Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
United Methodist Traditionalists have been a fairly successful bunch over the past several decades. They have achieved many of their legislative goals in the church, have undercut the power of bishops and bureaucrats that they deem too liberal, and have created a plethora of paradenominational organizations with extensive membership.
Now, Traditionalists are facing a new challenge: launching a new denomination, the Global Methodist Church (GMC), to be carved out of the present United Methodist Church. But in their quest to launch the GMC, Traditionalists are coming up against new challenges.
At the heart of the matter is this tension: Traditionalists want to take as much of the existing UMC as possible into the GMC, but current UMC law makes it difficult for groups to leave en masse to another denomination. Thus, Traditionalists have chosen to wait in hopes of the Protocol being passed, but that waiting risks divisions within the Traditionalist ranks.
At the heart of restrictions against departure from the UMC is the trust clause, the piece of church law that stipulates that all property held by local congregations actually belongs to the denomination as a whole. There are provisions for both congregations and annual conferences (especially outside the US) to leave, but they are difficult, time-consuming, and costly.
Moreover, none of these provisions provide for the possibility of different parts of the church to leave together. If a congregation here, a congregation there, and an annual conference over there all depart piecemeal, there is the challenge of stitching them back together, a process that requires legal, financial, and administrative work.
This piecemeal route would also require all those components leaving separately to be willing to be sewn together into something new, and that is not a given. After decades of hearing disparaging remarks about denominational structures, many Traditionalists have become skeptical about the value of denominations in general, even denominations run by Traditionalists. Especially for congregations, becoming independent and non-denominational may seem like an attractive option.
Thus, Traditionalists are beginning to advance arguments about why they do need a denomination. Such arguments should be seen as a response to questions raised within Traditionalist ranks: What is the value of waiting to join a new denomination vs. leaving now and becoming independent?
The arguments for a denomination become more difficult, too, as more details emerge about the denomination being formed. While some might agree to the idea of joining a new Traditionalist denomination in general, the more that denomination takes on concrete shape, the more likely it is that some will find specific things to dislike about that denomination in particular. Already, there are some public critiques of the specifics of the GMC, and even if these critiques are not persuasive (and the ones in the link are not likely to be persuasive to Traditionalists), there is always the chance that other critiques could be.
The Protocol would provide a clearer and easier path for launching the Global Methodist Church than congregations and annual conferences leaving individually. If passed by General Conference, it would allow for annual conferences, central conferences, and churches to all leave together for a common denominational destination in a way that minimizes costs and makes the process relatively simple and straightforward for those departing.
Thus, passage of the Protocol has become a central goal of Traditionalists because it is the simplest, easiest, and cheapest way to launch the GMC. The GMC's website makes it clear that Traditionalists are willing to wait to launch the GMC while there is still a possibility that the Protocol might pass, even if it means running the risk that some Traditionalist congregations will choose to leave the UMC in the meantime and become non-denominational.
US Progressives often gripe about the $25 million payout to Traditionalists in the Protocol. But to focus on the $25 million is to miss the real value of the Protocol to Traditionalists: It provides a means for a large group of Traditionalists to leave, without bumping up against the trust clause, in a way that is relatively cheap, easy, and minimally disruptive for congregations, and ensures that all those departing will end up in the same denominational home.
The catch with the Protocol as a route to launching the GMC is that it requires General Conference action, which cannot happen until General Conference meets again. Right now, that is set to happen a year from now, but there is no guarantee that it won't be postponed again because of a future lambda variant or other COVID complications. Still, the centrality of the Protocol to Traditionalist plans to launch the GMC is why Traditionalists are arguing that General Conference "must" meet in 2022.
Even if General Conference does meet in 2022, and even if it does pass the Protocol (also not a given), Traditionalists are left with the challenge of holding their coalition together in the meantime. Traditionalist leaders are already receiving questions about what churches and pastors should do while waiting to see if the Protocol passes. The longer that wait extends, the more incentive there will be for individual churches and pastors to seek their own exit path from a UMC they see as corrupt and irrelevant, even if that exit path does not lead them to the GMC.
Thus, especially if there is another delay or likely delay to General Conference, Traditionalists are likely to abandon their Protocol-centered strategy and instead decide to search for quicker forms of exit. Of course, these other forms of exit will likely run into the problems of piecemeal approaches, as outlined above.
United Methodist Traditionalists are not the first group in history to discover that the task of building something new is more difficult than the task of tearing down the old. But the series of challenges involved in Traditionalists' current Protocol-focused strategy to launch their new denomination are highlighting tensions within Traditionalist ranks.
Despite these challenges, Traditionalists will leave the UMC. That is not uncertain. The questions are more about how many, how that will happen, and how many of those leaving will end up part of a new Global Methodist Church denomination.
At this point, it is impossible to know the answers to these questions. Too much--about the COVID pandemic, about General Conference politics, about the decisions of Traditionalist leaders and individual Traditionalist pastors and congregations--remains up in the air. But the Traditionalist leaders' balancing act of trying to hold their constituency together to wait for the Protocol will be one of the major United Methodist story lines to follow over the next year.