Update: On 22 March the Council of Bishops rescinded their call for a 2021 General Conference. I expected they would have challenged the 2022 GC. At least one of the two was going away. In my informed opinion, and consistent with the ongoing conduct of the Council of Bishops, it is still just as likely that 2022 will be canceled. The Commission which set the date included caveats that might postpone it, and there are possible Disciplinary challenges as to whether the Commission has the authority to set an off-year date or if that is the sole jurisdiction of the Council of Bishops.
Traditionalists have been working at reform for the United Methodist Church for a long time. The movement was already well established when I caught up with them at the Confessing Movement conference in Atlanta in the early 90s. They were good at producing erudite statements affirming how Wesleyan they were but always concluded the statements with a promise not to actually do anything or go anywhere. By the early 21st Century it became more obvious they would have to do something or go somewhere. Since then, traditionalists have backed one plan and then another; have seen their work subverted by the Council of Bishops and connectional leaders; seen General Conference sessions sabotaged, delayed, canceled, and rescheduled. Some have been about the work so long that it seems as though they are waiting for Godot. Yet, they continue on with an increasingly edgy patience. They always knew the process would be slow. The pandemic didn’t help, but it is only a mildly aggravating factor in the delay. A church united in the purpose of seeking a solution to its conflict would have found a way by now. The way ahead is still long and slow.
Before continuing, and to lessen the chance of being misunderstood, let me say that some things are true at the beginning and the end of this essay. 1) The Global Methodist Church is a good thing that is coming to fruition. Some remarkable people have done excellent work in a short time. It would be well if it were completed sooner rather than later. 2) The Protocol is a good idea. I will go further: It is the best idea. The work of sincere problem solvers, it is well intentioned, equitable, charitable, and designed to produce a lasting solution in the shortest possible time. It would save us all from years of misery. 3) There is real hope for a new expression of Methodism. These things are true. We will revisit them at the end because what follows may cause a person to doubt them.
Here is the problem, and to lessen the chance of being misunderstood I will say it as plainly as possible, The Protocol will never be implemented. If anyone is waiting on the Protocol before acting on the future of their church, then they are truly waiting on Godot. The protocol is the best solution to our conflict. It is also an impossible fantasy. Many people are writing about how wonderful it will be when the Protocol comes and releases the church from the bonds of the Trust Clause: “When the Protocol arrives…” That I am the only one writing in the public sphere who is making the point that it will not be implemented does not make the point untrue. It just means I am alone.
First, before it can be implemented it must be approved by General Conference. The votes are there, but that does not mean the vote will happen. The votes were there for a solution in 2016, but the vote never took place. The votes were there for the Traditional plan in 2019, but the vote was never allowed. You see, while it is true that bishops do not have a vote at General Conference, they do control who gets to speak and how time is used. While it is true that only General Conference can speak for the church, bishops are adept at keeping it from speaking. The bishops do not want the General Conference to speak on the Protocol. They have announced it will not even be considered for the 2021 agenda. Furthermore, the Bishops control the use of time at General Conference and who is recognized to speak. They used this power at the 2016 GC to prevent votes on legislation needed to implement the Traditional Plan.
(Update on the following paragraph: Since this was written the Judicial Council authorized a budget without General Conference action. When the Bishops’ got their money they cancelled the 2021 session. IF the 2022 session occurs it will be much abreviated and the agenda even more strongly controlled by the bishops.)
The current proposed schedule would have us hosting General conference sessions in 2019, 2021, 2022, and 2024. Which general conference might have a chance to take up the Protocol? Let me ask a couple of other questions. Take a breath, lower your blood pressure, and consider your answer calmly. Do you really believe that the United Methodist Church is going to host four General Conferences in five years? Where is this money coming from? How are the lay delegates and non U.S. delegates to endure the sacrifice and negotiate the complexities of international travel for four conferences in five years? What use is a 2022 conference to the bishops and other institutionalists after they have secured their money in the 2021 conference? How does the Commission on General Conference honestly meet the criteria they require for a 2022 conference unless the next year sees world peace, the end of communicable disease, and a prosperous minimum wage for every person on the planet? Maybe there will be a 2022 conference. Maybe I will win the lottery even though I have never bought a ticket, The 2022 conference is not a sure thing. Given the extraordinary burden for the most vulnerable delegates by the cumulative weight of so many General Conferences in so short a time–I am not certain any moral person should desire it. That leaves 2024 as the first opportunity for the Protocol. That is eight years from the 2016 debacle that motivated Traditionalists to say it is time to do something or go somewhere.
