Thursday, January 23rd, 2020
by Timothy Tennent @TimTennent
President, Asbury Theological Seminary
In May, 5-15, 2020 the United Methodist Church will be holding a General Conference in Minneapolis which will likely be the time when some agreement will be made to resolve our denominational struggle over historic orthodoxy and issues related to human sexuality. The agreement which is being hailed as the best legislation for resolving our crisis is known as the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation (read it here). This agreement has no official sanction from the church, but it did manage to get a diverse group of 16 leaders to sign on. The Protocol includes 8 shared principles, followed by six articles outlining the terms of the agreement, definition of terms, proposed timeline, financial considerations, and so forth.
The purpose of this article is to set forth plainly the pros and cons of the Protocol. After a careful reading of the document, here is a quick summary of the “good news” in the Protocol for each group.
Good News for the Traditionalists
First, the agreement provides a one-time $25 million allocation of seed money over four years so the traditionalists can start a new denomination.
Second, the Trust Clause will not be exercised, meaning that there will be no legal battles over property and land. Every church which leaves can keep their property and land without any claim from the annual conference.
Third, there will be a clean break from decades of fighting and chaos allowing a vibrant, historically orthodox movement to emerge.
Good News for the Progressives
First, the progressives will gain full control of the United Methodist Church, including the name, the logo, the cross and flame, and all the agencies and considerable assets which currently belong to the United Methodist Church. The agreement is silent about numerous Methodist related ministries such as Wesley Foundations, retirement communities, children’s homes, and so forth who are not afforded any “vote” for re-affiliation. What is clear is that this agreement is not any form of “mutual disassociation” where both wings of the church go their separate ways as equals. The Protocol gives the denomination to the progressives, and the Traditionalists are shown the door. The one request we have had from the African delegations is that the Africans would like to keep the name, United Methodist. Under this agreement, they can only retain the name if they remain with the progressive side of the church.
Second, the United Methodist Church will be the “default” denomination in any of the voting which may take place. Contrast this this with the Indianapolis Plan which had two “default” churches. Under the Indianapolis Plan, churches in North America who do not vote (or do not have sufficient votes to pass) would go, by default, to the progressive United Methodist Church. Likewise, any of the Central Conference churches who do not vote, or fail to have sufficient votes to pass, would, by default, be members of the traditionalist Methodist Church. The Protocol rolls that back and makes progressives the default denomination in all voting, in all places. Any church, annual or central conference which does not explicitly vote to leave the denomination will automatically remain in the United Methodist Church. The threshold to depart the denomination requires that 57% of the Annual Conference vote by July 2, 2021 or they will, by default, remain in the United Methodist Church. Local churches will have until the end of 2024 to vote, but each church can decide whether the threshold for departing is 50% or 2/3. If such a vote does not take place within the allotted time, or cannot make the voting threshold for departure, then those churches will remain in the United Methodist Church. Central Conferences will require a 2/3 vote by the end of 2021 or they will remain, by default, in the United Methodist church.
Third, the Protocol requires that all current charges against progressives who have violated the Discipline be dropped immediately.
Fourth, the United Methodist Church will instantly be free to change the Discipline to conform to the full agenda which they have been unsuccessfully advocating to implement for nearly fifty years. This involves, among other things, the full ordination of practicing homosexuals.
Fifth, the financial settlement disproportionately favors the progressive wing of the church. Although the traditionalists are given $25 million to start a new denomination, the traditionalists will be responsible for giving $13 million back to the United Methodist Church as a part of a larger $39 million package to assist in churches historically marginalized, as well as to the Africa University in Zimbabwe. These funds will be completely controlled and allocated by the United Methodist Church and the traditionalists will have no voice in how or where those funds are invested.
So, there are advantages for both sides. Nobody said this was going to be easy. I think everyone of us should express a word of appreciation to Keith Boyette and Patricia Miller for working so hard to represent traditionalists in the midst of a very diverse group of people. We are all indebted to their sacrifice of time and energy and no one doubts for a single moment that they have not given their heart and soul to help us find a way forward which will help us come to a place of ecclesial flourishing.
Likewise, the Good News movement has as their byline: Leading United Methodists to a more faithful future. Who could argue that they are not seeking to do that? I remain confident that we will arrive at General Conference with a shared vision for our future. Although, in the big picture, the financial seed money is rather modest ($25 million given, $13 million forfeited), the relaxing of the Trust Clause does bring us substantial relief. More importantly, it will keep us from fighting endless legal battles which, by all accounts, would damage our already weakened witness before the eyes of the wider culture. But, to be clear, the concession is only required if we are pursuing a path of exiting the denomination, rather than some form of mutual disassociation. I have already written a previous article on the Trust Clause which you can read here. From the perspective of United Methodist churches across the country, the progressives are giving churches what they already own and have purchased with their own sacrificial tithes and offerings.
One of the ways to judge whether an agreement has achieved equality is to re-read the agreement, but substitute the word “progressive” for “traditionalists” and then substitute “traditionalists” for what the agreement calls the “post-separation United Methodist Church.” When that is done, one has to ask the following question: Is this a just settlement? I invite and welcome your comments.
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