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.
When it was announced in early March that General Conference would not meet until 2024, but the Global Methodist Church would launch on May 1, 2022, few people were happy, but there was at least for some a sense of relief, even if mixed with disappointment.
Followers of the UMC had been waiting for months to find out whether General Conference would meet in 2022 as previously indicated, or whether there would be yet another delay. That period of waiting was marked with tension and increasing conflict. When the Commission on General Conference's decision was released, at least it was something, rather than continued uncertainty. People could now get on with making plans.
Traditionalists were deeply disappointed that they would not get a chance to pass the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation in 2022. Traditionalist leaders decided, though, that it was best to commence with formation of a new denomination now rather than engage in more waiting for 2024. And among some Traditionalists and some Centrists/Progressives, there was a sense that it was time to get the separation over so as to move on and be able to focus on each group's own ministry rather than continued conflict.
Conflict, however, can be be a hard habit to break. In the two and a half months since the news broke that General Conference was not meeting until 2024 but the Global Methodist Church was launching this year, the UMC has shown itself to be locked in conflict.
There was immediate debate over how (US) congregations should leave the denomination. Centrists and institutionalists have used their control of procedure and process to make departure difficult and expensive for Traditionalist congregations in an attempt to prevent them from leaving. Traditionalist leaders have leaked negotiation documents, derided bishops, and sought polity work-arounds to yield more favorable terms for departure. African episcopal leaders associated with the Traditionalist movement have said they will stay in the UMC until at least 2024. The WCA also announced that it would continue to advocate in the UMC until at least 2024. The Judicial Council has ruled that annual conferences cannot unilaterally leave the denomination. And when the Global Methodist Church launched on May 1st, the only group everyone was sure was joining was Methodists in Bulgaria.
In short, the announcements of further General Conference delay and formation of the Global Methodist Church have done no more to resolve the conflict in The United Methodist Church than did the 2019 General Conference or the Commission on a Way Forward or any of the other many prior attempts to move past denominational conflict.
With harsh attitudes by all sides towards each other, good faith negotiation is difficult to find. The Protocol was a hard won compromise, initiated by a unique figure in Bishop John Yambasu and led by one of the top negotiators in the world in Kenneth Feinberg. After COVID prevented it from being voted on in May 2020, neither side has really been interested in returning to the negotiating table, and there is no visionary African bishop or world-renowned mediator to help this time.
And with US United Methodists unable to solve their conflict, Africans and others around the world who have been enlisted on one side or another of the fight are left to wait to figure out their own fates, yet again relegated to the status of supporting characters in a narrative centered on the United States.
Therefore, the UMC is facing the prospect of a 2024 General Conference (however constituted with whatever delegates attending and whatever legislation before it) that will be just as focused on conflict around the slow-motion separation of the denomination as it would have been had it met in 2020 or 2021 or 2022.
This is all painful to watch and does little to serve the gospel of Christ. There are real consequences to this on-going conflict, too. The structures of the denomination have already been battered by the COVID-necessitated delays in General Conference. There will be especially big consequences if the next General Conference, when it finally does meet, is unable to pass any major legislation, which remains a real possibility. It will lead to the further hollowing out of the denomination and many churches that are part of it.
But conflict is a strong drug. It can be a very difficult addiction to kick. There are practices and strategies that leaders throughout the denomination could implement to move beyond conflict. But right now, it doesn't look likely that the UMC will be doing so anytime soon.