By Thomas Lambrecht -
One of the values promoted by U.S. foreign policy over the years (and imperfectly adhered to) is the value of self-determination. This is the idea that people ought to be able to determine for themselves their own government and national policies, rather than having them imposed on them by a coercive government or dictator.
The value of self-determination ought to apply in religious contexts, as well. A recent statement by some African UM bishops proposed, “Let’s make our own choices.” In the statement, the bishops lamented a situation in the church where they feel they are helpless observers, rather than participants in choosing their own future and the future of their annual conferences.
The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation proposed for the 2020 (now 2021) General Conference highlights self-determination as one of its hallmarks. It aims to provide the opportunity for all parts of the church, including individual members, clergy, and bishops, to make choices that will define their own future with Methodism.
Today’s Lack of Self-Determination
The Protocol for Separation came about because many persons in the church currently feel they lack the ability to choose their preferred future for the church.
Progressives and many centrists want the church to allow same-sex weddings and affirm the ordination of practicing LGBT persons. The church at large, through 50 years of General Conferences, has maintained a more traditional position.
Most conservatives want the church to affirm what they believe to be the biblical understanding of marriage and human sexuality, as the Book of Discipline currently states. Many U.S. bishops and clergy, however, do not affirm the teachings of the Discipline in this regard.
The bishops of Africa have repeatedly stated that they want the church to stay united and at the same time remain committed to the current teaching of the Discipline. Given the refusal of many U.S. annual conferences to adhere to the church’s standards, that option is not possible.
Under the current circumstances in the UM Church, many parts of the church are frustrated at their inability to have the church they want to have.
My colleague Rob Renfroe likens our situation to the church being engaged in a cage match, where fighters are locked in a cage and required to fight until one of them is victorious. But because of how the church is structured, no side in the fight is able to win a victory. So, we are locked in perpetual combat with no end in sight.
For years, Good News has asked, “Can we unlock the door to the cage match and end the fighting in our church?” Conversations at the 2016 General Conference were an attempt to do that. The resulting church Commission was unable to bring a solution that ended the fighting, only perpetuated it. The Protocol is the first legitimate proposal that could unlock the door and end the fighting.
Two factors have kept the door of the cage locked. First, the trust clause prevents local churches from easily choosing to exit from the denomination in order to find a ministry context that is amenable to their beliefs. Second, church leaders have in the past valued structural unity over resolving our theological impasse.
The Protocol unlocks the door by providing a mechanism to release the trust clause and allow annual conferences and local churches to make choices about their future unhindered by an unrealistic financial penalty. The Protocol also unlocks the door by representing an acknowledgement by church leaders across the theological spectrum that the kind of unity the church currently has is not working. While structurally part of the same denomination, our vast differences of belief and vision lead to endless conflict that causes pain on all sides and detracts from our church’s ability to successfully pursue our God-given mission.
Self-Determination under the Protocol
The Protocol provides a process that enables parts of the church at all levels to make choices about their future. A new Methodist denomination that affirms a theologically conservative view of Methodist doctrine, including marriage and sexuality, will be formed under the Protocol. Other groups of United Methodists are empowered by the Protocol to form a denomination in line with their beliefs. Any group could do so, including those seeking a liberationist Methodist church or those seeking a different form of centrist understanding. Even a second traditional denomination could be formed. The possibility is there for any group to form a new thing if they are willing to do the work.
Central conferences (with all their annual conferences) are allowed by a two-thirds vote to choose to separate from the UM Church and align with a new Methodist denomination. Annual conferences (with all their local churches) are allowed by a 57 percent vote to choose to separate from the UM Church and align with a new Methodist denomination, or to align with a different Methodist denomination than their central conference. Local churches are allowed by either a simple majority or a two-thirds vote (as determined by the church council) to choose to align with a different Methodist denomination than their annual conference. Every level of the church has the opportunity for self-determination. (Jurisdictions will not vote.)
On an individual level, bishops can choose to transfer from the UM Church to a new Methodist denomination, regardless of what their annual conference decides. Clergy can choose to transfer from the UM Church to a new Methodist denomination, regardless of what their local church decides. Individual members can exercise self-determination through their local church’s decision. If they disagree with the decision of their local church, they will need to decide whether to remain with that local church anyway or seek out another local church more in line with their beliefs. The new traditionalist Methodist church will seek to support groups of members who do not have a traditional congregation available to them to start a new church where feasible.
The Unique Possibilities in the Central Conferences
The statement coming from some of the African bishops laments the fact that some are uncomfortable remaining in the UM Church after separation, but also unwilling to align with a new traditionalist Methodist denomination. Other options are available for United Methodists in the central conferences, which are outside the United States.
If other new denominations are formed in addition to a traditionalist one, central conference Methodists could consider aligning with one of them.
Alternatively, a central conference could form an autonomous Methodist church, which would essentially be its own new denomination. Instead of being formed based on theology, the autonomous Methodist church could be formed geographically. For example, a United Methodist Church of Africa could form as an autonomous church under its own governance and Book of Discipline. It could choose to work cooperatively with any or all of the other denominations forming out of the Protocol process, including the continuing United Methodist Church. Such a process is available now in our United Methodist Discipline (¶ 572), but it is a 4- to 8-year process. Under the Protocol, that process could be shortened to less than two years and would be far less bureaucratic.
Local churches in the U.S. or elsewhere might not want to align with any of the denominations coming out of the Protocol. They could decide to join an already existing denomination, such as the Wesleyan Church. (One large congregation in the Texas Annual Conference has recently joined the Free Methodist Church.) Or the local church could choose to become an independent congregation under ¶ 2553 adopted by the 2019 General Conference. The disadvantage to this last choice is the need to pay upfront pension obligations and an extra year of apportionments, but that choice is still available to congregations. More than a dozen congregations across the theological spectrum in the U.S. have taken that route over the last year.
The bottom line in this discussion is to understand that under the Protocol all parties have the maximum self-determination possible. It provides the opportunity to unlock the cage door and end the fighting in our church. It allows each group to form itself and move forward in a way conducive to its unique beliefs and mission.
The Protocol offers the best opportunity for our church to focus on effective ministry undistracted by internecine conflict. It offers the maximum freedom for each individual and church unit to choose its preferred future.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.
Graphic: Faced with glitches in the electronic voting system, delegates use colored cards to vote on May 16 at the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.
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