By Walter Fenton
A prominent group of 16 United Methodists released a detailed proposal today calling for an amicable separation of The United Methodist Church. The group included individuals representing all the major advocacy organizations affiliated with the church and eight bishops from around the world, including Bishop Kenneth Carter, current president of the Council of Bishops, and Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, the council’s president-elect.
The distinguished attorney Kenneth Feinberg served, pro bono, as the mediator who guided the diverse group to an agreement. Among many important assignments, Feinberg is widely known as the special master of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.
In a document entitled “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” the group said, “The United Methodist Church and its members aspire to multiply the Methodist mission in the world by restructuring the Church through respectful and dignified separation.” The group went on to say, “the undersigned propose restructuring the [Church] by separation as the best means to resolve our differences, allowing each part… to remain true to its theological understanding, while recognizing the dignity, equality, integrity, and respect of every person.”
The protocol agreement calls on the 2020 General Conference to adopt a process that would allow central conferences, annual conferences, and local churches to join a new traditionalist Methodist denomination while maintaining control of all their property, assets, and liabilities.
“This is a very important agreement, and the most hopeful development in a dispute that has undermined the health and vitality of both local churches and the denomination in general,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and one of the 16 individuals who negotiated and signed the agreement. Boyette and Indiana Annual Conference laywoman Patricia Miller, president of The Confessing Movement, represented the Renewal and Reform groups that include their organizations, plus Good News and the Institute on Religion and Democracy/UMAction.
“Since the close of the 2019 General Conference Renewal and Reform groups leaders have engaged in conversations with other advocacy group leaders, bishops, and church officials in an effort to resolve our differences through a negotiated plan of separation,” said Boyette. “We are thankful for those who have stepped forward since that contentious General Conference to propose an agreement respecting the sincere theological and ethical convictions of Methodists across the board.”
Under the terms of the protocol agreement central conferences, by a two-thirds vote, could vote to join a new traditionalist Methodist denomination, and annual conferences, by a 57 percent vote, could vote to do the same. However, central and annual conferences are not required to hold such votes, and if they do not do so, they will remain with the “post-separation United Methodist Church,” the body that will continue the name and infrastructure of the present church.
Local churches, whether their annual conferences take action or not, could also vote to join a new traditionalist Methodist denomination. The local church council would “determine a voting threshold of either a simple majority or two-thirds of those present and voting at a duly called church conference [i.e., a conference that includes all church members present and voting].” According to the protocol agreement, “A vote on a motion to opt for a different affiliation would occur in a church conference held not more than 60 days after the request for such a vote is made by the church council.” Those conferences would be held in consultation with a local church’s district superintendent, and he or she would be required to authorize the conferences. Local churches voting to join a new traditionalist Methodist church would retain all their property and assets, and be responsible for their liabilities (e.g., loan repayments).
The mediation team assumed the Wesleyan Covenant Association would serve as the vehicle for creating a new traditionalist Methodist denomination. It is also assumed the post-separation UM Church would quickly move to adopt legislation creating a U.S. Regional Conference, and that conference would consider changing its sexual ethics, allowing same-sex weddings, and ordaining openly gay clergy.
All 16 members called for the creation of a fund that would seek to address “the historical role of the Methodist movement in systems of systematic racial violence, exploitation and discrimination.” The protocol agreement proposes setting aside $39 million to be allocated over eight years “to support communities historically marginalized by the sin of racism.”
While the post-separation United Methodist Church would retain the denomination’s various general boards and agencies, it would designate a sum of $38 million to the new traditionalist Methodist church over a four-year period. The new traditionalist Methodist church would in turn contribute $13 million of that sum to the fund to address racial and ethnic injustices. While the post-separation UM Church would administer the fund, local churches from the post-separation UM Church and the new traditionalist Methodist church would be able to apply for grants from it.
“The WCA Council met yesterday via a conference call,” said the Rev. Dr. Jeff Greenway, the council’s chairman and senior pastor at Reynoldsburg UM Church in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. “While the council did not receive copies of the protocol agreement, our president did walk us through its terms, and then answered questions. The council is guardedly optimistic about the agreement, and in the coming days it will decide whether to formally endorse it or not.”
