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.
The announcement two weeks ago that the Centrist and Progressive negotiators behind the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation no longer supported that legislation was received as a major development in the on-going struggle for the future of The United Methodist Church. But to fully understand that announcement and its aims and implications for the church, one must look past a binary understanding of current UMC politics.
As I have argued before, new issues in the UMC have resulted in a variety of coalitions and interest groups. To view UMC controversies as driven solely by a liberal/conservative dyad is an oversimplification, though one Americans are apt to make, given the shape of current US politics.
In this particular instance, it is important to understand the difference between US Centrists/Progressives and US Institutionalists, their interests, and the interests of US Traditionalists. It is the dynamic between these three groups that is behind this announcement, though other groups outside of the United States are critically important for what will happen in its wake, as I will lay out in a future post.
To begin with, US Traditionalists would like to leave the denomination and to do so as quickly, easily, and cheaply as possible. However, without the Protocol or any other plan of separation, quick, easy, and cheap exit paths are not universally available. Despite some negotiations this March between Traditionalists and US bishops, no universal exit path was agreed upon. This created a patchwork of different annual conference procedures for disaffiliation, some cheaper, some more expensive.
This left some US Traditionalists feeling “stuck” in the UMC, as Tom Lambrecht put it in late April. Therefore, in early May, the WCA resolved to continue to advocate within the UMC for the Protocol and better exit terms generally for those Traditionalists stuck in the UMC.
Traditionalists have blamed Centrists/Progressives for keeping them stuck in the UMC. To some extent, that may be fair. There are some Centrists/Progressives who are stuck in conflict and unwilling to let Traditionalists go without making them pay for the pain they’ve caused in the eyes of these Centrists/Progressives.
But a better read of the story would make a distinction between Centrists/Progressives, as represented by prominent pastors and General Conference delegates, and Institutionalists, as represented by many US bishops. These two groups have different motivations regarding a Traditionalist exit, and that difference is key to understanding the announced withdrawal from the Protocol.
While there are some Centrists/Progressives that want to make Traditionalists pay as they leave the denomination, the major force that is acting to keep Traditionalists in is Institutionalists, mainly in the form of bishops and cabinets. Institutionalists, as their name suggest, are motivated to protect and preserve the institutions of the church, including their financial health. They tend to be comfortable with the status quo.
Thus, Institutionalists have a dual incentive to make Traditionalist departure difficult and expensive: It protects the financial interests of the annual conferences to require significant payments or to keep on-the-fence congregations in the denomination to continue to contribute apportionments. And it also preserves the status quo as much as possible to keep as many congregations as possible.
Centrists/Progressives, however, do not have preserving the status quo as their main goal. Instead, they would like to make changes to the rules and structures of the UMC (to create a “Next” UMC), and the continued presence of Traditionalists in the UMC is a hindrance to making those changes. Therefore, Centrists/Progressives have an incentive to let Traditionalists go, though they also want to make sure that departure does not significantly damage the denomination in the process so that there is a sufficiently strong remaining church to lead into their envisioned new day.
This is where the Protocol announcement comes in. Centrists/Progressives realized that, given the high costs they were being asked to pay in some annual conferences, sufficient Traditionalists were likely to stay in the UMC until 2024 that it would reduce the possibilities for using that General Conference to focus on creating a constructive path forward for the denomination and would instead ensure a fight over disaffiliation that might likely fail to resolve the issue to anyone’s satisfaction.
This is the scenario that Centrist/Progressive delegates Rebekah Miles and David Livingston contemplate in a UMNS commentary published the same day as the announcement about the end of Centrist/Progressive support for the Protocol. Miles and Livingston argue that to avoid such a debacle, it is important for parties to recognize how bad their “best alternative to negotiated agreement” is. In other words, parties are much more likely to negotiate when they consider what might happen if they don’t.
In this context, the announcement of the end of Centrist/Progressive support for the Protocol is not necessarily a new development. That lack of support has been voiced behind closed doors for some time. Instead, making such lack of support public sends a message. The Protocol announcement sends messages from Centrists/Progressives to both Traditionalists and to Institutionalists.
By publicly rescinding support from the Protocol, Centrists/Progressives are saying to Traditionalists that they should seriously consider the possibility that they won’t get a better exit deal by waiting until 2024 and advocating for passage of the Protocol. Therefore, Centrists/Progressives are calling on Traditionalists to either take the terms currently available or renegotiate apart from the Protocol.
At the same time, Centrists/Progressives are calling on Institutionalists to allow Traditionalists to leave on minimally expensive terms. The Protocol announcement stated, “We, therefore, implore bishops, district superintendents, and conference trustees [i.e., Institutionalists] to facilitate amicable departures after congregations pay their required pension liabilities.”
Miles and Livingston summarize the dual message thus: “We believe that Paragraph 2553 provides a reasonable path for local churches to disaffiliate. United Methodist annual conferences should uniformly adopt the minimum standards in 2553. Excess demands by leaders in The United Methodist Church delay departures and increase hostility. At the same time, churches and clergy that plan to exit the denomination should use the existing processes to do so before it expires on Dec. 31, 2023. Promises by the Wesleyan Covenant Association to remain active in The United Methodist Church at least through 2024 increase hostility, undermine negotiations, and hinder them from focusing on their mission.”
Both Traditionalists and Institutionalists (in the form of the bishops) initially publicly rebuffed this message from Centrists/Progressives. In a post for the WCA, Jay Therrell claimed the negotiators were acting in bad faith and then reiterated the usual Traditionalist litany of ways they have been victims of evil Centrists/Progressives (including bishops). This response was to be expected. Traditionalists have spent so much time advocating for and defending the Protocol that they could not be expected to accept its death quietly.
On the other hand, the bishops involved in the Protocol reiterated their public support for it. That announcement protects them from the criticisms of the WCA and allows them to preserve the status quo of the abeyance on church trials. At the same time, in its final paragraph, the announcement holds open the door to possible further negotiations among Traditionalists, Centrists/Progressives, and Institutionalists, without taking leadership in calling for such negotiations.
The real question is what US Traditionalists and US bishops will actually do in response to this message from the Centrists/Progressives beyond their initial written responses. Will bishops decide (individually or as a whole) to let Traditionalists go with minimal expenses? Will Traditionalists be willing to take the terms of BOD Paragraph 2553 and exit by the end of 2023? Will both parties be willing to open up further negotiations with Centrists/Progressives?
It is more likely, and easier, for US disaffiliation to be resolved through compromises between Institutionalists and Traditionalists at the US annual conference level. A negotiated compromise would require including not only the three US groups described in this piece but also various groups from outside the United States. That process would be more difficult, but potentially yield additional benefits in terms of resolving questions about the church outside the United States. I will explore that possibility in a future post.