By Keith Boyette
The United Methodist Church is now less than one year away from a defining General Conference that was postponed earlier this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Given the long delay, some United Methodists are wondering if the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation has been derailed. And concerns about it were heighted when the church recently learned that Bishop John Yambasu had been killed in a tragic automobile accident. In the summer of 2019 it was Yambasu who convened a diverse group of UM leaders that eventually proposed the Protocol. His leadership and service to the church will be greatly missed. So with justification, United Methodists are right to wonder where things stand one year before General Conference.
Despite the conference’s postponement and all that has transpired in the past several months, I am confident the Protocol will be adopted this time next year. First, the United Methodist leaders who proposed the Protocol remain committed to it. And while all of them were shocked to learn of Bishop Yambasu’s tragic death, I do not believe his passing will diminish their support. On the contrary, I think it will only serve as another reason for them to warmly advocate for its passage. I believe they will want to finish what he courageously started.
Of course, the General Conference delegates will ultimately decide whether the Protocol is adopted. Prior to the conference’s postponement, annual conference delegations from across the UM Church were publicly endorsing it, and I am not aware of any delegation that has back tracked on their support for it. Instead, I believe there is a growing sense that as painful and as regrettable as a vote for separation will be, the majority of delegates believe it is a necessary, wise, and now imperative decision for the sake of everyone. So given the circumstances, United Methodists would do well to focus on what will happen after the General Conference adjourns on September 7, 2021.
From its inception, the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) believed it was possible the UM Church would not be able to find a way to remain a united church. Therefore, while the WCA advocated for a reaffirmation of the church’s teachings, for its good order, and so for its unity, it also began laying the groundwork for a new, traditional and global Methodist church should that not be achieved. In retrospect, the WCA is relieved it prepared for both potential outcomes.
It is also thankful that the diverse group of leaders Bishop Yambasu assembled did the hard work of creating a Protocol agreement that is as amicable and as fair as possible. The WCA had always hoped that if separation became the path forward the UM Church would find a way to avoid the costly and bitter litigation over local church property and assets that has plagued other denominations. If adopted, the Protocol’s implementing legislation will allow all local UM churches the opportunity to align with a new church without the threat of losing their property and assets in costly legal battles with their annual conferences.
Should the Protocol pass, and again I believe it will, upon the adjournment of General Conference the WCA and a number of its traditional allies will launch a new global Methodist church. And so, the following would begin to happen:
- Local churches that previously withdrew or disaffiliated from the UM Church could immediately join the new traditional Methodist church. Other local churches that were never a part of the UM Church could join as well.
- UM annual conferences in the U.S. would be able to schedule a vote on their preferred alignments at their next regularly scheduled gatherings or at special annual conferences called for just that purpose.
- UM local churches in the U.S. would immediately be able to decide whether they wanted to wait for their annual conference to make an alignment decision or whether they would begin the process of separating from the UM Church to align with the new global traditional Methodist church. UM local churches in the U.S. do not have to wait for their annual conference to make an alignment decision. Rather they can call a church conference immediately if they choose to do so and make their alignment decision.
- UM local churches outside the U.S. will have to wait to see how their central and annual conferences vote on alignment. Once those votes are completed, these local churches will have the opportunity to make an alignment decision different from their annual conferences if they choose to do so.
- Finally, bishops and clergy could also immediately make a decision to join the new global traditional Methodist church. Such clergy would not be required to surrender their credentials in the UM Church. Rather, it would simply be noted that the clergyperson has transferred from the UM Church to the new, traditional Methodist church.
The detailed process for separating from the UM Church and aligning with a new, global and traditional Methodist church is set forth in the Protocol’s implementing legislation. In the coming months, the WCA and its allies will be sharing resources to guide local churches – and annual and central conferences – through the details for making a transition in accordance with this process.
Finally, the WCA and its allies are also preparing for the possibility that the General Conference will not be able to meet in 2021 due to the Coronavirus pandemic. As mentioned above, we are thankful the Protocol mediation team and many United Methodists across the theological spectrum recognize separation is necessary. The WCA’s planning includes being ready for separation if General Conference does not occur.
The WCA is dedicated to helping traditional local churches align with a new, global Methodist church focused on worshipping and praising God, introducing people to Jesus Christ and helping them become his fully devoted disciples, and enabling them to be makers of disciples themselves.
Keith Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an ordained elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.