anymore.
With General Conference rescheduled for August 29 – September 7, 2021, there is still a lot of time before any vote on the Protocol can take place. While much will change before then, the lasting consensus around passing the Protocol from across the spectrum until now suggests that separate paths forward will be finally be paved for United Methodists next year.