Every week, Moishe would pray to win the lottery. “Please God,” he would say, “let me win the lottery. I need to win the lottery.”
After several years of this, God finally replied and God’s booming voice rattled Moishe more than a little bit. “Moishe,” God said, “meet me half way. Buy a ticket.” (Hey, God, the Joke’s on You!)
Although the joke above came from a Reformed Judaism website, as far as I’m concerned, the joke could have been written by anyone, for anyone…except for a Methodist. Methodists are not supposed to buy lottery tickets; the stance against gambling in any form goes back to the beginnings of the Methodist movement and even today is enshrined in the social principles (What does the UMC say about gambling?) While the Methodist position on gambling may not be commonly-known or understood (sometimes even by church members), the general public would generally view the principled stance as part and parcel of Methodist DNA. The reputation of the church has long been described as mostly liberal and a leader on social justice issues. That reputation is part of the reason the current homophobic, anti-LGBTQI policies and practices of the church are so baffling to non-Methodists. I would argue, as a lifelong Methodist, that both the policies and the recent, proposed protocol for change are far more consistent with Methodism than most assume, and our reputation is a combination of aspiration and reality; history and hagiographic storytelling; and inspiration and contrivance. This is only one Methodist’s opinion (and these days, I’m more lapsed than not), but after reading the proposed protocol, what some people are calling “schism” in the United Methodist Church, I am considering to be the logical conclusion to an unnecessarily torturous process.
The anti-gay language was added to the Social Principles at the 1972 General Conference. The topic of human sexuality was raised as an issue of debate by liberals, who wanted to affirm LGBTQ civil rights. The proposed language to be added to the Social Principles read:
Human Sexuality. – We recognize that sexuality is a good gift of God, and we believe persons may be fully human only when that gift is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the church, and society. We call all persons to disciplines that lead to the fulfillment of themselves, others, and society in the stewardship of this gift. Medical, theological, and humanistic disciplines should combine in a determined effort to understand human sexuality more completely.
Although men and women are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sex between a man and a woman is to be clearly affirmed only in the marriage bond. Sex may become exploitive within as well as outside marriage. We reject all sexual expressions which damage or destroy the humanity God has given us as birthright, and we affirm only that sexual expression which enhances that same humanity, in the midst of diverse opinion as to what constitutes that enhancement. Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. Further we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured. (from the blog of The Institute on Religion and Democracy [IRD]; in the UMC, the traditionalists)
Opening the door, even with this very general, very vague statement, led to very unintended consequences. The conservatives within the church were “uneasy,” feeling that the language embraced and fueled the sexual revolution of the 1960s. As discussion proceeded on the proposal, it was becoming clear that the issue was creating significant divisions. Even though there is a long history within the church of schism and re-merging, it was only four short years since the 1968 creation of the United Methodist Church, which was the result of the merging of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. More significantly, it meant the official dissolution of the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction (initially created as a separate but equal method of organizing White and African-American churches). In general, there was no stomach for further division after the arduous work that had been required to create the United Methodist Church four years before. The proposed language seemed destined to create another division, so Don Hand, a delegate from Texas, proposed the addition of the language, “though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian doctrine” to the last sentence. An amendment changed “doctrine” to “teaching,” the language was accepted by a majority vote, and forty-two years of unresolved conflict was born. The final version of the amendment adopted into the Social Principles, and reaffirmed in each quadrennial thereafter, reads:
Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. Further we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured, although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.
The Social Principles do not carry the weight of church law, but statements in the Book of Discipline do. In 1984 and then again in 1996, language was added, further strengthening prohibitions relative to homosexuality.
Regarding the ministry of the ordained
¶ 304.3: The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.
¶ 341.6: Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.
Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation
After years of acrimonious General Conferences, a special General Conference was called for 2019, with the intent of resolving the issues once and for all.
