By Walter Fenton
“We haven’t heard much about the Protocol recently; is it still on track?” That is one variation of a question the Wesleyan Covenant Association has regularly received over the past several weeks. Of course, people asking the question are referring to the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation that calls for an amicable separation of The United Methodist Church. Given all that has transpired since the announcement of the Protocol, it feels like news about it came two or three years ago instead of this past January. Justifiably, for a time, our attention turned to more important and pressing matters.
But still, the question lingers as local churches, pastors, church officials, and bishops try to plan for the future in the midst of very trying circumstances. And so, with greater frequency and urgency, the question will be asked as the UM Church’s 2021 General Conference draws closer. For our part, here is the answer we share with those who ask the question.
We trust the Protocol is “still on track,” and we believe the General Conference delegates will adopt it with some minor amendments here and there; we think so for the following reasons.
First, in light of all that has happened this year who wants to go back to fighting a fifty year old battle that has only succeeded in creating heart-ache, bitterness, and a deeply divided denomination in a distressed state? We are confident fair minded centrists, progressives, and traditionalists agree – now more than ever – that it is time to part ways as amicably as possible so two or three new churches can get on the with God’s greater mission as they discern it.
We also believe the 16 member mediation team that negotiated the Protocol remains solidly behind it. The team includes Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, the president of the Council of Bishops, the council’s past president, Bishop Kenneth Carter, and other episcopal leaders who command the respect of General Conference delegates, whether they be centrists, progressives, or traditionalists. As Bishop Harvey said earlier this year to a gathering of General Conference delegates from the South Central Jurisdiction, “We could not continue the harm we were doing to each other; we needed a better way… it became very clear that [separation] was the next step we needed to take.”
Sadly, Bishop John Yambasu, the man responsible for the creation of the mediation team, was killed in a tragic automobile accident on August 16. After the very contentious 2019 Special General Conference, it was Yambasu who invited centrist, progressive, and traditionalist leaders to meet together in order to find some way forward, even if that way forward meant separation. It was a risky and courageous gesture on his part, and with United Methodists across the connection, we believe it would be regrettable if we all stepped backwards when Bishop Yambasu helped us go forward.
It is also remarkable that diverse advocacy groups like Good News, Confessing Movement, Reconciling Ministries Network, UMC Next, and Mainstream UMC have all endorsed the Protocol. These groups have their disagreements, but they all recognize the Protocol is in the best interest of those they represent. We believe they and other groups will renew their advocacy for it, and that General Conference delegates will give their arguments a fair hearing. It seems possible, that without a great deal of rancor, the delegates will decide it is time to release the people of the UM Church from a bitter struggle so they can invest their time, talent, and resources in more God honoring ways.
Even before the Covid pandemic plunged the world into an economic crisis and shut down local churches, UM Church financial officers were proposing an inflation adjusted 26 percent cut to the denomination’s general budget. Now, even if a quarrelsome church somehow remained together, the cut would need to be much deeper. To be sure, adopting the Protocol will not immediately solve the financial challenges facing all United Methodists, but it would allow two or three new churches to see where they stand in terms of adherents, and then to build a new church or reorganize an existing one more in line with their financial realities. Most church leaders acknowledge that no matter what happens, the general church’s 13 boards and agencies, the episcopal fund, and many annual conferences must downsize and go through a period of restructuring. It is better for everyone to learn sooner rather than later who is willing to go forward with which church so plans and budgets can be made accordingly.
Finally, we are confident the mediation team, along with many United Methodists, are exceedingly grateful to Mr. Kenneth Feinberg who served pro bono as the mediator for the team that reached an agreement. Feinberg, a devout Jew and widely known for his work as special master of the 9/11 Victims’ Compensation Fund, said he offered his services because he believed it would be better for our common culture if the people of the UM Church parted ways as amicably as possible, instead of in the bitter, litigious, and costly manner other Protestant churches have divided. We believe UM Church leaders and the General Conference delegates will be mindful of the gift Feinberg has offered to all of us.
WCA leaders have been around the church long enough to know there is nothing certain about General Conference until the General Conference acts. This is as it should be. However, we believe the diverse members of the Protocol team and their mediator have proposed a true compromise and set forth an enviable example for an amicable end to a long and difficult dispute. We trust the Protocol will be adopted and so we will continue to plan accordingly, looking forward and not backward, and we trust others will do the same.
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.