Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation

officePastor's Blog

As you have no doubt heard by now, on Friday January 3, a group of United Methodist leaders from across the theological spectrum released a document entitled the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation.” In the document these leaders agreed to a plan of separation that would allow the conservative Traditionalist wing (and possibly a far-left Liberationist wing) of The United Methodist Church to leave the denomination and form new Wesleyan denominations.

A brief history:
Several months ago African Bishop John Yambasu (Sierra Leone) invited representatives from a wide variety of Methodist caucus groups to meet together and try to hammer out an agreement. He was motivated by a strong desire to preserve the United Methodist denomination intact, as well as negotiating an end to the decades of acrimony and conflict over issues of how best to minister to and with LGBTQ persons.

The group enlisted the participation of world class mediator Kenneth Feinberg. He is well known as the Special Master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and administrator of the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Compensation Fund. He has also mediated on a number of other deeply complex and seemingly intractable conflicts.

At Mr. Feinberg’s insistence, the group was whittled down to 16 persons. These 16 persons represented almost all the major factions in the ongoing conflict. They included two openly gay members: Jan Lawrence, Executive Director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, and the Rev. David Meredith, pastor of Clifton United Methodist Church of Cincinnati, Ohio.

This working group met several times. Most of the participants were skeptical that any kind of agreement could be reached, but Mr. Feinberg was positive from the start. He had negotiated the end of conflicts far more complicated, and bloodier, than the one which gripped the UMC. He assured them that by the end they would reach an agreement.

And they did reach a unanimous agreement on December 17, but made a mutual pledge to withhold the announcement of the new Protocol until after the Christmas holidays.

The basics of the Protocol:
Legislation would be written and submitted to the General Conference, to be held this coming May, to enact the Protocol. All the signatories pledged to promote the Protocol among their constituencies and to refrain from supporting any other legislation that was not substantially similar to the agreed upon Protocol.

Traditionalists would leave the UMC to form a new denomination. They would receive $25 million dollars over four years. Congregations that chose to unite with the Traditionalists, or any other new denomination that might form, would be able to retain their church buildings and other assets. The new denomination would release any other claims to the assets of the UMC. All current clergy and employed laypersons would retain their individual pensions with Wespath.

Annual Conferences (inside the United States) and Central Conferences (outside the United States) could decide (but are not required) to hold a vote on whether to stay or leave the UMC. Individual congregations could also decide to hold a vote on whether to remain with the denomination. Congregations would be free to choose a different denomination than their local conference. If no election is undertaken by a local conference or congregation, they would by default remain with the UMC.

Beginning January 1, 2020, all charges, trials, administrative or judicial processes related to LGBGQ clergy or clergy who officiate same-gender weddings will be suspended until the separation is complete. Such clergy would remain in good standing during this time. Because the Protocol has not yet become church law, this agreement is not binding, and it does not eliminate the possibility that further charges may be filed against some clergypersons. The expectation would be that bishops would refrain from acting upon these complaints until the separation is complete.

After the separation, the post-separation UMC would then subdivide into several global regions. It is expected that the church in the United States would then vote to dismantle the Traditionalist Plan, remove all discriminatory language (including the hated “incompatibility clause”) from the Discipline (the official UM rule book), and allow individual clergypersons and congregations to decide for themselves whether to conduct same-gender weddings. LGBTQ clergy would be able to openly serve without fear of charges.

An additional $2 million dollars would be set aside for any additional groups that might leave the UMC to form new denominations.

In recognition of the history of systemic racial discrimination in the UMC, the Protocol would allocate $39 million to be set aside for ministry with persons of color. This would assure that current ministries would be able to continue uninterrupted by the separation.

My personal opinion:
I am cautiously optimistic about the future of the UMC. That these 16 persons, who have been fighting each other relentlessly for decades, could reach such an unanimous agreement together is nothing short of the work of the Holy Spirit and the providence of God.

If implemented it would end this 40-year-long-plus nightmare of conflict. It does the least damage to the UMC, while keeping the majority (at least of US churches) bound to the UMC. There might be a lot of complaining by both those on the far right and the far left, but I believe most will stay in order to avoid a congregational vote that might split apart their local church.

I am most excited by the suspension of all charges against clergy and the eventual death of the Tradtionalist Plan. Moreover, this would allow LGBTQ clergy to step out from decades of fear and hiding to openly serve God as we have been called. We would be allowed to legally marry our partners and have those marriages garner the full respect of the UMC.

But I also offer this word of caution. This is by no means a done deal. For it to become church law, it still most pass by a majority of the delegates at the next General Conference in May. Right now Bishop Yambasu has predicted that 100% of the African delegates will vote for the Protocol, but we have seen such assurances fall through in the past. While, as a signatory, Bishop Yambasu may fully support the Protocol, it is unclear whether he represents all Africans.

In the end the implementation of the Protocol would be a better outcome than if the One Church Plan had been approved at the last General Conference. I for one think I just might see a light at the end of this valley of the shadow of death. Let us all pray for The United Methodist Church.

For more information see:

https://www.unitedmethodistbishops.org/newsdetail/united-methodist-traditionalists-centrists-progressives-bishops-sign-agreement-aimed-at-separation-13133654

https://www.unitedmethodistbishops.org/newsdetail/frequently-asked-questions-about-the-united-methodist-mediation-team-13133711

https://www.umnews.org/en/news/feinberg-kept-church-negotiators-at-table

https://um-insight.net/in-the-church/umc-future/god-is-at-work-in-the-protocol/

http://hackingchristianity.net/2020/01/the-art-of-the-deal-understanding-the-plan-of-separation-for-the-united-methodist-church.html?fbclid=IwAR13JUn2DIlWiYdJ8kUDtuJVaZ_PhnBtuPnv8XvnQFys5Gx3JPf8cWaQ6_A

For the Traditionalist viewpoint:

https://wesleyancovenant.org/2020/01/02/jan-2020/

For the Liberationist (far-left) viewpoint:

https://um-forward.org/our-stories/2020/1/6/living-in-gods-liberating-light-the-epiphany-statement