The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation

Even if you’re not a United Methodist, you’ve probably seen on any given major news outlet the announcement that “The United Methodist Church is set to split over gay marriage…” (The Washington Post) or something similar. If you’ve gotten more than the headlines, you may have seen that the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation” was released today, having been signed on December 17th, 2019.

After you’re done snickering about the irony of the title (I know I did), let’s talk first about what the Protocol is (and isn’t). The Protocol is an agreement in principal between important “players” or “Powers that Be” within the UMC that includes a proposed separation between the more conservative branch of the denomination and the more progressive one. So, this is not binding law, a definitive action, a done deal, or anything final in any respect. The Protocol will need to be turned in to legislation that can be passed at the 2020 General Conference, at which point it can start to take actual effect.

Only sixteen people signed on to the Protocol as those directly involved in the agreement, but they represent much larger groups of likeminded people from large swathes of the Church, some directly, some indirectly. Most importantly, I think that the signatories to the Protocol represent all of the major positions that need to be considered as the Church finds its way forward.

I think it’s reasonable to expect that the Protocol represents an actual “way forward.” Using a well-respected attorney to mediate between the gathered power blocs within the Church, the Protocol represents a plan of separation that (hopefully) avoids litigation and further dispute.

As I’ve written before, my preference would truly be a means for conservatives and progressives to continue to be in fellowship together. That said, human nature being what it is, I (reluctantly) acknowledge that that does not look feasible any more. The Protocol, then, may be our last best hope at a resolution.

Under the Protocol, a traditionalist alternative denomination will be formed. Monetary resources from the UMC will be used to initially fund the denomination (and those churches wishing to move to it by vote will keep the local church property) and all other claims to UMC resources will be waived. That’s a fair and gracious resolution, I think.

I do think that the traditionalist position contributes to injustice in our world when it comes to certain issues–LGTBQ rights and acceptance as a local example of the consequences of a judgmental and literalist interpretive hermeneutic as the global issue is Exhibit A. But I also believe that, on other issues, traditionalists do alleviate suffering, increase justice and diligently serve the Lord. Because of that, I don’t take issue with providing monetary support for an amicable (as possible) separation.

Realistically, though, as I’ve also written before, I think that the traditionalist faction that is created won’t be of lasting significance. Christianity does not have a relevance problem–ours is a faith as meaningful and far-reaching today as it ever has been. But the archaic tradition of a very narrow and literal interpretation of the Bible, the focus on God’s judgment and on making sure everyone “does the right thing” over showing mercy to all people to the greatest extent possible, and the refusal to allow others to be who God created them to be is becoming increasingly irrelevant. That’s not a result of secular culture imposing a new and heretical view of Biblical authority; it’s a result of humanity’s maturity in its understanding of God and theology as expressed through the careful and well-meaning application of all of the tools God has given us to the interpretation of Scripture and the search for greater understanding of the nature of God as expressed in Jesus Christ.

I also (vaingloriously, I admit) feel vindicated by the fact that it is the traditionalists who will leave. In a previous post, I remarked that the Traditional Plan is untenable in the UMC: even if it narrowly passed at the Called General Conference, the resistance within elements of the UMC (I’d like to include myself in that group, though I have admittedly little influence on the actual shape of things) makes enforcement unfeasible. I feel that the Protocol acknowledges that reality. Is that a useful or edifying feeling? Of course not. But it still feels good.

Most important, though, the Protocol represents a good-faith effort by the various factions to come to an agreement as to how to move forward other than one side trying to force its praxis on the other. That is a testament to an attempt by all involved to genuinely live out their faith in Jesus; a message that our world desperately needs in a time of tribes, “us and them” (of which I’m fully guilty, I admit), and demonization of those who disagree with us.

When the Traditional Plan passed at the GC, those of us who felt dejected and rejected by that decision continued to hold out hope that the Spirit might still work something new in the UMC. I’d like to think that the Protocol is just that. It’s maybe not anyone’s first choice (which probably indicates a reasonable compromise), and it’s not exactly what anyone expected, but it may be exactly what we need.

Part of me wants to end on that note of hope, but it’s too early for that. The Protocol still needs to be turned into an actionable collection of legislation and a plan of amicable (and non-litigious) separation that garners the support of the larger UMC (or at least those who get to vote at General Conference this year). There is much work to be done.

I’ve further expanded my thoughts and provided some additional background to my perspective in a follow-up post available here.

3 thoughts on “The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation

  1. “[T]he archaic tradition of a very narrow and literal interpretation of the Bible, the focus on God’s judgment and on making sure everyone ‘does the right thing’ over showing mercy to all people to the greatest extent possible, and the refusal to allow others to be who God created them to be is becoming increasingly irrelevant.”

    This seems a little optimistic (to put a positive spin on it). Confusing and self-congratulatory if we’re being less filtered. I realize that in the States it can seem like all of Christianity is moving gradually but inexorably in a certain direction and that time alone is sufficient to see the church remade in a certain image. But as you comfort yourself with the certainty of a victory over “narrow and literal” Christianity, you might do well to remember that roughly three quarters of the world’s Christians still belong to denominations that hold the “traditionalist” view of marriage and that Christianity is growing fastest (and proving that aforementioned relevance) in the global south (that is generally more conservative on this issue than even the traditionalist Methodists).

    History may yet prove that this issue (like race) is one that most Christians needed to evolve on, but the verdict on that remains pending. Whatever the future may bring, for now it is not evident that the “traditionalist” view is “becoming increasingly irrelevant” anywhere but in our own economically, culturally, and theologically peculiar religious environment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment. I don’t disagree with your comment on my remarks being “self-congratulatory;” that may be a fair interpretation.

      I will point out two things, in hopes of additional clarity and not argument. First, as my blog, these posts represent my opinions. While I tend to argue them pretty forcefully, I do try to regularly state that I’m not claiming any special insight into absolute truth–just arguing things the way I see them, acknowledging that I’m human and subject to all that goes along with that for good or ill.

      I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with me, and I try to be diligent when confronted with facts that ought to change my opinions. Second, perhaps in concert with my comments on the first point, I try to be pretty honest about where I’m coming from and what my biases are so that readers understand the context I’m writing in. Your particular comments on the context of the traditionalist position makes a good deal of sense to me–I must admit my eurocentrism and American cultural background. The best defense that I can mount there is my attempt to be honest in my biases so that others can evaluate and perhaps even comment, just as you have done.

      To that point, I’ve posted further thoughts on the subject–along with some explanation of my background and links to a number of previous posts of mine for additional context–with a link to that new post at the bottom of this one.

      By the way, I took a brief look at your own blog and it looks like there are some definite intersections between our interests. I’m looking forward to having some time to peruse your posts more fully.


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