The meeting was a special session of the global denomination’s decision-making body, which usually meets every four years. But at its last meeting, in 2016, delegates became locked in the same stalemate they have had for decades over the full inclusion of LGBTQ members in the church. They decided to refer all discussion about sexuality to a specially appointed commission.
That group — known as the Commission on a Way Forward — presented three plans to delegates last week in St. Louis: the One Church Plan, the Traditional Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan. Ultimately, 53 percent of delegates voted for the Traditional Plan. ( What happened at the United Methodist General Conference?)
Immediately after GC2019, it was clear that once again, no one was happy. The traditional faction (as represented by the IRD-supported Wesleyan Covenant Association) was unwilling to continue to vote on the issue and publicly announced their willingness to consider schism. Pastor Adam Hamilton, lead pastor at the largest United Methodist Church in the United States, held a gathering at his church for the liberal individuals and groups within the church, in order to seek a path forward. Although liberals were now openly considering leaving, it was with the attitude that United Methodists were being pushed out of their church. In the meantime, church members who were paying attention (and realistically, that is not all United Methodists) were dreading the upcoming, regular General Conference of 2020. Schism seemed to be not just inevitable, but likely to be ugly and divisive and completely lacking in grace.
However, unbeknownst to most UMC members (even those who were paying attention), meetings were quietly taking place behind the scenes as early as three months after the end of GC2020. Stakeholders came from all streams and areas of United Methodism: the conservative Wesleyan Covenant Associaton, Good News, IRD/UM Action, and the Confessing Movement; the center-left UMC Next, Mainstream UMC, and Uniting Methodists; and the more-left-than-center Affirmation, Reconciling Ministries Network, and the Methodist Federation of Social Action, as well as members of the UM Queer Clergy Caucus. Bishops representing episcopal areas within the U.S. and internationally were also part of the process, and the mediator was Kenneth Feinberg. Feinberg is best known as the Special Master for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and the adminstrator for the BP Deepwater Horizon Victim Compensation Fund. The group devised a plan for an orderly split of the church, and the plan is remarkable for its ability to give all stakeholders their cake, while allowing them to eat it too. Somehow, it appears that “meet me halfway” actually happened. This is, however, not a done deal. Much like a bill needs to be written before voted on in Congress, the terms of the protocol have to be written into legislation; this must be done in accordance with Church law, because a negative ruling from the church’s Judicial Council would derail the whole process. And then the legislation must be presented to and voted on at General Conference 2020. It is also not necessarily going to be the only plan presented; at least one other group is working on a plan, and it is currently unclear if they will continue their efforts or join forces in support of the Protocol.
First and foremost, the protocol states that conferences (regional bodies) and individual churches determination their affiliation with the United Methodist Church or a new denomination. In a new wrinkle, if a church does nothing, it is by default choosing to stay a United Methodist Church (and the assumption is that the UMC will eventually repeal the provisions of the Traditional Plan implemented by GC2019). If a church or conference opts to leave, it is affirming the traditionalist position. For the first time in all of the discussions over many, many years, the centrists and “progressives” will not be forced out; it will be the traditionalists leaving and starting their own denomination.
The distribution of Church property is an area of potential difficulty that the Protocol addresses head-on. In the United Methodist Church, each individual church owns the church building but without all the rights one thinks of when talking about ownership. It is held in trust for future Methodists:
Conferencing and itinerancy as core concepts of United Methodist polity make clear that we are not a congregational church, but rather a connectional church: we are “connected” to one another through conferencing and itinerancy, on a journey together in connection and in covenant with one another. The trust clause further bears this out. John Wesley created a model deed (transported to America by Thomas Coke), to protect the security of the “preaching house,” as a place for the itinerant pastor to serve and followers to worship. Wesley’s rationale for this model deed was, as follows:
The chapel shall not be the private property of the trustees; and that if any of these trustees should change their
sentiments, or from any other cause should be inclined to give the occupation of the chapel to some other party of
professors of religion, they shall not have power to do so …. only so as to secure it in perpetuity for the purpose for which it was built.
