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.

Passing on the Pressure (Initial Reflections on the Protocol from a Delegate Perspective)

cic-universal2The pressure is on!  As a delegate, it was clear that we were the target audience of the first live-streamed presentation from the group giving us the Protocol, aired yesterday. Scattered throughout the conversation were statements about this now being placed in our hands. There were pleas to join the movement.  It was repeatedly emphasized that this protocol received unanimous affirmation after an intense mediation process. Everyone at the table was willing to compromise for the sake of good-will, peace, and the hope of moving forward.  Much motivation came from the shared assumption that the alternative would be much worse. In fact, the word “catastrophic” was used at least twice for what would happen if this does not pass.   So once again, the pressure is on.

Instead of reporting on what individuals said, I will focus on the different perspectives – the traditional, the progressive, the centrist, and central conferences.  (I use these terms with some reluctance, for I do not believe it is good to define others by a single word or story.  For example, it is very possible to want “progress” for those being harmed around current policies and to be immersed in the traditions of the church through creeds, hymns, liturgy, and prayers. It is possible to value inclusiveness and respect for the faith journey of others and see this as mandated from the living tradition of the church).

With that qualification, representatives of a traditional perspective, from the confessing movement and the WCA, led with calls for “amicable separation” because of “irreconcilable differences” around issues of human sexuality.  Since progressives/centrists were not willing to leave, even after repeated unsuccessful attempts to change the BOD, traditionalists have made the decision to actively move towards the formation of a new denomination. They affirmed the need to “set the church free from the conflict.” As stated, in the interests of good-will, peace, and moving forward, these representatives were willing to make significant compromises around voting thresholds and financial support.   In answering a question, this group would not likely leave the General Conference immediately for a Convening Conference of the new denomination, but they did believe this will happen soon – in 2020.  They made it clear that they would actively seek to persuade others to join the movement.

For Progressives, this protocol “changes the landscape for those who have been deeply harmed.” The discriminatory language that has caused so much harm would be removed.  This is an answer to the longing of many hearts.  At the same time, there is a place for caution.  The Traditional Plan that was passed in 2019 has become the source of much fear and hurt. Continued vigilance is needed.  Many, but not all, will resolve to stay in the Post-Separation UMC.

For Centrists, and many who would use the word progressive, this protocol affords the opportunity to rediscover the blessings of being a “big tent” church, where different perspectives are honored, where unity is sought, not in a uniformity of law, but in our call to love one another, with all patience, kindness, humility, without arrogance or insisting on our own way.  Unity is found in this core scriptural calling (Eph 4:1-3; I Cor 13:1-8).  It was stated that 85% of all United Methodists across the spectrum – traditionalists, conservatives, progressives, and centrists – communicate that they can exist in a church where there is diversity of interpretation.  This diversity can be seen as a blessing and even essential to the fulfillment of our calling. It was stated that centrists are united around a desire to welcome all and to remove the discriminatory language that uses outdated and harmful language to single out one group of people, and to access their status in the church by this single criterion rather than by calling, character, faithfulness and fruitfulness.  From this perspective, humility demands that we focus on being welcoming of all who want to know Christ and grow in the virtues of faith and love.  Realistically, this post-separation United Methodist Church would be smaller – but hopefully not for long.  It was expressed that this will be an opportunity for growth, to be more nimble and responsive to the mission field, and to respond in new ways to the call to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

This centrist stance would be the default perspective for the post-separation United Methodist Church. No vote would be required to remain within this expression of faith.  If a vote was taken, the threshold for an Annual Conference would be 57%.  This percentage was the result of compromise.  The traditionalists lobbied for a simple majority, with others asking for two-thirds.  Central Conferences would require a 2/3 vote to leave the UMC.  Local Congregations could choose to leave the UMC. If this vote is taken, it would be by a Church Conference where every member can vote, as opposed to a charge conference where elected leaders vote.  We probably need to be ready for attempts to change these thresholds.

It was very clear that those representing Central Conferences were supportive. A Bishop from Africa said that African support would be 100%.  A similar statement was made from the Bishop of the Philippines.   Representatives from Central Conferences also support the continuation of the United Methodist Church, saying that dissolution would have catastrophic effects on ministry and mission.  There was also support for the idea of regional conferences as being essential to making this work, given freedom for ministry and decisions within various cultures and contexts.   If support indeed comes at these high levels from Central Conferences, then it does appear that this Protocol will be a first step for how we move forward in mission and ministry.

In conclusion, we were asked to not let perfect get in the way of good.  We are asked to understand the need for a small representative group to initiate the process and how it is now time for others to come to the table.  We were asked to pray.  As was stated, with prayer all things are possible and without prayer nothing is possible (Wesley).  Testimonies were given for how prayer opened the way several times in the midst of this mediation.  That is a good word.

Immersed in prayer and in politics together, it is time to turn our attention to the future, to begin to develop a vision for what is possible for the post-separation UMC.  We must give a compelling reason for committing to this “big tent” church.  Without this vision, permission is implicitly given to withdraw into comfortable and like-minded camps.  The pressure is on for delegates to initiate by inviting others of all perspectives to develop a vision and strategy for a faithful and fruitful post-separation UMC.  May God be with us all.