Let us suppose that 2024 (or even 2022 for the dreamers) sees the Protocol come to the floor, and through some unforeseeable chain of events the bishops fail in their efforts to block the vote. Let us assume the Protocol passes as written. Now, it has to be implemented. For most people the part they have been waiting years for involves the release from the Trust Clause under reasonable terms. That provision will not be applied to Traditionalist churches seeking to leave in the same way it will be applied to Progressive/Centrist churches. For all the hard work the Protocol authors did in producing a truly beautiful solution to our conflict, they forgot to include one critical item. There is no remedy for when an Annual Conference refuses to comply with its terms regarding transfer of property. It is just one more General Conference action that Progressive/Centrist Annual Conferences are free to ignore…and there is nothing anyone can do about it. The Protocol only creates a means of amicable separation for Annual Conferences who are so inclined to use it. It does not require an Annual Conference to use it if they deem it not in their best interest. Bishops are free to act just as they do now towards churches who attempt to leave under the current provisions of the Discipline. They can use their exigent authority to protect assets by closing churches before they complete the process. They can assess prohibitive fees above and beyond the Protocol terms just because they want to. The Annual Conference can simply refuse to release the Trust Clause. Progressive/Centrists conferences who were already in financial free fall before the pandemic are not about to release billions of dollars of assets just because the General Conference says to. They don’t do anything just because General Conference says to, Just look at the reams of Judicial Council Decisions overflowing Western Jurisdiction waste baskets.
Perhaps some clever mind will come up with a way to compel compliance with the Protocol, but that will require the very thing the Protocol was intended to prevent–civil litigation. The Traditionalist will then have to convince a judge why the court should create a remedy when the church had the opportunity to do so and chose not to. Throughout North America there is ample evidence that there is no way to avoid litigation. That ship has sailed. Whether under the current Discipline or the Protocol legislation the Traditionalist churches will most frequently loose. Under the Traditional Plan the Traditionalist churches will most frequently prevail.
Let us now return to the three things that were true at the beginning of this essay.
The Global Methodist Church is a good thing which ought to come to fruition sooner rather than later. There are already orphaned churches out there who need a connectional family. They will be joined by others as some churches or groups of parishioners will be motivated to move along with or without their property. There is a good argument that Annual Conferences and Central Conferences are already free to realign themselves without General Conference approval. Most importantly, there is the serious work of church planting that needs to be done.
The Protocol really is a beautiful work. It is the plan that most Traditionalists would prefer to support. It is a model for how a church should solve its conflicts in an equitable, charitable, amicable separation. Unfortunately, the United Methodist Church has devolved below that point.
There is hope. Remember, the Protocol was always Plan B. Before the Protocol the Traditionalists were fervently committed to the Traditional Plan. The Protocol was an opportunity to end the fighting without enduring years of delay and unpleasant litigation. The past and present actions of the Progressive/Centrist community in the church demonstrate that they have the ability and desire to subvert each of those benefits. Disobedience to church order is their virtue. Litigation is their playground. Since they insist on that route the Traditional Plan (Plan A) leaves the Traditionalist in a much better position to prevail.
Much of the Traditional Plan was enacted by the one vote that was allowed at the 2019 General Conference. What remains has already been vetted by the Judicial Council. The votes are there to complete it just as quickly as the Protocol could be completed. A key difference is that the Traditional Plan has remedies for when an Annual Conference, bishop, or other entity fails to comply with its provisions. Most of these do not require litigation to be effective. Some will.
It is not the green meadows and flowery path that Traditionalists hoped for with the Protocol. It involves long, difficult, and often unpleasant work. It isn’t the most desirable choice, but it is the right choice. It is much more satisfying to be about the work of building new ministries from the ground up than being assigned to disassemble unresponsive bureaucracies. Sometimes its just the right thing to do. The truth is that there is not much left of the United Methodist Church hierarchy that Traditionalists find worthwhile. That is also the Traditionalists’ fault. They let the house get in this mess. Perhaps, it is right that they be the ones to clean it up.
The signatories to the Protocol are honor bound to keep their word and support it as agreed. Not so the parties who have endorsed it since then. Parachurch organizations, individual delegates, and church members are free to say, “It was a beautiful idea. We gave it a good go. It will not work. Lets get back to Plan A.”