On Friday, April 30, the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) held its Global Legislative Assembly (GLA). Among other things, the assembled orthodox United Methodist leaders from around the world strongly supported the emerging Global Methodist Church while overwhelmingly rejecting a proposal to commit to launching our new denomination with or without adoption of “the Protocol” peace treaty. We also issued an important challenge to fellow United Methodists for this transitional time.
The GLA is set up to be like a sort of General Conference, with motions being voted on by delegates duly elected from within their annual conference WCA chapters. Regional WCA chapters are allotted different numbers of clergy and lay delegates to proportionally reflect the respective sizes of their membership. Due to COVID-19, this was the first time the GLA was able to meet since 2019.
What follows are some of the biggest highlights for me, as one delegate of more than 250.
First, it was such a refreshingly different way of doing General Conference. Compared to United Methodist General Conferences, I found the worship times to be so much more worshipful, without such things as liberal bishops using their sermons to score political points on behalf of one faction against another. The confidence we could have that all delegates and leaders there were committed to the same basic mission and core religious values (in contrast to United Methodist General Conferences) made for a much more positive atmosphere.
To be sure, we had vigorous disagreements about several important if ultimately non-essential questions. But even then, in dramatic contrast to what I have experienced at General Conferences since 2004, I had confidence that all those who disagreed with my position on the issues debated did not hate me, were not willing to trample the Golden Rule and cross all sorts of ethical lines to defeat me, and had meaningful regard for me as a beloved brother in Christ. And I thought that the moderators did a decent job of making sure that the roughly 30 of us delegates who connected via Zoom, due to the pandemic, could actively speak and otherwise participate in the deliberations.
Since the last GLA, the big denominational news was the unveiling of the flawed but widely supported “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” proposal to divide the UMC in two. So delegates this time had a lot to read about exciting plans for new Kingdom-building, disciple-making ministries in the emerging Global Methodist Church.
I had heard murmuring that some may try to make “the WCA pull the trigger” by starting its own denomination right away, without the Protocol. That did not happen, and no one even proposed that.
Many liberal United Methodists tell themselves self-comforting myths about the Global Methodist Church’s constituency being just “who are going to leave the UMC no matter what.” But there are so many reasons why this makes little to no sense. As a matter of principle, theologically traditionalist United Methodists are, by definition, those who adhere to the UMC’s own historic, official doctrinal and moral standards. Why should we be the ones who “just leave” our own denomination, and abandon it to a liberal faction that, by definition, rejects the UMC’s standards? Many of us eventually came around to supporting the Protocol, very reluctantly, only after seeing how in key ways, it really provides for birthing two fundamentally new denominations, rather than just one faction leaving. Then in very practical terms, current church law makes it prohibitively difficult for congregations to separate from the UMC, and has no provision for an entire U.S. annual conference to separate.
The 2021 WCA Global Legislative Assembly did pass one motion related to such concerns, but defeated another. This requires some unpacking.
A Virginia delegate proposed amending a resolution supporting the formation of the Global Methodist Church for orthodox United Methodists by adding the following language: “This assembly expresses its hope that if the scheduled General Conference of August 29-September 6, 2022 is postponed, then upon the announcement of postponement, the Wesleyan Covenant Association will work with others or independently legally to form as soon as possible the Global Methodist Church or another new denomination and begin immediate operations.” In the discussion that followed, delegates readily understood this as effectively saying that by 2022, we intended to split off from the rest of the UMC, with or without the Protocol. This proposal was overwhelmingly rejected.
I took this vote as the 2021 WCA Global Legislative Assembly telling liberal United Methodists: “Sorry, but you are not going to get rid of us and our (successful!) defenses of traditional biblical standards in the UMC unless and until you work with us to let us adopt an acceptable separation agreement.” And such an agreement can only be adopted by General Conference
Earlier, the assembly did adopt, in one of the narrowest votes all day (with about a 58 percent majority) an amendment from a Missouri delegate to add the following sentence to a resolution endorsing the Protocol: “Finally if the General Conference does not happen or otherwise fails to implement the Protocol in 2022 the assembly encourages the Global Methodist Church to move forward without the Protocol and we urge the central and annual conferences to establish their own gracious arrangements for disaffiliation and transfers to new denominations.”
Different delegates may have conflicting interpretations of these words. One possible way to understand this non-binding encouragement is in light of how there has recently been some talk of annual conferences adopting a “comity agreement” to allow congregations to leave their conferences on less oppressive terms than the congregational exit plan adopted by the 2019 General Conference, and without waiting for the ever-delayed next General Conference to finally meet. I could see some overwhelmingly liberal annual conferences where such an agreement might be helpful for all sides. But such arrangements require liberal bishops seeking to be more gracious to separating orthodox congregations than current church law absolutely forces them to be. I am not sure how many such bishops exist, if any. In such scenarios, the Global Methodist Church may potentially play a role in helping such congregations stand by while we wait for General Conference to sort separation out for the rest of us. Such “gracious arrangements” may also potentially apply to liberal congregations in conservative conferences.
