Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, chief connectional officer of The United Methodist Church, is among those sharing thoughts on the new plan for possible separation of The United Methodist Church.
SAM HODGES | KATHY L. GILBERT
United Methodists of various perspectives are reacting to a major new plan for getting past the denomination’s long struggle over how inclusive to be of LGBTQ persons — one that calls for traditionalists separating and forming their own church group.
Support, criticism, heartbreak. All were all voiced and sometimes in combination. So was concern, including from Africa, about who wasn’t represented well enough at the negotiating table.
Many church leaders stressed that the plan is just that — a plan — and delegates to the 2020 General Conference, set for May 5-15 in Minneapolis, will have the final say.
“To be clear, nothing will happen immediately, and much work remains as legislation currently is being developed for delegates to potentially act on,” said North Texas Conference Bishop Michael McKee in a letter to his conference.
A group of 16 church leaders went public on Jan. 3 with a “protocol” or plan under which traditionalists — who oppose on biblical grounds same-sex unions and ordination of “practicing” gay clergy — would leave to form a new denomination, using $25 million in United Methodist funds.
Legislation laying out the full plan is still in the works, but the story of traditionalist, centrists and progressive leaders coming together to propose amicable separation made national news, including the front page of The New York Times.
United Methodists began at once to digest the plan and share initial thoughts.
Jim Allen, treasurer of the Tennessee Conference and the conference’s first elected lay delegate for the 2020 General Conference, joined McKee in welcoming the plan but recognizing the challenges it faces.
“This one is getting all of the publicity, and yet it’s late,” Allen said. “It’s questionable if they’re even going to be able to slip it under the door. There is no legislation to go with it, and the devil is always in the details.”
Many others said the proposal gives them new hope.
Greater Northwest Area Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, not part of the negotiating team, called it a “best next step” for the denomination.
“It does not guarantee a particular outcome but it appears to offer United Methodists in the United States the opportunity to choose a future that is fully inclusive of LGBTQ persons,” she said in a letter to her conference.
The Revs. Don Underwood and Chris Dowd of Christ United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas, penned a letter to their congregation, calling the plan the “best possible outcome given United Methodist disagreements on human sexuality.”
They added: “We believe it will enable Methodists of all convictions to remain strong witnesses to the love of Christ throughout the world.”
Strong support came from the Rev. Kent Millard, leader of a diverse team that has proposed the Indianapolis Plan, which also calls for restructuring into two denominations.
“It’s a great compromise, and it brought together the best of many plans,” said Millard, president of United Theological Seminary.
Millard said he’s endorsing the new plan but not withdrawing the Indianapolis Plan, feeling it needs to remain as a “Plan B.” Other Indianapolis Plan contributors joined him in a statement pledging to work for passage of the protocol legislation at the 2020 General Conference.
The Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, chief connectional ministries officer for the Connectional Table of the denomination, said the protocol proposal is a “road to peace” that has the possibility of relieving harm to LGBTQ people and the witness of the church.
She said the Connectional Table’s proposal to the 2020 General Conference to create a U.S. regional conference is consistent with the protocol. The Connectional Table is a leadership body that acts as a sort of church council for the denomination.
“It is clear the church needs some kind of regional governance,” she said. “The Connectional Table’s plan fits within that ethos and it might be a springboard for expansion of the idea worldwide.”
But the general coordinator of the Africa Initiative, the Rev. Jerry Kulah of Liberia, was unhappy that the team arriving at the protocol included only one African, Bishop John Yambasu, who last summer began the private talks that led to the proposal.
The Africa Initiative, an unofficial caucus in the denomination, has worked closely with the Wesleyan Covenant Association, Good News and other U.S.-based traditionalist groups.
The WCA has already taken steps toward forming a denomination. The traditionalist denomination separating from The United Methodist Church under the new plan would evolve from the WCA, according to members of the negotiating team. The Rev. Keith Boyette, WCA president, was on the team and joined other members in promising to support the new plan only.
But Kulah, while saying he’s still evaluating, didn’t seem inclined to go along with a key element — who goes and who stays. He noted that the special called 2019 General Conference passed the Traditional Plan, reinforcing restrictions on same-sex marriage and ordination of gay clergy.
“In my opinion, the protocol should have required the liberals, who are not happy with the global traditionalist understanding, teaching and ecclesial practices of the church, to leave the denomination,” Kulah said.
The Rev. Tim McClendon, pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Aiken, South Carolina, said he has been hearing the same sentiment. He strongly backed the Traditional Plan at the 2019 General Conference but thinks the protocol may be the way to go now, given what he sees as a lack of commitment to enforcing the Book of Discipline by most U.S. bishops.
“We can have a traditional Book of Discipline, but without enforcement, what does it matter?” said McClendon, who added he was saddened at the prospect of separation.
The progressive UM-Forward caucus wrote a three-page response to the protocol, calling it a “back-room political negotiation” that failed to be inclusive in its negotiating team.
The UM-Forward statement criticizes the idea of giving $25 million in United Methodist funds to departing traditionalists, and especially when compared to the $2 million proposed for other groups that might want to depart.
The statement notes that “separation is inevitable” and calls on the 2020 General Conference to support its own New Expressions Worldwide plan.
JJ Warren, a seminary student whose speech in favor of LGBTQ inclusion brought a rousing ovation at the 2019 General Conference, lamented what he called the “clandestine and hierarchical negotiations” leading to the protocol but offered hope for the results.
“If adopted by General Conference delegates from around the world in May 2020, the protocol has the potential to unshackle the church from our decades of infighting and allow us to seek justice for queer people, people of color and to correct our neocolonial U.S.-centric governance structure,” he said.
Audun Westad, who will again be a Norway Conference lay delegate in Minneapolis, was generally upbeat about the new plan.
“The protocol has been rather well-received by all the different (United Methodist) groups in Norway,” he said. “From The United Methodist Church in other countries nearby we see much of the same feedback.”
However, he said concern had surfaced about the lack of young people and “gender balance” in the negotiating team.
Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball of the West Virginia Conference previously served as a moderator of the bishop-appointed Commission on a Way Forward that sought to find ways for the denomination to stay together. In a letter to her conference, she wrote that it grieves her heart that the church would give up on finding a way to move together.
Yet, she added, “I realize that we have forgotten or maybe never learned how to speak and work with one another in the midst of disagreement without attacking or putting down the neighbor who is different from ourselves — and that has resulted in great harm and damage to many of God’s children.”
The Rev. Duane Anders, pastor of the Cathedral of the Rockies (United Methodist) Church in Boise, Idaho, offered his full support for the protocol.
But he embraced realism just as much.
“We need to put off holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ until all of the provisions of the deal are enacted. Until then, we must be very clear-eyed and strategic as the politics of this deal unfold. Trust but verify!”