Many have reached out to Bishop Willimon in the weeks following the release of the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation” to find out what he was thinking. The long wait is over: the Ministry Matters quarterly periodical The Circuit Rider has now released his essay “A Sad Separation.” Here is what he said:
As a young pastor I had a couple in my congregation who told me that though they were going to divorce, it would be “friendly.”
“We don’t want to hurt each other or the children. We just want to be separate.”
This sounded nice to me until one of their lawyers, a member of the congregation, snorted, “Yea, that’s what they all say. It’s the lie they tell themselves to deal with their guilt. A gracious divorce can’t happen—if they were ever in love. Pastor, don’t aid their mutual delusion.”
So now the church called “United” is going public with our friendly separation*. We’ve been here before. In 1844, Methodists in my part of the world decided that we were fed up with a decade of debate over whether or not Methodists could own slaves. We separated, giving all sorts of elegant theological justifications for the split. The Methodist Church South was at last rid of fellow Methodists whose disagreements made us uncomfortable. Safe in our Methodist Episcopal Church South, devoid of debate, our delusions continued for decades (and was overturned a hundred years later by reunion long after the Civil War).
After the ill-considered, ill-led 2019 General Conference, here we are again. The bishops decided once-and-for-all to settle the complex of questions surrounding the place of LGBTQ Methodists (unsolved by five General Conferences in succession) by having a special General Conference and forcing the same people who deadlocked at the last General Conference to vote once again. Publicly, while there were prayers for divine guidance, privately the factions had already decided where they stood. Positions became more entrenched. A series of dense questions were reduced to simplistic labels: left/right, liberal/conservative, progressive/traditional. Strategies were devised for how to coerce others into whatever point of view they had before we started praying. Surprise! A more punitive polity narrowly passed by about the same margins as the previous General Conference. Cost? $7 million.
A denomination with a chronic condition of debate and disagreement over issues related to sexual orientation and identity acted as if our condition were a problem to be fixed through a once-and-for-all vote. The majority silences the minority and calls it “holy conferencing.”
All that the 2019 General Conference did was make a chronic condition into a life-threatening crisis. The Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation is not so much an agreement as resignation to the inevitable. The Protocol to be set before the 2020 General Conference (will we ever learn?) punts the crisis to Annual Conferences and local churches. Now the battle that defeated the 2019 General Conference is taken to the local level.
My heart goes out to the pastors and congregations. It’s hard to believe that the separationists will be content to take their $25 million, turn in the keys to their churches, and leave quietly. In the conference I once served, I’d estimate that two-thirds of the pastors are loyally UMC, in spite of the issues, whereas half of the congregations are sympathetic to the WCA. Pity the UMC pastor who must lead a WCA congregation through the process of voting to stay or to leave. The last General Conference wouldn’t have been so damaging if we had had a knock-down, no-holds-barred debate, sung a hymn, and gone home. Voting produced no solution, just winners and losers. So now that biblically indefensible process is going to be taken to the local church?
What will be left of the UMC after some of our most vital congregations and their vibrant pastors walk away from the rapidly shrinking UMC? Irreparable damage will be done to our institutions such as the publishing house and our world-wide mission organizations. Few of our current seminaries can make it without the Methodist Education Fund. There’s no way the $39 million set aside for “communities historically marginalized by racism” will make up for all that these communities will lose in a diminished UMC.
The one budgetary item that we agree to preserve at all cost? The clergy pension fund. That makes sense; most of the secessionism is clergy-driven, though how long the laity will sit for a clerical dismantling of their church remains to be seen.
Can you feel my sorrow? All of us UMC leaders are stewards of a church we did not create and beneficiaries of a mission of a centuries-old institution that none of us earned or deserved. Every pastor talking so freely of leaving The UMC was educated, appointed, and sustained by The UMC. And yet, after a scant four decades of debate (not a long in church time) we are disposing of a church that is not ours to give away.
Is that why Jesus is never mentioned in the Protocols?
Separation–paring down the church to those who think as I do–won’t work because: 1. The nature of the Body of Christ and 2. The nature of Christ.
When I was ordained in the early 1970s in South Carolina, the bishop could find no congregation for me that wasn’t full of people who were wrong about race. When I complained about the low quality of Methodists, the bishop said, “Why do you think God called someone like you into the ministry? You are free to allow God to convert all of them.”
I’ve been pastor and bishop to hundreds of churches, and I’ve never served a church where the congregation was in full agreement. Most of Paul’s letters are addressed to divided, sometimes bitterly split, churches. Why do you think Paul talked so much about unity and love? It’s what pastors do. Unsurprised by Christian differences, we preachers keep working for the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer “that they all will be one” (John 17:21). We keep muddling through, surprised by how much good God can do in a congregation in spite of our disparities, deeply grateful that Jesus said, “Follow me,” before he said, “Be of one heart and mind.”
