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


by Chris Ritter


The Separation Protocol legislation is now released, complete with its own website. One wonders if the site is a reflection of the proposal’s strength or a response to objections that initial information was released on the Council of Bishops’ site without their approval. The answer is probably both. The legislation itself is 17,000 words… words like “spun-off,” “non-binary self-identifier,” “controlled entities,” “indemnification,” and “columbarium.” I expect some future historian will glory in this expansive new disciplinary paragraph as a time capsule reflecting the complexity and contentiousness of our current ecclesiastical crisis.


Assuming general acceptance of the Separation Protocol, significant questions remain.  Specifically, there are uncertainties about when and how the present order of things will come apart and the new order of things will come together.  Jeremy Smith published a post on timeline problems this week. He only scratches the surface on what is actually before us.


When reading anything by Jeremy you have to wade through endless pot-shots at WCA and traditionalists.  Arriving at his basic arguments, you see that many Centrists and Progressives have been laboring under the assumption that a group of Traditionalists will walk out of GC2020 or that a special called session can happen immediately in May or soon thereafter.  Today’s release will hopefully disabuse everyone of that notion.  Article Six of the Protocol, as I predicted, has been walked back. A longer cycle of implementation will be needed.


While space at the Minneapolis Convention Center is available for planning the future of separate denominations, traditionalists will not be marching out of GC2020 as once imagined. It is not just that Charlie Brown doesn’t trust Lucy to hold the football (borrowing an image from Keith Sweat). There are deeper issues of process and responsibility:

  1. Delegates were elected to represent their annual conference at GC2020.  They have no authority to march out and represent their conference at some other meeting.  If they did leave, their alternates would take those seats.

  2. Traditional delegates cannot assume the results of the later vote their annual conference will take on affiliation.  Those decisions will not yet have been made.

  3. If traditional delegates did walk out of GC2020, they would not constitute, in themselves, a representative body for a new traditional church.  Many U.S. conferences shut out significant numbers of traditionalist clergy and laity altogether in recent delegate elections.  There are lots of people that will need representation at a traditionalist convening conference beyond the circle of GC2020 delegates.

Closing GC2020 early and convening a special session in Minneapolis helps nothing. The delegates for the special session would be the same people. The same is true for a specially-called General Conference in the fall… unless a group of traditional conferences voluntarily withhold their delegates.


I disagree with Jeremy that timeline issues create some unfair advantage for the Traditionalists starting a new denomination.  WCA, he argues, “will have free reign [sic] for two years to be the choice between them and a still-broken, in-between United Methodist Church.” The reality is that it would be be much easier for Traditionalists to separate from a UMC that has already flipped on marriage and human sexuality. GC2020 would be a catalyzing event for Traditionalists the same way GC2019 was for Progressives and Centrists.  Absent this, it will be more difficult to explain the urgency for a new church. But rolling back the Traditional Plan at GC2020 is not what the Protocol proposes.


Let me remind you of key developments represented in the Protocol negotiation:  Centrists made a deal with African bishops.  The teachings of the general church would remain traditional.  In exchange, Africans would consent to the creation of a U.S. Regional Conference with authority to modify those teachings.  This keeps funding from the Episcopal Fund and General Board of Global Ministries more or less intact.  The American UMC will take the hit of losing those churches/clergy/conferences who cannot abide the changes; and African bishops will work to sell this deal to their delegates and people.  U.S. Traditionalists accept the terms of the Protocol as the long-sought, overdue separation, even as they hope that Africa will ultimately help them constitute a new global church. The ultimate fate of Africa is an open question.


The assurances given by the Establishment create a complex order of operations: Progressives and Centrists won’t get a new progressive stance on marriage until a U.S. Regional Conference meets.  A U.S. Regional Conference with authority to adapt the Discipline cannot convene until the constitution is amended.  Needed constitutional amendments are in doubt as long as traditionalists are in the UMC. U.S. traditionalists will not be out of the UMC any time this year (let’s assume a convening conference in the late fall 2020 and the new church commencing on 1/1/2021).  Unless a regionalization plan is approved at GC2020, another specially-called session will be needed at a time after exodus. Then it will be another 18 months or so for expedited ratification votes to happen around the world. 


One key question is whether traditionalist delegates will be willing to speed the psUMC timeline by voting favorably on the Connectional Table’s U.S. Regional Conference amendments at GC2020. There are no assurances granted on this by the Protocol agreement itself. But GC2020 delegates are only half the equation. With global ratification votes come the greater uncertainty. Conferences will be voting on these amendments at the same time many United Methodists are voting themselves into a new denomination. African conferences rejected ratification of similar 2008 regionalization amendments… some by as much as 98%. It is possible all this wait would be for nothing and the psUMC end up with a General Conference more polarized and dysfunctional than we have today.

Will the New Order be Stable?

If the Protocol is successful for the Establishment, a mere 10–25% of U.S. membership will leave to form a new traditional Methodist Church. Africa and the rest of the global church will, it is hoped, stay in place and accept the new regionalization plan. Ideally, a small Liberationist Methodist Church might also form and give the psUMC the coveted status of via media.


If Africa stays in the post-separation UMC, they may very well have a majority of delegates by the time a specially-called session is convened in GC2021.  African bishops helped shape the protocol, but they do not exercise control over their General Conference delegates. One African bishop pledged sixty votes for the GC2019 One Church Plan that never materialized. Bishops generally have a very mixed record in guiding legislative outcomes. We have yet to substantially hear from rank-and-file African delegates on the Protocol. What we have heard has not been favorable.


Could Africa “take over” The UMC even after U.S. traditionalists leave? I don’t believe this is anyone intention. If it were, an African GC majority in a post-separation UMC would face the same limitations as the slim traditionalist majority does now. U.S. episcopal leadership being what it is, there would be no enforcement of human sexuality standards. But general church budgets are set at General Conference.  General agencies are governed by General Conference.  Decisions about what can and cannot be contextualized by the regional conferences are made at General Conference. Is there enough trust established between African delegates and the U.S. Establishment to make a post-separation UMC stable? If GC2019 is any evidence, it seems not. The ideological divide between the U.S. and Africa might equate to a psUMC General Conference more polarized than we have today.

So…

There are two basic Protocol Challenges: The pace to the future and the functionality of things once we get there. The growing African church is at the heart of all this. I am planning a Part Two where I explore some possible solutions. There are also deep issues of process related to the formation of a new traditional church from incredibly diverse constituencies. That, too, will need to wait for the future post.

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