Early this year, United Methodists were rocked with the news that a group of 16 leaders from around the denomination had been meeting for months, and were releasing a “protocol” outlining a split in The United Methodist Church (UMC). The leaders who participated represented a variety of perspectives in the denomination related to human sexuality, including: Central Conference Bishops; Wesley Covenant Association; Institute on Religion and Democracy; UMNext; Mainstream UMC; Reconciling Ministries Network; and the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus.
Moderating the group was Ken Feinberg, a nationally known mediator who has a national reputation for bringing disparate groups to resolution. Mr. Feinberg’s experience includes having served as special master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, TARP Executive Compensation, and the Agent Orange Victim Compensation Program.
According to the document released on January 3rd—and its accompanying FAQ—the “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation” calls for a departure of traditionalist churches from the UMC to form a new denomination that would be expected to retain its ban on LGBTQ clergy and same-gender marriages. To follow would be a restructuring of the post-separation UMC into regions, allowing U.S. churches the freedom to remove the harmful and exclusive language in the Book of Discipline. This would allow Bishops and Annual Conferences to ordain LGBTQ clergy and would allow churches and pastors to host and perform same-gender wedding ceremonies.
The Protocol sets aside $25 million for the new traditionalist denomination over four years, and churches leaving for the new denomination would be able to retain their properties and other assets. An additional $2 million would be set aside for progressive congregations who would still want to leave the post-separation UMC.
Annual Conferences (regional bodies of the current denomination) would have the opportunity to decide if they want to leave the UMC, and local churches could also hold votes to depart should they disagree with the theological stance of their Annual Conference. For example, an Annual Conference in a theologically conservative region could elect to leave the UMC, but an inclusive congregation within that region could elect to stay. However, no local church or Annual Conference would be required to hold a vote. If a regional body declines to vote, it would remain in the UMC; if a local church declines to vote, it would remain in the denomination with which its Annual Conference affiliates.
This news is both significant and surprising. A livestreamed Q&A with the mediation participants shows both the difficulty of the mediated dialogue as well as the sense of hope shared by the participants. I was interviewed by the San Diego Union-Tribune for an article published on Sunday, January 12th, and this was just one of countless articles around the country, including national news outlets like the New York Times and others.
It is important to note that this protocol is not authoritative. There is still much work to be done. The protocol outlines a process that must be refined into legislation that will be presented at the General Conference in May of this year, and will only be enacted if passed by this legislative body. In the meantime, much conversation is underway and many questions are still to be answered. I found a helpful analysis written by my friend and colleague, Rev. Jeremy Smith.
As I understand this protocol, I find it to be an imperfect compromise. I am unhappy that $25 million will be used as seed money for a new denomination that—in my view—will continue to do harm to our LGBTQ siblings. On the other hand, I’m grateful that this could be the end of a battle that has been going on for my entire life. Leaders across the theological spectrum seem to share the view that this compromise is imperfect, yet most also seem to share a sense of hope that the protocol can pass at General Conference.
As we await these historic decisions, we will continue to worship, we will continue to study and grow in our faith, we will continue to serve our vulnerable neighbors, we will continue to proclaim that God’s love for all God’s children, and we will continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
In peace and in hope…