In any case, it is ultimately up to each annual conference and bishop to decide whether or not to adopt a conference-level comity agreement. This seems unlikely to ever happen in more than a very incomplete patchwork of a few limited places.
So in understanding the 2021 WCA Global Legislative Assembly, we must consider the specific language of these two motions, the relative narrowness of the Missouri amendment’s adoption, and the subsequent discussion and overwhelming defeat of the Virginia amendment. Clearly, WCA’s constituency longs to move past our denomination’s current “stuck” state and does not want to see the “2020” General Conference delayed a fourth time. There is openness to some separation agreements that may potentially be worked out at the local and regional levels if needed. And yes, there are a few WCA-ers who feel determined to leave now, with or without the Protocol, just as there some liberal congregations have already been moving out of the UMC. But most of those at the WCA Global Legislative Assembly, like the overwhelming majority of those inclined to be part of the Global Methodist Church, appear to remain committed to waiting on General Conference for the Protocol, as flawed as it is.
Rev. Carolyn Moore, chair of the WCA’s governing Council, spoke a helpful pastoral word to some the frustrations and anxieties of this extended interim period by assuring us that, one way or another, the launch of the Global Methodist Church WILL happen.
Perhaps the narrowest vote of the day came with a resolution endorsing the work of the WCA’s Accountable Discipleship Task Force. This task force urges the Global Methodist Church to recover distinctive Methodist tradition by making involvement in small groups which include an accountability component more of a normative expectation for lay members, especially those in congregational leadership or members of new church starts. The task force has also talked about a “grandfather” provision to allow members of congregations who join the Global Methodist Church to keep their memberships even if they refuse to ever be part of such a small group. Pastor Bob Kaylor of the Rocky Mountain Conference, the task force’s chair, assured Mississippi lay delegate Eddie Nabors, in response to a concern that the latter raised, that this was not a plan to replace or do away with Sunday schools. Even with such caveats, such a move would be historically major, given how many have highlighted the abandonment of required class meetings as a key turning point in American Methodism’s spiritual decline.
Pastor Beth Ann Cook, a clergy delegate from Indiana, offered an amendment that would have softened the language about the extent to which involvement in accountable small groups should eventually become more of a requirement for new people joining congregations. In doing so, she made clear her support for the task force’s underlying values and her own involvement in a Wesleyan-style band. For the record, I strongly supported this amendment, largely out of concern for easing the transition for United Methodists moving into the Global Methodist Church. But I observed two clear themes in the speeches against the Cook Amendment: (1) that to move past from the spiritual lethargy and continual membership decline of much of United Methodism, we should recover having higher expectations of our members, and (2) the need for our denomination to have a clear spiritual identity apart from generic American evangelicalism. In one of the assembly’s most memorable lines, the Rev. Dr. David Watson, a New Testament professor and member of the WCA’s governing Council, declared, “I don’t want to be a MINO — Methodist in name only.”
The Cook Amendment was narrowly defeated in a 120-136 vote (47-53 percent).
It must be stressed it will ultimately be the founding General Conference, over which the WCA may have great influence but no truly binding authority, to decide such details for the Global Methodist Church. This reality was underscored when this Global Legislative Assembly considered, and quickly defeated, a floor motion to basically commit the WCA to firmly supporting, implicitly without any amendments, the draft Book of Doctrines and Disciplines it will submit for consideration to this founding General Conference.
As one delegate pointed out, there is a much larger group of United Methodists who will ultimately be part of the Global Methodist Church than the sort of people represented in Montgomery. Among other things, while Americans had a clear majority of 2021 WCA Global Legislative Assembly delegates, that is very unlikely to be the case in our new denomination.
Recommendations from the WCA’s 2021 Global Legislative Assembly are non-binding and do not set in stone anything for the Global Methodist Church. We can expect that others joining the denomination may have different ideas on some issues than the delegates in Montgomery. But on the other hand, it is worth observing that there will be a strong push in the Global Methodist Church by at least some key leaders to re-embrace accountable small groups as a normative part of local-church culture.
We also voted 251 to 2 to adopt a resolution standing in solidarity with the victims of apparent bullying by some liberal bishops and calling on our bishops “to maintain a spirit of peace and goodwill toward those of differing theological and ethical perspectives” (language later echoed by the National Chinese Caucus of the UMC).
More positively, we adopted, without any disagreement that I recall, a motion by Indiana clergy delegate Scott Pattison to add the following commitments to the end of the resolution endorsing the Protocol: “In any case, we call on [United Methodist] Church bishops, district superintendents, and others to respect the right of self-determination for conferences, campus ministries, congregations, and clergy around the world. Conferences, campus ministries, congregations, and clergy must be allowed to make their own fair, free, and informed choices of which denomination to continue their ministries within, without facing any bullying, harassment, or mistreatment to punish or manipulate their actual or expected choices.”
These two sentences are very core to what the WCA wants for how things move forward as our denomination addresses the now widely recognized realities of our denomination’s irreconcilable differences.
Will bishops, caucuses, and others who have not identified with WCA or other renewal caucuses be willing to at least join us in our commitments to the values of self-determination and freedom from bullying?