Thus, conferencing, itinerancy and the trust clause are woven together as a part of the quilt that defines
Methodism as a connectional, not congregational, Church. Yes, the local church has its name on the deed and
legally “owns” the property, and the local church trustees are responsible for that property. However, the
ownership is in trust for the future of United Methodism, as a part of the covenant relationship that every United
Methodist has with one another. (EXPLANATION OF TRUST CLAUSE FOR CHURCH BUILDING OWNERSHIP)
Under the terms of the Protocol, churches leaving the United Methodist Church will be released from the trust clause, thus enabling them to keep the church building and other assets. A leaving congregation must be up-to-date on its connectional financial commitments and responsibilities, but Leavers will have no other financial ties with the United Methodist Annual Conference upon leaving. Additionally, to help the traditionalist denomination get started, $25 million dollars will be set aside for it; another $2 million will be held in escrow in the event other denominations are formed over the four years after the acceptance of the Protocol. Another area of financial consideration is related to clergy and lay employee pensions; even with the separation, the pension plan will continue to cover current clergy and laypersons.
An unexpected provision of the Protocol is also the provision creating the most conversation and concern. Changes by the United Methodist Church will be held in abeyance until the traditionalists leave, and that includes the removal of anti-homosexuality rules in the Discipline. Although the Protocol also requires a moratorium on punitive administrative or judicial actions against clergy who break the existing Church law, some of the traditionalist wing are predicting that their denomination will flourish, while the United Methodists will fail to revise the Discipline and thus fail. The fear is one shared by some LGBTQ+ advocates. In another unexpected wrinkle, the Protocol also calls for $39 million to be set aside to support communities hurt by the sin of racism. It’s worth noting that the allocation of funds is not guaranteed; it is essentially a budget recommendation which could be ignored. As with the anti-homosexuality provisions, it will take the affirmative commitment of the United Methodist Church to make this happen, and as with the anti-homosexuality provisions, some Leavers are predicting failure.
As an acknowledgment of the historical role of the Methodist movement in systems of systematic racial violence, exploitation and discrimination, and as a fair and just step in addressing the impact of such harms, a sum of
$39M shall be allocated by the General Council on Finance and Administration in their budget recommendations over the next two quadrennia to support communities historically marginalized by the sin of racism. The goal of these earmarked funds shall be to strengthen ministries by and for Asian, Black, Hispanic-Latino, Native American, and Pacific
Islander Communities, encourage the full participation of historically marginalized communities in the governance and decision-making of the church, and ensure that the vital work of training the next generation of leaders by Africa University will be maintained. The Connectional Table in consultation with the National Plans, the Program Agencies of the Church, and the Council of Bishops shall be responsible for determining and evaluating programmatic priorities in relation to these earmarked funds. $13M of this sum represents a contribution from the post-separation Traditional Methodist Denomination, made possible by their decision to forgo receiving these funds and instead contribute them to this fund. This $13M sum shall remain in the possession of and be administered by the post-separation United Methodist Church for this purpose. In addition, the post-separation United Methodist Church will contribute $26M for a total
of $39M over 8 years for this purpose. Churches which align with the traditional Methodist denomination under this Protocol shall have the option to participate in programs and grants which serve their respective ethnic groups if they otherwise meet the requirements for such participation through this 8-year period. (The Protocol)
Despite all the potential for failure, I am hoping that the Protocol is adopted and fully implemented. For years, fear of schism has kept the Church in a place of appeasement, all the while crafting imperfect, ambiguous, and harmful policies. It wasn’t until people stood up and said, “This is who we are, and this is who we must be” that real change, bold change was able to be considered honestly and faithfully. This is as true for the liberal church members as it is for the traditionalists. Because of that radical honesty, this no longer feels like schism; it feels like rebirth. And for that, I am thankful.