Thoughts on the Protocol of Grace through Separation Proposal

Thu, January 9, 2020

Dear Church Family,

In case you didn’t notice, The United Methodist Church was in the news recently. It all started last Friday morning when the Council of Bishops website announced a proposal that outlines the separation of the United Methodist Church into two or more Methodist denominations. The United Methodist News Service first reported the story and it was quickly picked up by multiple media outlets throughout the day. Here are some of those reports:

Christianity Today Magazine
The Washington Post
Fox News
New York Times
The Houston Chronicle

If you read the headlines, you would think that the United Methodist Church has already agreed to split, and you would be wrong. The United Methodist Church has actually NOT agreed to split, and the proposal is just that, a proposal. Any decision regarding a possible separation of the UMC will be made solely by the 862 delegates to the General Conference when it convenes May 5-15, 2020. At the same time, the question of separation will be a significant topic of discussion at that meeting.

So, what is significant about this proposal and why all the media attention? The difference between this and other proposals that have been submitted to General Conference is that this plan has the endorsement of key bishops, including the current president and president-elect of the Council of Bishops. All the major advocacy groups in the church were represented in the negotiations, including: The Wesleyan Covenant Association, Good News, Confessing Movement, UM Next, Mainstream Methodists, UM Queer Clergy Caucus, Methodist Federation for Social Action and The Reconciling Ministry Network. The agreed protocol was the result of months of intense negotiations between these different groups and was aided by Kenneth Feinberg, a renowned attorney and mediator.

You can read the proposal yourself following these links:
The Council of Bishops Press Release.
The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation
The Frequently Asked Questions Document
The United Methodist News Story about the Separation Plan

Many articles about the proposal have been written this week offering different takes on what happened. Our Bishop Scott Jones issued a statement on the proposed plan on the Texas Conference website.

Essentially, the proposal outlines a protocol for restructuring the current United Methodist Church through separation into at least two denominations, a traditional Methodist church that would keep the current teaching and practices as they are today, and a post-separation UMC that would liberalize the teaching and practices regarding marriage and sexuality. The proposal allows for Annual Conferences to align with a new traditional Methodist church or remain in a restructured UMC. Churches that differ from the decision of their Annual Conference may decide to align with the church that best fits them theologically.

Talk of possible division has been growing over the past decade because of significant differences regarding the role, authority and interpretation of Scripture in the life of the Church, and specifically what it teaches about marriage and sexual ethics for Christians. One side believes God’s justice compels the church to bless same-sex marriages, ordain and appoint non-celibate LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer or self-identified non-binary) clergy and bishops. The other side believes this is contrary to Scripture and affirms that the expression of human sexuality is permitted only within the covenant marriage bond between a man and a woman. The names “Progressive” and “Traditional” are commonly used to describe these two views of Scripture and is reflective of much larger doctrinal disagreements far beyond the current debate surrounding marriage and sexual ethics. Both sides believe that God loves all people and the church should welcome everyone and be in ministry to all persons.

The sad fact we should all acknowledge is that as a denomination, we are deeply divided - irreconcilably divided. We may wish it were different, but it isn’t. The theological division in the UMC has grown sharper in recent years, especially after the special called session of General Conference in 2019. A growing number of leaders from across the theological spectrum, believe our continued debate is not only harming our witness, but damaging the church and keeping us from our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Many of these same leaders have come to believe that some form of separation is regrettably necessary for us to move beyond these destructive debates.

The protocol released last Friday represented the work of some of those leaders to provide a graceful and amicable separation, without the punitive actions and litigation over property that dominated other denominations who experienced similar divisions. The proposal hopes to end the harmful debates that have dominated our denomination for the past 47 years by setting each other free to follow where each believes God is leading them.

Many will have opinions about what the UMC should or should not do, but in the end, it will be up to the delegates of General Conference to decide. The United Methodist Church, while the largest, is not the only expression of the Methodist/Wesleyan movement in the US or around the world. There are eighty or so other Methodist denominations worldwide. The Methodist church has faced division in the past over various differences and understanding of Scripture. I am confident that no matter what happens in May, God will continue to work within “the people called Methodist,” even if there are different expressions of the grand work John and Charles Wesley started.

In thinking and praying about all of this, the Lord brought to my mind what the Apostle Paul said to the Philippians:

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

I encourage you to not let anxiety about what may or may not happen at General Conference capture your thinking. Instead I invite you to join me in a season of prayer: prayer for our beloved denomination; prayer for renewal; prayer for the abundance of grace and Christian charity; prayer for our leaders and delegates to the General Conference. And prayer for the peace of Christ to fill our hearts and minds, knowing that the Lord who knows and sees all things, will lead us through whatever happens by His grace.

Grace and peace,
Jim