by Jeffrey Walton
A diverse group of United Methodists has negotiated and released a proposed protocol to divide the denomination. This potentially concludes decades of internal conflict centered upon marriage and human sexual expression. IRD President Mark Tooley has a write-up of the proposal that can be viewed here.
In evaluating the separation protocol, it is instructive to examine the legacy of the litigious and ugly split that occurred in the Episcopal Church.
That split remains to be fully sorted out: theological revisionists continue their consolidation within the denomination, requiring dioceses to permit same-sex rites that were once optional. Revisionists also aim to revise the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) with those same-sex rites and “expansive” gender neutral language, undeterred by the defeat of a BCP revision proposal at the 2018 General Convention. Costly and time-consuming litigation continues in the cases of the Dioceses of Fort Worth and South Carolina that now affiliate with the Anglican Church in North America.
In the Episcopal Church, there is presently no accepted canonical way – short of an act of General Convention – for a parish or diocese to peaceably depart unchallenged by church authorities. This contrasts with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which permits congregations to re-affiliate with another Lutheran denomination with two successive votes by two-thirds of church members present. The Presbyterian Church (USA) allows for congregations to seek “gracious dismissal” with property via negotiated agreements that vary widely across presbyteries but always provided some (often costly) route for departure.
The negotiated United Methodist protocol establishes a 57% vote threshold for annual conference (the regional equivalent of dioceses or presbyteries) re-affiliation. Requiring traditionalists to meet a higher threshold to determine an annual conference’s affiliation — while revisionists only have to obtain 44% to win an annual conference — is an inconsistent standard, but at least there is a defined standard.
On the congregational level, local churches can re-affiliate with a simple majority vote. While there are provisions for the funding of pension liabilities, churches can depart with property intact.
If these same terms were in place during the Episcopal split, traditionalists would have likely been able to launch with 14 intact Episcopal dioceses rather than five, and probably 600+ parishes rather than the approximately 300 that came from the Episcopal Church. Former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was famously advised by Episcopal Church Chancellor David Booth Beers in 2006 that a heavy-handed strategy of litigation against departing Anglicans was necessary to prevent additional dioceses and parishes from departing.
Episcopalians’ legacy of internecine warfare has been stark. It contributed to the uninterrupted decline of the church from 2,205,376 members and 787,271 attendees in 2005 (the year before Jefferts-Schori’s election when most departures began in earnest) to 1,676,349 members (-24%) and 531,958 attendees (-32%) in 2018.
At the same time, the Anglican Church in North America has grown gradually to 134,649 members and 88,048 attendees in 2018. A strategy of church planting and joining together with groups already outside of the Episcopal Church, including the Anglican Mission in America (AMIA) and the Reformed Episcopal Church (REC) was generally fruitful, but probably a larger number of theologically orthodox parishes remained within the Episcopal denomination.
Under an equivalent separation protocol within the Episcopal Church, we more likely would have seen the vast majority of the Common Cause Partners / Anglican Communion Network (a theologically orthodox network of Anglican and Episcopal dioceses and parishes roughly equivalent to the Wesleyan Covenant Association or the Fellowship of Presbyterians) depart to establish a new traditionalist denomination. At its height in 2004, the ACN counted 200,000 congregants and 900 affiliated parishes. That is 33% more members than the ACNA counts today.
In short, from an Episcopal/Anglican perspective, the proposed United Methodist separation protocol seems much more favorable to traditionalists who wish to uphold biblical teaching and retain properties that serve as ministry outposts.
I realize it is a significant difference between the two denominations in how revisionists had a clear dominant majority at Episcopal General Convention, while the global UMC is majority orthodox, even if the U.S. leadership is in a different place.
As Mark Tooley notes, this unfolding process will be messy and often tragic. But division will allow evangelistic-minded Methodism to plant new congregations and grow. This is especially valuable in geographic parts of the denomination now controlled by theological revisionists, such as the Western Jurisdiction, where young evangelical church planters are discouraged from planting within United Methodist ecclesial structures.
One final anecdote: this is not a promise “if you take down the rainbow flag, they will come.” Theological orthodoxy is a prerequisite for church growth, but it is not in itself sufficient. There must be a strong missional pull to reach people outside of United Methodism, and a group of cranky disaffected ex-United Methodists does not a vibrant church plant make.
In 2006, I was part of a congregation that voted to depart the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. For years we longed to plant daughter congregations in the inner suburbs of the Washington metropolitan area. Diocesan policy required the permission of neighboring Episcopal congregations in order to plant, something unobtainable from half-empty progressive parishes which saw neighboring evangelical Episcopalians as unwelcome competition.
Upon departing the Episcopal Church, the Falls Church Anglican was immediately able to plant free from ecclesiastical restriction. In the following decade, eight congregations were planted, two of which have gone on to plant daughter congregations of their own. All this was done amidst the distractions and financial expense of a multi-year lawsuit brought by the Episcopal Diocese.
What could evangelical Methodists accomplish, without the lawsuits and with the freedom to plant anywhere the Holy Spirit led? I foresee a new landscape in which orthodox graduates of Asbury or United Theological Seminary could plant in places like Washington, D.C., Boston, or Seattle. Methodists from the Global South could more easily plant among their immigrant communities, knowing they have partners rooted in the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
None of this is guaranteed: it requires much prayer and the providential work of the Holy Spirit. But compared to the harmful legacy of the Episcopal Church, United Methodists are being presented with a better option.
Correction: An earlier version of this blog entry stated that the ELCA “permits congregations to re-affiliate with another Lutheran denomination with two simple majority votes.”
According to the ELCA News Blog, “Generally, congregations that want to leave the ELCA are required to take two votes, at least 90 days apart, and must achieve a two-thirds majority of voting members present for each vote. They are also required to ‘consult’ with the synod bishop between votes to leave.”
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