Episcopacy and the Protocol (Reflections from the SCJ Gathering for Delegations)

Here are a couple of reflections from the South Central Jurisdiction gathering last week. It all started with interviews of six (and only six) episcopal candidates, with each candidate rotating through conference delegations. Each candidate brought gifts and graces that inspired and cultivated hope among us. In terms of gender and ethnic representation, this group was much more diverse than in the past. None of them would identify as I might – as an older, anglo, straight male. Four were women and two of the women were African American. I believe the Holy Spirit is involved in this movement. In times such as these, we need leaders who have more direct experiences on the other side of privilege. Honoring the leadership gifts of those who stay committed to the body through deep struggles, and through experiences of biased harm, will help us all learn how to love more fully and give witness to God’s calling upon the whole church.

A good portion of the second afternoon was spent on “the Protocol.” It started with Bishop Harvey sharing the story of how she broke down after GC2019 was over. Walking away for the arena, she turned to her husband and asked, “Did today really happen?” Her heart-felt emotion in this confession touched me deeply, knowing that she was presiding at the end of the conference, and knowing her commitment to a higher unity and to making room for all, including traditionalists. That was the promise of the One Church Plan. “Did today really happen?” This led her, and many others, to reimagining possibilities and a renewed commitment to stop harm and cultivate holy inclusiveness. (And these are my words building upon her story).

After this, Bishop Schnase asked this question (and I am paraphrasing from memory): “In your heart of hearts, and after GC2019, do you believe that our mission will be best served with one church that is in perpetual conflict over matters of human sexuality or with two churches where people can live into visions that they believe are of God concerning these matters?” In a room of bishops, with much pain, they all answered “two.” From here, he asked us to give the protocol “room to breathe.” He said, very directly, that now is not the time for any of us to support new plans that serve only our own self-interest. With these words, an audible gasp echoed through the room.

While I remain committed to “unity of spirit” I will heed the call to give the Protocol “room to breathe.” I also see merit in giving each other “room to breathe” in a spirit of “grace and reconciliation,” to use language from the Protocol. I will, however, predict that this “room” will not free any of us from the tension. Within minutes of any separation, God will continue to bring transformation to human hearts, different interpretations and insight into the scripture will touch hearts, and the struggle will continue. I am confident that God will see to that.

In this presentation, I appreciated the tone and the way pain and grief were honored. I appreciated the call to work together, even through our hurt and anger, with humility, patience, and grace — or in Methodist-speak, holiness. (My take on what was said). In every conversation that I am in, with people around the country, of all persuasions, that is the spirit. Even when there are outlying voices that blame and malign others, the vast majority of us know that this does not speak to our better selves. Projecting this narrative that we are all blaming and maligning only cultivates fear and division. As leaders, we have the opportunity to call all to a higher way of relating, as opposed to using our influence to build protection for our own side and opinion.

We are two months from General Conference 2020. Please pray! May we all be led to transformation of heart – starting with the one we see in the mirror. May our prayers lead to a conference that will glorify God.

Author: Michael Roberts

I am the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Conway, Arkansas. I love this work! I am also a delegate to General Conference. Playing guitar, reading/writing, and theological conversation are among my favorite pastimes. My wife, Deidre is also an ordained United Methodist minister, and we have three wonderful children, all adults, and two grandchildren. I hold degrees from the University of Central Arkansas (BA), Duke University Divinity School (M.Div), and Southern Methodist University (D.Min).

4 thoughts on “Episcopacy and the Protocol (Reflections from the SCJ Gathering for Delegations)”

  1. Long the home of a somewhat flimsy theological architecture that has now atrophied, the UMC has fully embraced a human sexuality agenda as its primary raison d’être.

    One wonders re. the divine response: Is it Psalm 2:4, or John 11:35?

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  2. “While I remain committed to “unity of spirit” I will heed the call to give the Protocol “room to breathe.” I also see merit in giving each other “room to breathe” in a spirit of “grace and reconciliation,” to use language from the Protocol. I will, however, predict that this “room” will not free any of us from the tension. Within minutes of any separation, God will continue to bring transformation to human hearts, different interpretations and insight into the scripture will touch hearts, and the struggle will continue. I am confident that God will see to that.”

    You and I obviously have very different understandings of God, the Church and ourselves. And that is why we each need our own space. At the second coming of Christ we will all learn where we have fallen short in our understandings! But in the meantime, you continue to believe as you believe and I will continue to believe as I believe.

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  3. Your second-to-last paragraph about pain, grief, and working together through hurt and anger…it provoked that common sermon reaction, “Mmm.” It’s a very thoughtful point, and I’m glad to see it made here.

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