Wednesday, June 29, 2022

A global re-negotiation of separation?

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.

As I wrote last week, US Centrists and Progressives recently publicly pulled their support of the Protocol in a move meant to send a message to US Traditionalists and US Institutionalists. US Centrists/Progressives would like the three groups to work together to create minimally expensive pathways for US Traditionalist congregations to exit the denomination by the end of 2023.

While many US Traditionalists would like to exit quickly and cheaply, some are committed to staying in the UMC until 2024 to push for the Protocol as a better alternative, in their eyes, to current exit provisions. US Institutionalists, on the other hand, would like to proceed with departures under current patchwork arrangements led by the bishops, while holding onto the possibility of the Protocol as a way to limit current conflicts. Thus, these three groups in the United States each have different policy objectives over the next two years.

It is possible that these different policy objectives could overlap sufficiently to allow a resolution of conflicts around disaffiliation within the US annual conferences. It is also possible that one or more of these groups could end up weak enough that their policy preferences do not ultimately matter. But more likely is that each group retains sufficient strength to continue to contest for its own position and that the differences in objectives and low level of trust among the three groups means that there is no (successful) attempt to resolve these conflicts in a mutually agreed upon way.

This opens the possibility of a General Conference in 2024 where not much happens because a large segment of the denomination remains stuck in conflict.

Moreover, even if the various US interests are able to reach agreement among themselves on how to handle disaffiliations in the United States, this does not resolve questions about disaffiliations outside the United States in what has become a uniquely international church split.

There is, however, a third possibility beyond a US-based settlement of terms and a failure to reach further agreement before General Conference 2024. That possibility is a newly negotiated global plan of separation. Such a plan would require participation by and likely leadership from United Methodists from the central conferences, most notably central conference bishops.

Such a third possibility remains remote, but not unimaginable. This piece will examine why this approach to resolving The United Methodist Church’s disaffiliation dilemmas might work and also why it probably won’t.

Why This Approach Might Work
The first reason why central conference bishops might be interested in leading negotiations for a new global plan of separation is that there are strong incentives in central conferences for creating such a plan. A global plan of disaffiliation would provide a means to resolve questions about disaffiliation in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines, and it would also potentially shield United Methodists from the central conferences from some of the conflict and dysfunction in the American branch of the church. Thus, a new round of global negotiations could allow Africans, Europeans, and Filipinos to achieve two policy objectives: resolve their own conflicts and protect themselves from US conflicts.

Europe is already experiencing the impacts of abrupt and piecemeal departures from the church. Traditionalist Africans have indicated that they intend to stay in the denomination until 2024, and Africans from both pro-UMC and pro-GMC parties are likely to be watching how disaffiliation plays out across Europe over the next two years. If it goes poorly, that increases their incentive for an orderly rather than patchwork approach to disaffiliation.

Second, while conflicts originating in the United States have spread to the rest of the United Methodist world, United Methodists from elsewhere are not intellectually and emotionally entrenched in those conflicts in the same ways that Americans are. This means that United Methodists from Africa, Europe, and the Philippines may have the flexibility to think creatively about solutions to conflict that are not apparent to United Methodists in the United States.

Indeed, there are indications from central conference bishops that they are already engaged in such innovative thinking. The European bishops have done a lot to think creatively and strategically about the future of the UMC. The Filipino bishops have strongly supported the Christmas Covenant as an innovative way to think about the future of connectionalism. The African bishops have indicated their desire to think for themselves about the future of the UMC.

Third, in several instances there are pre-existing relationships among central conference bishops that might allow for joint leadership and action across central conferences. Such joint action by central conference bishops has previously been apparent, for instance, in a joint statement on vaccinations and General Conference.

Fourth, an initiative to re-negotiate division that came from the central conferences would carry a moral weight that such an initiative from the United States would not. At a time when all branches of the church are paying at least lip service to acknowledging the legacies of colonialism in the church, it would be difficult for United Methodists in the United States to outright reject central conference leadership in calling for new negotiations without that seeming like an insistence on American supremacy in church matters. At a time when both the GMC and the continuing UMC are trying to make their case to fellow United Methodists around the world, such a charge of colonial attitudes would be damaging.

The final reason to think that such an initiative from the central conferences could succeed is that it did before. Bishop John Yambasu was in a unique position to call for negotiations in 2019 to address church conflict. But Bishop Nhiwatiwa or Bishop Alsted or, more likely, a group of central conference bishops working together could follow and expand upon the path set by Bishop Yambasu.

Why It Probably Won’t Work
There are strong reasons to think that if there is a re-negotiation of division, it would have to originate in the central conferences. But there are also strong reasons to think that such an initiative will not happen.

In the Philippines, all three current bishops will retire in half a year. That means that the window for them to exercise leadership on world-wide matters is small. Newly elected bishops might be interested in shaping the world-wide nature of the church, but they will also need to tend to local concerns as they settle into their new roles. Thus, Filipino/a bishops might play a supportive role in the next year, but they are unlikely to be the main source of initiative.

There are significant differences of opinion on the future of the UMC among the thirteen African bishops, and that is the main factor mitigating against African leadership on a re-negotiation of terms of division. African United Methodism is large and diverse, including multiple and often conflicting positions within it,  enough so that it would require a good deal of negotiation to come to agreement just within Africa, even without trying to bring in additional voices from around the world to reach a world-wide settlement. It might be to each African bishop’s advantage to try to resolve conflict locally and not search for a wider resolution.

A similar dynamic may be at play in Europe. Between disaffiliations currently happening in Europe and developing plans for managing conflicts and diversity of thinking within the branches of the church staying United Methodist, European leaders may feel that their own conflicts can be dealt with regionally and it is not their responsibility to try to solve conflicts in other regions. Moreover, Bishop Patrick Streiff may yet retire soon, leaving the state of European episcopal leadership up in the air.

Local efforts that resolve (or don’t) debates over division that play themselves out in primarily local ways may end up being both necessary and sufficient. An international re-negotiation of the future of the church remains unlikely. But if such a re-negotiation does happen, look for leadership to come from the central conferences. And if and when it does, it will be another sign that the future of the church in terms of ideas as well as membership lies not in the United States but elsewhere around the world.

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