Timelines, Tensions, and the Separation Protocol (PART 2)


by Chris Ritter


In Part One (please read) I described how the Separation Protocol faces twin challenges. The timeline for changing church teaching in the U.S. for the psUMC will be extensive now that we understand separate General Conferences are not possible in May 2020. The new timeline is a problem for Centrists/Progressives who want to see change sooner. It is also a frustration for traditionalists who will be assembling a new church and would like to highlight contrasts and communicate urgency.


The other challenge is that Africa will be a larger percentage of a post-separation UMC General Conference. While the power to adapt the Discipline is to be given to a U.S. Regional Conference, the level of adaptation will be controlled by General Conference which will still have significant reserve powers. The amendments needed to create a U.S. Regional Conference will receive an uncertain reception in the ratification votes that will be happening around the world on the annual conference level.


The uncertainties with the Protocol, I believe, stem from a simple, painful truth: The Protocol is a bad deal for Africa. The growing African church has to choose between the UMC name, logo and GBGM on the one hand and their core beliefs and important friendships on the other. It is like a football quarterback, straight-A, high school student whose parents are getting a divorce. Do you go with mom and change school districts or do you go with dad and not live with your siblings? Yuck.


The analogy is imperfect. Africa is not United Methodism's child. But they are the future. This is the only branch of our church that is thriving and its large, diverse continent with five million United Methodists had exactly one person, a bishop, at the negotiation table. Bishops have different concerns than the folks back home. Their general church salary is middle-class by U.S. standards, but back home it is like winning the lottery every month. Many bishops have sent their children to school in America and use their generous travel allowances to come see them often while attending denominational meetings. None of this is evil but neither does it have anything to do with the mission of the church. The African grass roots want unity AND church-wide traditional teachings on marriage and human sexuality. The Protocol says they can have neither.


The Protocol also raises the spectre that Africa may divide internally. Three central conferences will each have their own separate votes. We could see a 2/1 split. African annual conferences are likewise empowered to vote and these could experience the same internal divisions we will see in the U.S. Will the continued general superintendency of Bishop Oliveto become a factor? Are we playing with matches near a powder keg?


The Protocol is an extremely important development and represents a concerted effort from all sides to work together on separate futures. The admission that separation is needed and should be amicable is groundbreaking. No one wants to go back to the negotiating table or (worse) re-open negotiations on the floor of GC2020. I can think of five basic strategiesto address the challenges before us. None are ideal. Most are really bad... or at least incomplete. I will give the first four in this post and save the last for Part Three.


1. Abstention

A friend suggested that church teachings on marriage change at GC2020 with an IOU to Africa that all language on sex will be removed after the U.S. Regional Conference forms. This, of course, is an immediate red flag. It diverts from the Protocol and would require Traditionalist delegates to sit on their hands while things happen that they have been fighting against for years. This opens deep matters of conscience.


Tom Berlin begged Africans at GC2019 from the podium to not vote so that the One Church Plan could be approved. That didn’t work. Attempting this again would trigger the ugly GC2019-like spectacle that the Protocol was designed to prevent. Again, the deal struck in the Feinberg negotiations is that the Traditional Plan stuff would stay in the general discipline. There may be some attempt to keep the teaching in place but repeal the penalties, but this get us quickly back to our well-worn legislative battlegrounds.


The above being unworkable, Centrists wonder if they can get the Regional Conference Plan passed at GC2020. This legislation has no direct reference to sexuality and its passage would speed the timeline by a few months... avoiding a specially-called GC2021 of unknown composure. The Connectional Table's suggested amendments would need to be passed by a 2/3 majority.


Traditionalists have long opposed separating U.S. decision-making from African influence. The single biggest open question right now is whether the Protocol changes that. Two-thirds is a high standard. Both U.S. Traditionalists and Africans will be needed. U.S. Traditionalist delegates will likely take their cues from Africa on this. We just don't know enough about the African response to the Protocol to make any assurances. I feel that the bigger uncertainties come following GC2020 with the global ratification votes. What motivation will Africa have at that point to accept less influence over the direction of the UMC? Some African conferences rejected regionalization amendments from GC2008 by as much as 98%. The biggest indicator of future performance is past performance.


2. Back-Tracking

We are watching our church move through stages of grief. One of these stages is negotiation. The shock and awe of witnessing open planning for separation is causing renewed interest in previously rejected plans. A well-known United Methodist called me this week to ask: Could there be two U.S. Regional Conferences instead of one, thereby keeping the church somewhat together? That is basically the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP). I was its biggest supporter last year. The legislation was comprehensive, realistic, and elegant. But it only gained 12% support. Do bishops wish they had backed the CCP instead of the One Church Plan? I imagine so. Is it too late? I believe it is.


The CCP was probably always a gentle path to complete separation. Some are looking again at the legislation again through that lens. As leaders survey the future created by the Protocol, they see a landscape fraught with peril. Once a new denomination forms, we move to a zero-sum-game sorting process in which a win for one side is a loss for the other. Bishops and their cabinets are already feverishly working to identify the flight risks and calculating odds of financial viability following separation. Remember, the Schism of 1844 started out as amicable separation and ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. There is no group empowered by the Protocol to enforce fair play. Sorting under the CCP, by contrast, was to have been guided process so that everyone plays nice.


U.S. Traditionalist leadership might have been persuaded to support the CCP at GC2019, but not today. There is now great momentum toward full separation. And, of course, if we are talking about the CCP again we are not really talking about the Protocol. It is either one or the other. I hope we can all work together to keep the Protocol train on the tracks.


3. Patience

Another solution is patience. Centrists and Progressives may have to fall back on the fact that no one will much care what the Discipline says about marriage and human sexuality in the psUMC. It may be a couple years of don’t-ask-don’t-tell until a U.S. Regional Conference can be approved and assembled. That would be a bitter pill for Progressives to swallow. Two years of continued (if only technical) church positions banning same-sex marriage may spur the formation of the Liberation Methodist Church. And that, I expect, would be just fine with Centrists. But this will spell continued conflict within the ranks of the psUMC. It might be a very painful wait.


4. African Exodus

If African Central Conferences use the Protocol to vote themselves into a new traditional, global Methodist Church (or their own church), some uncertainties about the future control of the psUMC General Conference are solved (even as problems of timeline remain). Africa would, however, be severing themselves off from their voice in the General Board of Global Ministries and UMCOR. These are not only the sources of millions of dollars in aide but also the delivery and accountability system for those funds. Africans love being United Methodist. They deeply appreciate United Methodist News Service as a source of objective information. The name and insignia mean everything to them. The protocol gives them no right to keep these if they separate.


No one would ultimately be able to stop "The United Methodist Church of Africa" from forming and using the Cross & Flame. Below are non-United Methodist denominations that use the insignia in different ways. But Africa does not want autonomy. They want unity.


Conclusion

I support the Feinberg Separation Protocol. But it is only (to quote the movie Argo) best bad plan we have. It is especially bad for Africa. Those comprising the the psUMC seek a more workable timeline. The U.S. Regional Conference Plan, if passable, is thin... theologically, ecclesiologically, and otherwise. It lets the U.S. get its way on marriage and human sexuality, but it leaves a divided General Conference with significant reserve powers.


As they approve the Protocol, delegates at GC2020 might do well to design a future that makes better sense for the African church. I will take my best stab at that in Part Three. Stay tuned.

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