To the second point, it’s of the nature of Jesus Christ to save people with whom I disagree, many of whom are unhappy that Christ saved and called me. I’m grateful for their obedience to Paul’s command to put up with me in love (Eph 4:2). They thereby remind me that we’re in the church, not because we are so open-minded, biblically faithful, loving, and inclusive but because Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, put us here.
On most Sundays I’m glad for the church’s Jesus-induced diversity. I’ve grown in my faith and learned much about Christ from people who are wrong about many things. Sometimes, I’ve tried to set them straight only to have the Holy Spirit intrude and prod me to say words I would never have said on my own: “I guess I was wrong.” What if they had walked out midway through my sermon?
Separation is tragic because we thereby shut out some of our most challenging interlocutors and thereby shut out some of the most fruitful work of the Holy Spirit. When the IRD (in those rare moments when they talk theologically) tells me that I am soft on scripture, God help me, they are right! Who among my progressive buddies is going to challenge my biblical interpretation and push me to be a more faithful hermeneut? (And who will the IRD have fun kicking around once I’m gone and they are hunkered down with their boringly homogeneous buddies in Good News and the WCA?)
Go ahead. Get your church all cleaned up. Have everyone swear to your cherished ideology. What are you going to do about Jesus? Our Lord won’t stop reaching out and bringing in the “wrong” people, making my church more complicated and tougher to lead than I would like it to be. Just wait until the progressive UMC pastor discovers that she’s got folks in her congregation who are just as sexist, racist, and homophobic as the people who walked? Go ahead, covert them out of their homophobia; next Sunday Jesus will demand that you tackle their greed.
If I know anything about Jesus, he’ll show up with the nicest same-sex couple and their two children at the inaugural Sunday of the doctrinally-sound, Bible-believing, WCA-certified congregation. Then what? Separate into the Even More Faithful Methodist Church?
Speaking of Jesus (whom we should be talking about), our church once greeted the social, moral challenges of the world with a robust conversionist theology based upon our conviction that Jesus changes everyone he touches. Nothing is fixed and final, no matter how many voted it into the legalistic Book of Discipline. My thoughts about LGBTQ issues are different from what I thought just ten years ago. I know no Methodist whose views on race are unchanged from the way I was bred to think. In every church I served, people thought they knew where they stood on any number of issues—until they heard my sermons. How did that happen? Jesus.
For me to eagerly say goodbye to you and your slanted take on the gospel is to say that Jesus Christ has ceased to work in your life and mine, ceased converting us, transforming us, opening our hearts, moving us to repent. Because of Jesus, I’m not free to refuse to witness to you nor are you free to storm out and form a church more to your liking so you can stop talking to me.
Michael Vazquez, program director for Religion and Faith at The Human Rights Campaign, has already noted that, “The Church’s decision to split leaves many LGBTQ Methodists who want to be fully included in the life of the Church in limbo, trying to determine their place in a Church that has still not embraced them.” No matter how many homophobic Methodists we progressives drive out of the discussion, even the most ideologically pure UMC will still have somebody who lacks my open-hearted, enlightened views. Blame it on Jesus’s determination to love and connect with people before they are able fully to embrace him. People like me, for instance.
When somebody threatened to leave my congregation because they disagreed with one of my sermons (or had become incensed by something they saw in the Social Principles), I considered it my pastoral duty to beg them to stay, arguing, praying with them, negotiating. As they pulled their car out of the church parking lot, I clung to the door handle, shouting to them one more reason why we needed them to stay in The UMC and put up with our congregation. Sometimes, by the grace of God, it worked.
Rather than work for a friendly divorce, why don’t we expend some energy obeying Ephesians 4:2 and run The UMC the way any competent pastor leads a congregation, asking, “How far can we go toward Christ together? How can we do church in a way that helps Christ to keep us together?
It’s a heck of a way to be the Body of Christ, yet from what I’ve witnessed in five decades in the UMC, it’s uniquely Christ’s way.
*Disclaimer: Because I’m a bishop, I’m prohibited–theologically and historically–from aiding and abetting church separation. Thus I write as one consecrated to “serve in the ministry of reconciliation” and “to seek the unity” of my church. Whenever talk in the church turns toward exclusion, separation, schism, or divorce, I’ve promised to talk togetherness. It’s my job.
For more from Bishop Willimon on the Protocol, see the interview he did with the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast.
Sometime earlier, white Southerners had talked our fellow Methodist Episcopals into thinking that Wesley was wrong. So the church declared that enslavement of others was a personal choice. Abolitionist Methodists disagreed.
 Isn’t “separation” what you get when you fail at “reconciliation” and “grace”?
 Among the many inexplicable anomalies in this proposal is its encouragement for individual congregations to vote on whether to leave or to stay. Nothing in the history or present polity of Methodism supports this sort of rampant congregationalism.
 I’ve yet to meet the Methodists who put money in the offering plate to subsidize the formation of a separate denomination.
 Come on, all you folks who say you are for “biblical authority.” Where in scripture do you find justification for church governance through majority vote?
 Sanchez, Ray. “United Methodist Church proposes historic split over gay marriage and LGBT clergy,” CNN.com, January 4, 2020.