By Keith Boyette
July 23, 2021
Since the January 2020 announcement of the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation United Methodists, whether they identify as centrist, progressive, or traditionalist, have tried hard to honor a spirit of peace among one another. People have largely refrained from provocative acts that would plunge the church back into conflict. I suppose it was easy to honor that spirit of peace when the assumption was that the General Conference delegates would adopt the Protocol in just five months, and so allow for an orderly and amicable separation of the church. The pandemic has now stretched that season of waiting to two years and a few months.
The waiting has been difficult. Centrists and some progressives are frustrated their vision for a far more inclusive and streamlined general church has been put on hold. Liberationists continue to feel constrained by a denomination that does not accept their vision of a church unshackled from the bonds of colonialism, white supremacy, economic injustices, patriarchy, sexism, ableism, transphobia, and heteronormativity. And traditionalists are discouraged they have been unable to launch an orthodox, evangelical, and global church rooted in the Methodist expression of the Christian faith. But still, by and large, United Methodists have honored a nonbinding truce as they plan for new futures.
This willingness to cease and desist from provocations is what makes the recent situations in the California-Pacific, Greater New Jersey, and North Georgia Annual Conferences so difficult. They have plunged United Methodists back into a bitter battle that harms everyone.
Bishop John Schol has shared his reasons for making an appointment change at Bethany Korean Church in Wayne, New Jersey, and the congregation and its pastor delivered a robust response. But whoever was right or wrong, the sad result is a church split that has significantly weakened a thriving local church and has left the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference diminished.
In California, Bishop Grant Hagiya believed it was necessary to remove three prominent pastors in the Korean United Methodist community. Surely he had no idea how hard the laity and allies of these congregations would fight what they regarded as punitive moves against their healthy and vibrant churches. Thankfully, two of the pastors were restored to their congregations, but one was moved even though neither the pastor nor his church sought the move. The disruption to these churches, the lives of the pastors involved, and the reputational damage to Hagiya’s leadership and to his annual conference have all taken a toll.
And finally, in Georgia, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson has continued to escalate the situation at Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia. She has taken the very rare step of declaring that exigent circumstances exist at a thriving, large congregation. Caught completely by surprise by a very late appointment change, the church has filed for disaffiliation from the UM Church, while the bishop threatens legal action to seize its property and assets. The clash has drawn the attention of major media outlets in North Georgia and beyond, where the story line is about United Methodists still fighting with one another. With all due respect to the bishop, this was an unnecessary move just a year or more before General Conference. It was widely known Mt. Bethel and its pastor were headed for the Global Methodist Church. So there was no compelling reason to make a move where neither the congregation nor the pastor were seeking one.
It should surprise no one that the Wesleyan Covenant Association has vigorously defended these five congregations and their pastors. Three of the four Korean pastors in California and New Jersey had openly aligned with the WCA in recent years, and their congregations were widely known to be theologically conservative. And Mt. Bethel was the first local church to join the WCA, and it hosted the association’s 2018 Global Gathering.
The WCA will continue to support and defend local churches aligned with it who are confronting obstacles dragged in their way as they seek a new and hopeful future.
As the WCA’s president and a member of the mediation team that negotiated the Protocol, I pray we will return to fostering a spirit of peace between now and the next General Conference. Guided by the generosity of Mr. Kenneth Feinberg, bishops and leaders from centrist, progressive, and traditionalist advocacy groups acknowledged the separation of the UM Church was necessary. And then, with difficult compromises, they hammered out a plan that allows us to part ways as amicably as possible.
With all due respect, I call on Bishop Haupert-Johnson to find a way to quickly make peace with Mt. Bethel, a church clearly heading in a different direction than she is. She alone has the power to return the situation at Mt. Bethel to where things stood in early April. I am confident such a move would be in the best interest of Mt. Bethel, the North Georgia Annual Conference, and the UM Church. It would be greeted with joy by some and with relief by all.
Let us move through these final months together with hearts of peace. It will be good for all of us, and for our witness to the world.
Keith Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and chair of the Transitional Leadership Council of the Global Methodist Church (in formation). He is an elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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