In early October 2019 the WCA Council endorsed the “Indianapolis Plan for Amicable Separation.” It too was an agreement hammered out by a diverse group of United Methodists calling for separation. Although no bishops were party to that agreement, the group did include notable leaders from progressive, centrist, and traditionalist advocacy groups. The plan it agreed to was put into legislative form and in early September it was submitted as a petition to the 2020 General Conference.
While not identical to the “Indianapolis Plan for Amicable Separation,” the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” is similar to it. Both plans allow for the continuation of a post-separation United Methodist Church that would retain the denomination’s various general boards and agencies. Each plan also allows for the creation of a new traditionalist Methodist church that central and annual conferences, and local churches could join while retaining all of their property and assets.
The protocol has an advantage over the “Indianapolis Plan for Amicable Separation” in that the protocol’s signatories include persons identified with all of the major advocacy groups in the UM Church and persons associated with the major plans previously filed as legislation to be considered at the 2020 General Conference.
“Our president and several council members were party to the negotiations leading to the creation of the Indianapolis Plan,” said the Rev. Dr. Carolyn Moore, the WCA council’s vice-chairwoman, and the lead pastor at Mosaic Church in Evans, Georgia. “When they brought that plan to a council meeting, we all engaged in spirited conversation and debate before we ultimately decided to endorse it; I’m confident we’ll do the same with this proposal. And at this juncture, I’m hopeful that we, like most United Methodists, are reaching the conclusion that a negotiated plan of separation is the best way forward.”
Boyette said he and his leadership team also will be holding a series of conference calls in the coming days and weeks with the WCA’s 49 regional chapter leaders and its 228 global assembly delegates. In early November the WCA’s second Global Legislative Assembly also endorsed the “Indianapolis Plan for Amicable Separation.”
“Our regional chapter leaders and global assembly delegates are at the grassroots of our movement, so we’ll want to share the details of the protocol agreement with them as quickly as possible,” said Boyette. “They will bear the burden of informing pastors and laity in thousands of local churches about the agreement and interpreting its features for their particular situations. They’ve been fully engaged in all the developments over the past year, so once they’ve had time to digest the protocol agreement, we will seek their endorsement of it.”
The terms of the protocol agreement have a long way to go before the delegates at the 2020 General Conference will have the opportunity to debate them and ultimately decide whether to approve of them or not.
The terms will first have to be converted into legislative petitions and submitted to the Commission on the General Conference. Since the date for receiving petitions was September 18, 2019, the protocol petitions will have to come from one or more annual conferences. Annual conferences can convene special sessions to approve petitions for General Conference consideration as long as the approved petitions are received by the Commission on the General Conference 45 days prior to the convening of the conference.
Those party to the protocol agreement believe several annual conferences will hold special sessions in February or early March to consider the petitions, approve them, and send them on to the General Conference for consideration.
The 16 member group has also asked the Council of Bishops to request a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council (the UM Church’s “Supreme Court”) regarding the constitutionality of the plan’s petitions prior to the 2020 General Conference. At the 2012 General Conference the delegates approved a major restructuring of the denomination only to have the Judicial Council rule many of the restructuring petitions unconstitutional. The 16 signatories to the protocol agreement have committed to jointly defend its implementing legislation should it be challenged on constitutional grounds. They have also agreed to advocate for the plan’s passage by the 862 delegates attending the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, May 5–15.
“I’m under no illusion about all the challenges a proposal like this will face as it winds its way to the 2020 General Conference,” said Boyette. “However, I would like to think that when the delegates see the diversity of the members who hammered out this plan, when they take note of the highly regarded attorney who served as our mediator, and when they carefully consider the plan’s details, they will come to the conclusion this separation proposal is the best way to ‘resolve our differences, allowing each part of the Church to remain true to its theological understanding, while recognizing the dignity, equality, integrity, and respect of every person.’”
In the coming days and weeks the WCA will continue to analyze the protocol agreement, and it will share the implementing legislation when it is ready. To read the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” click HERE. An FAQ can be found HERE, and the names of those who signed the protocol can be found HERE.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.