This statement reflects on and provides the background for the Council of Bishops’ press release of Friday, January 3, 2020. The press release stated that a diverse group of United Methodists representing various constituencies, originally invited to gather by Sierra Leone Bishop John Yambasu, has developed a proposed agreement for separation unanimously agreed to by all parties.
Overview of the Protocol
The Protocol instates an immediate and retroactive moratorium on complaints and charges relating to LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings beginning on January 1, 2020. In addition, the Protocol preserves The United Methodist Church as a global denomination, provides a path to separation for those who desire it, allows for the creation of new denominations, enacts a regional structure, and removes the anti-LGBTQ language in our current Book of Discipline.
Those of us who participated in the mediation sessions initially gathered at the invitation of Sierra Leone Bishop John Yambasu to discuss our differences, hopes, vision for the Church, and a path forward (including separation) that could avoid additional harm to LGBTQ persons, their allies, and the ministry of the Church. That first gathering included five representatives from advocacy groups and included no U.S. bishops or Central Conference laity. We then agreed to reduce the number of persons from each group to continue more rigorous conversations with a mediator and hopefully reach mutually agreeable recommendations that could become legislation. Other participants were added as our work evolved.
I agreed to attend because I was invited by a bishop of the Church. I make it a practice to make myself available for such invitations. And, I went because LGBTQ United Methodists have been harmed by the institutional Church for too long and in too many ways. I went, not least of all, because I promised to engage in conversation with willing United Methodists about the future of the denomination.
Others have gathered with similar purposes throughout the last five decades, so I arrived with skepticism. Like most of you, I had studied and watched the calculated sixty-year effort by traditionalists, influenced by the Institute for Religion and Democracy, to take over The United Methodist Church and its predecessor. I read the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s welcome to LGBTQ people after General Conference 2019 and wondered how one could claim to love and welcome someone when they challenge who God made them to be and legislate against their freedom. I would guess that many of us were surprised that we continued to meet after our first gatherings.
An Imperfect Table and Process
Mr. Kenneth Feinberg, a well-respected attorney in mediation and alternative dispute resolution, led us through a process that was designed to “get to yes.” He broke our work down into governance decisions, financial considerations, and a timeline. Each of us was guided by our own experiences, theology, identities, and understandings of justice. To the best of our abilities, each of us brought with us the myriad of conversations we have had across the connection.
From the onset, ours was an unusual mediation process because the parties at the table had no authority to act on behalf of the Church.
Ours was also an imperfect table born out of a common desire: something different must happen at General Conference 2020. We recognized the following imperfections:
- In discussing next steps for any organization that is as large and complex as The United Methodist Church, it is not possible with our limitations to build a table that fairly represents all constituents. While the recommendations set forth by our team will impact all in the Church, not everyone could be present at the table. We reminded ourselves of this at each meeting.
- Five decades of harm had taken its toll. In moments when trust ran particularly thin, we relied on our common desire for a different outcome for General Conference 2020.
- While many outside of the group knew that we were meeting, we agreed that sharing conversations from the mediation table during the process, while transparent, might also cause harm and hurt our chances for success.
Concurrent with our meetings, most of us were working on legislation for General Conference 2020. We avoided conversations about those plans and proposals to the extent possible because they distracted us from our purpose. We were there to bring our best efforts to something that would interrupt the normal General Conference pattern.
The centrists and progressives at the table were focused on an outcome that left The United Methodist Church intact as a global denomination, believing that such an outcome had the most positive impact on local congregations that are the heart of our denomination. We agreed upon the importance of allowing each part of the Church to self-determine its course.
Going into our last meeting as a team, I did not give us much chance of success. We still had most of the differences that we had at our initial meetings. But, our prayers proved fruitful, and we relied on our mutual desire for an outcome that had a chance of changing the pattern of the General Conference. We reached an agreement. It is as imperfect as the table and process, but it provides an opportunity to move at long last into a period of broad reform in The United Methodist Church.
We received advice from experts on the financial portions of the agreement. I believe the results reflect what could be agreed to at this point in time while minimizing the harm to the work, witness, and people of The United Methodist Church.
Broad Reform, Renewed Hope
The United Methodist Church has long needed to reform its governance and structure. It needs a more nimble and flexible decision-making process. It needs more regional voice.
The Church’s current processes were developed at a time when its center of gravity was located in the United States. Our very governance structure mimics the U.S. government, and our social principles speak primarily to the U.S. Church. Neither is surprising, since our origins are colonialist in nature, with a U.S.-based Church viewing the rest of the world as a mission field.
Additionally, the Church must meet the needs addressed by its current boards and agencies in a more efficient manner. It needs to critically assess the necessity of our current structures of hierarchy: Central Conferences, Jurisdictional Conferences, Annual Conferences, Districts, etc. If the Church does not truthfully confront these matters during this opportunity for reform, then it risks its mission and ministries in the world.
The aim of this Protocol is a new beginning for people known as United Methodists — one that brings renewed hope to us all.
Challenges and Unintended Consequences
There will be challenges to the Protocol. As a mediated path for separation, it naturally cannot meet all of anyone’s desires. It is complex, and some of our questions about it have yet to be answered. It cannot satisfy those who wish to see the Church dissolved and its assets divided. Nor can it satisfy those who wish to see the Church remain united. And, I expect challenges to both the process and those invited to participate.
The Protocol may also result in unintended consequences — impacts that we cannot name in advance — that must be handled with care once they are known. The pursuant legislative teams will take every measure to create legislative recommendations that will care for the Church’s most vulnerable and marginalized constituents. That concern is reflected in the financial article of the Protocol.
In order for the Protocol to reach General Conference 2020, the mediation team must now develop legislation that implements the Protocol. One or more annual conferences must then submit this legislation without modification to the General Conference for consideration.
Although the Protocol provides a path out of the Church’s current stalemate, its effects will not be immediate. If the General Conference adopts the Protocol’s legislation, there will still be a transition period for implementation. During that transition period, we must work together to ensure that we transition into the future in good faith and with every intention to do no harm.
I look forward to May 16, 2020. Hopefully, we will have taken steps that allow The United Methodist Church to repent, reconcile, and reform, focused on ending the marginalization and othering of parts of God’s creation.