February 26, 2021
By Joseph F. DiPaolo
The charge is often made that the leading bishops, clergy, and laity who fashioned and endorsed the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation are somehow causing a schism within The United Methodist Church. I disagree.
Unfortunately, the schism was already there.
In fact, I would argue that the UM Church has ceased, in any meaningful sense, truly to be a church. The distinguished mediator Kenneth Feinberg, who guided the Protocol team, astutely observed the best thing leaders could do for an institution already bitterly divided was propose an amicable and orderly separation. Facing that hard truth would allow those with irreconcilable differences to get on with the important work of building new churches instead of running an existing one into the ground.
Over the years, distinct and opposing theological cultures developed within the UM Church, which found it increasingly difficult to work together, or even speak about each other with respect. Long before the Protocol was unveiled in 2020, there was a gaping divide within the institution, with no unified sense of mission, ministry or morality binding local churches and clergy together – much less a common understanding of the gospel.
Until a few years ago, however, there remained, at least in theory, The Book of Discipline, shaped by our system of Holy Conferencing. This system adjudicated disputes and set church-wide policy, affirming basic doctrinal and ethical positions for the whole connection. Bishops, clergy and other denominational leaders were bound to abide by this system of governance, both by sacred vows and by the precedent of more than 200 years of institutional life.
All that, however, came to an end during the years 2012-2020, when progressives within the church launched a widespread campaign of ecclesial defiance over disciplinary standards on marriage and sexuality. The Book of Discipline became a dead letter, and decisions of General Conference were rendered irrelevant. Clergy, churches, and even bishops presiding over annual conferences increasingly “did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Genuine accountability became impossible, and the denomination as a whole became ungovernable.
No unity of doctrine. No common ethical vision. No agreement on the meaning of mission or the practice of ministry. No sense of being part of a coherent movement. No real church discipline or accountability to essential doctrinal or moral teachings. The only thing which remained to hold together all the disparate parts of the UM Church was the trust clause, which gives ownership and control of local church properties to the hierarchy. And the trust clause is a legal instrument which is enforced by the state – which means, in the end, by the power of the sword.
Can we really call that a united church?
Several months after the 2019 St. Louis General Conference, I heard an active bishop at a public meeting say bluntly, “The United Methodist Church is dead.” No one is creating schism or causing the denomination to collapse. Those things have already happened.
By contrast, Wesleyan Methodism as a movement is alive and well, and unites many millions of Christians around the globe, both within and beyond the UM Church. It is for the purpose of uniting such kindred spirits in a reinvigorated and global Methodist church that dedicated theological conservatives are working right now to fashion a fresh framework. The new denominational structure being proposed will no longer have a trust clause, to be enforced by the state. Local churches will be bound in covenant and accountability by choice, not by legal compulsion.
The new church being proposed will be a communion in which clergy truly believe its teachings, keep their vows, and practice meaningful accountability. It will be a global church which truly shares power and resources across lines of ethnicity, color and nationality. It will be a church where I can be confident that my colleagues in ministry are proclaiming the gospel of our Crucified, Risen and Reigning Redeemer.
It is that kind of coherent movement that theological conservatives are building, and which the passage of the Protocol will facilitate. To be sure, the new church will have its differences, but not over its core confessions, ethical standards, and whether its clergy can simply ignore the will of the church when it does not suit them. After all, only a body which is one in spirit, doctrine and mission, is worthy of the name church.
The Rev. Joseph F. DiPaolo is Lead Pastor at Lancaster First United Methodist Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He is also a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Council.