March 2, 2021
By Keith Boyette
The battle against the Covid-19 pandemic rages on. Virtually every area of our lives has been impacted no matter where we live or how we occupy our time. Pandemic weariness has set in. Generally speaking, humanity is impatient. Jason Gay, writing in The Wall Street Journal on February 25, observes that at least in the United States, there is a “compulsion to accelerate things: that’s our culture, hurry it along, speculate without all the information, and turn someone else’s life into a daily drama for our own entertainment.” Many respond to events impulsively. Our fears, anxieties, and insecurities escalate especially when we encounter that over which we have no control.
Certainly, some of this occurred in our spiritual family – The United Methodist Church – on February 25 when the Commission on General Conference announced a further postponement of the 2020 General Conference now deferred from May 5, 2020, first to August 29, 2021, and now to August 29, 2022. Simultaneously, the Council of Bishops announced a called special General Conference with an extremely limited agenda to occur virtually on May 8, 2021, hoping to enable mail-in balloting on twelve legislative matters deemed by the bishops to be necessary for the continued functioning of the church in this most unusual season.
There are more than enough ironies in these decisions. We cannot meet in a regular General Conference, either in person or virtually, because we cannot ensure the full participation of each and every delegate; however, we can meet in a special General Conference virtually where it is conceded that not every delegate will be able to participate, and we can adopt a parliamentary process that denies the right to amend legislation or debate its merits. Admittedly the leadership of the general church confronts a conundrum. And their solution is to micromanage – even control – the process.
I commend the Commission on General Conference for their work. They explored every option in an effort to hold the regular General Conference as scheduled. While I am critical of the decision of the Council of Bishops to call a special General Conference with such a limited agenda, they have sought to find a pathway that will move us forward.
The bishops want to get us “unstuck” in the midst of this pandemic. Nevertheless, they have failed to do that at any level other than institutional, and one wonders whether the institution will survive when all is said and done.
Action on legislation to implement the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation is noticeably absent from the legislative items identified as necessary to get us “unstuck.” The Protocol will not be considered at the special General Conference because it is not included in the Council of Bishops’ call, but it remains on the agenda for the postponed regular General Conference in August 2022.
The necessity of separation and realignment are broadly acknowledged regardless of one’s theological perspective. The longer action on the Protocol is delayed, the longer it will be before the UM Church is unstuck. Now is the time for the expressions which will emerge following adoption of the Protocol – the post-separation UM Church, the Global Methodist Church, and the Liberation Methodist Connexion – to move forward.
If the Council of Bishops believes it can conduct a virtual special General Conference for the limited purpose of voting to suspend the rules and authorizing voting by paper ballot on legislation it has proposed without permitting amendment of that legislation and without debate, it can include a vote on adopting or deferring action on the implementing legislation for the Protocol without amendment or debate as a thirteenth legislative item. We urge them to do so. If the Council of Bishops does not do so, we urge the delegates to add a vote on the Protocol as an additional legislative matter to be acted upon by mail-in ballot as part of the special General Conference. Let the duly elected delegates determine whether they are ready to move beyond the stalemate within the church. If the delegates choose to adopt the Protocol legislation as presented, implementation can begin immediately, and the August 2022 regular General Conference could be used to make the changes centrists and progressives want for the post-separation UM Church. Then the church will truly be unstuck.
The Protocol remains the best way forward to amicably resolve the deep divisions in the UM Church. It is the only way to avoid protracted and expensive litigation, ensure that unfunded pension liabilities will be addressed, and enable the church to move beyond decades of conflict. The Wesleyan Covenant Association, Reconciling Ministries Network, and the Western Jurisdiction have all recently urged the adoption of the Protocol. I urge the leading bishops and other leaders who signed the Protocol to fulfill their commitment to support and work for its adoption and implementation. Now is the time for us to honor the agreement we signed and publicly declare our continued support for it.
Yesterday, the Wesleyan Covenant Association joined other theologically conservative leaders across the UM Church in announcing the Global Methodist Church in formation. We will fulfill our commitment to provide a place for theologically aligned churches, clergy, and laity to remain connected for faithful and effective ministry to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the best of the Methodist tradition. Now is the time for us to be strong, courageous, and resolute. We are counting on Christ, and Christ is counting on us.
Keith Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.