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Protocol’s day has passed, some say

Protocol Mediation Team met in 2019.

More than a quarter of the leaders who negotiated the proposed Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace through Separation say they can no longer support the proposal.

HEATHER HAHN
UM News

A much-trumpeted plan for amicable separation unveiled in early 2020 no longer offers a path forward for The United Methodist Church, say more than a quarter of the agreement’s negotiators.

Five of the 16-member mediation team released a statement late June 7 rescinding their support for the agreement.

In the statement, they said, “we can no longer in good faith support the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace through Separation or work towards its adoption at the next General Conference.” The denomination’s top lawmaking assembly is now delayed to 2024.

What has changed the calculus, they say, is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the launch of a theologically conservative breakaway denomination.

The signers of the statement include the Rev. Thomas Berlin, the Rev. Egmedio “Jun” Equila Jr., Jan Lawrence, the Rev. David W. Meredith and Randall Miller, as well as eight others who, while not on the mediation team, consulted in the process.

Most of the signers represented centrist and progressive advocacy groups during the mediation work. Equila represented the Philippines Central Conference, one of the denomination’s seven church regions in Africa, Europe and Asia. All of the statement’s signers hope to remain United Methodist.

“The desire of those listed is simply to be honest and transparent about what we know about the current intentions of many General Conference delegates we represent related to the protocol legislation,” said Berlin, lead pastor of Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia. He represented centrist groups as part of the mediation.

Berlin likened the protocol to a couple’s divorce settlement. If a judge delays acting on the settlement for four years, he said, both parties would probably want to renegotiate.

“Incomes may have changed. Children would be older,” he said. “Other matters would be present that would require deliberations.”

The group’s statement put it this way: “The overwhelming consensus among those with whom we spoke is that the once-promising Protocol Agreement no longer offers a viable path forward, particularly given the long delays, the changing circumstances within The United Methodist Church, and the formal launch of the Global Methodist Church in May of this year.”

None of the bishops who served on the mediation team signed on to the statement. The seven bishops released their own response June 9 affirming the work that went into the protocol.

“We acknowledge that the Protocol is now in legislative form and is the appropriate discernment of the delegates to the upcoming General Conference,” the bishops’ response said.

The bishops added that they “are united in respect for our colleagues who are led to step away from the Protocol, and pray that we will continue to explore ways to celebrate the ministry of The United Methodist Church even as we work for an amicable separation with those who chose to depart from our fellowship.”

That’s a far cry from the fanfare that greeted the protocol when it first became public in January 2020, around the same time many in the U.S. first learned of a novel coronavirus starting its spread around the globe.

After decades of increasingly rancorous debate about the place of LGBTQ people in the church, tensions reached a breaking point at the special 2019 General Conference. The legislative body voted to strengthen church bans on same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. However, the relatively narrow 438-384 vote did not settle the debate but instead led to more flouting of the restrictions and frustration among those who championed the bans.

Into this crisis stepped Sierra Leone Bishop John K. Yambasu, who brought together leaders of the denomination’s theologically diverse advocacy groups as well as some bishops to try to find a way forward through irreconcilable differences. Ultimately, world-renowned mediator Kenneth Feinberg helped people who were long at odds in the homosexuality debate to hammer out a proposal.

Under the proposed protocol, traditionalist churches and the church regional bodies known as annual conferences would be able to leave with church property and $25 million in United Methodist funds to form a new denomination. Theologically conservative advocacy groups planned for the Global Methodist Church to be that new denomination.

The protocol sets aside $2 million for other groups of churches that might leave. The plan also allocates $39 million over eight years to strengthen Asian, Black, Hispanic-Latino, Native American and Pacific Islander ministries, as well as Africa University.

After its introduction, the plan quickly garnered endorsements from advocacy groups across the theological spectrum. By March 2020, the Philippines Cavite, Sierra Leone and Michigan annual conferences had approved forwarding the protocol legislation to the coming General Conference.

All seemed set for General Conference delegates to pass the protocol when they met in May 2020. But then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down world travel and prevented large gatherings.

Earlier this year, the General Conference organizers took the unprecedented step of postponing the international assembly a third time, to 2024, citing long visa wait times for delegates outside the United States.

In the meantime, Global Methodist Church organizers have grown tired of waiting for General Conference to act and have launched their new denomination — seeking to recruit as many United Methodist churches to join as possible.

At the same time, the theologically conservative advocacy groups that worked to form the Global Methodist Church plan to remain within The United Methodist Church for now to help churches find an easier way to leave with property. Some theological conservatives continue to see the protocol’s passage as the easiest exit path.

For now, the protocol remains duly submitted legislation for General Conference delegates to consider.

However, much has changed since early 2020. United Methodist churches have grown more familiar with COVID safety protocols than a protocol of separation. And even as churches have long since returned to in-person worship, denominational finances remain strapped, and churches continue to contend with spikes in local COVID cases.

Sadly, two members of the protocol’s mediation team also have since passed away. Bishop Yambasu died in a car accident in August 2020, and the Rev. Junius B. Dotson died in February 2021 of pancreatic cancer.

Miller, a veteran General Conference delegate and church leader who served on the mediation team, said he publicly supported the protocol long after many in the progressive groups he represents had pulled away. He also pushed hard for renegotiation in light of changed circumstances, but those efforts have not born fruit.

“None of us could have anticipated that it would be four years before what was really a short-term agreement would be considered legislatively,” he said.

Meredith, one of the signers and senior pastor of Clifton United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, said he now believes, along with many General Conference delegates, that “a better way is needed than the protocol.”

“My hope is that those General Conference delegates who have let us know that will work with us and others to come up with the better way.”

Both Meredith and Equila, a pastor in the Philippines, pointed to the Christmas Covenant, another legislative package submitted to General Conference, as part of that better way. The legislation originated with delegates from central conferences who hoped to maintain church unity.

The proposed Christmas Covenant would give more autonomy to different geographic regions of The United Methodist Church and potentially leave questions related to LGBTQ ministry up to each region. However, to take effect, the legislation requires amendments to the denomination’s constitution — a high bar.

Nevertheless, Equila is hopeful that setting aside the protocol will lead many in the church to give the Christmas Covenant another look. He said the legislation reinforces “the importance of being together under one roof” while respecting cultural differences and different understandings of Scripture.

Jan Lawrence, Reconciling Ministries Network executive director and a statement signer, said she hopes the statement provides clarity. Reconciling Ministries advocates for the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons, and all people, in the life of the church.

With a rise in racial violence in the U.S., the ongoing pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Lawrence said the church has more to respond to — and think about — than the protocol.

“This is the moment to be the church,” she said. “We have a lot of stuff going on in the world and in the country. And people need their faith communities to be there and not be embroiled in some bitter back-and-forth argument.”

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