On Friday, January 3, news was released about an agreement reached by United Methodist Church leaders to help the denomination break free of the impasse in which it has been mired over the past several years.  Haymarket Church is a United Methodist Church, and so this development impacts our church.

Brief Background

For many years now, the United Methodist Church has been struggling to find a way forward that acknowledges the diversity of opinions within the denomination around the question of LGBTQ inclusion – specifically, whether United Methodist pastors can perform same-sex weddings and whether openly LGBTQ+ persons can serve as United Methodist pastors.  In 2019, the United Methodist Church had a global gathering – called a “General Conference.” The goal of that conference was to chart a way forward that allowed for unity in structure and diversity in practice.  Despite significant work that went into that process, no resolution was reached.  At that gathering, about 70% of delegates from the United States supported the compromise position that would have allowed these decisions (about marriage and ordination) to happen at a local level, but the delegation from the rest of the world overwhelmingly supported what was called “the Traditionalist plan,” which means that the Traditionalist Plan passed with a vote of about 53% in favor and 47% opposed. The Traditionalist Plan re-affirmed the denomination’s opposition to same-sex weddings and the ordination of openly LGBTQ people as pastors. The plan also included what is called “enhanced enforcement.” This enhanced enforcement is mostly focused on punishing pastors and bishops who will not agree to support the denomination’s position on this issue.  These enhanced enforcement measures have gone into effect as of January 1, 2020.

Need for A New Solution

Everyone involved agreed that 2019 was a failure.  Even those who “won” the vote know that this hasn’t settled the discussion – the church remains deeply divided and our continuing impasse continues to do harm, multiply conflict, and keeps the church from addressing other important areas of focus.

What Happened on January 3

Over the past few months, a group of leaders from various caucus groups and constituencies – representing various perspectives within the United Methodist Church – has been meeting.  They were convened by the United Methodist bishop of Sierra Leone. They worked together to find a compromise solution that would end the conflict and help all parties move into a positive and hopeful future.  That compromise is called the “Protocol for Reconciliation & Grace through Separation,” (or, “The Protocol”). The national reporting about what this group did and what The Protocol means has been, at times, somewhat inaccurate.  In order to fully understand what happened, we encourage you to review these three resources.

First, read this report, put together by United Methodist New Services.

Second, for a detailed understanding, read the full agreement, which you can access here.

Finally, here is a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document that was put together by the group that came to this agreement.

Summary Points

The main highlights of this agreement (“The Protocol”) include the following:

  • The ongoing existence of the United Methodist Church (UMC).
  • The formation of a new traditional Methodist denomination. The new church would receive $25 million over the next four years and give up any further claim to the UMC’s assets. An additional $2 million would be allocated for potential additional new Methodist denominations which may emerge from the UMC.
  • A process for Annual Conferences and local churches to withdraw from the United Methodist Churches and join the newly created denominations.
  • The creation of four regional conferences–Africa, U.S., Europe, Philippines–each with its own ability to adapt the Book of Discipline (the book of church law that governs UMC churches).
  • The removal of restrictive language related to LGBTQ identity and practice in the U.S. post-separation United Methodist Church immediately following the May General Conference.
  • A creation of a fund ($39 million would be allocated over 8 years) to strengthen Asian, Black, Hispanic-Latino, Native American and Pacific Islander ministries, as well as Africa University.
  • Calling for an immediate moratorium and abeyance that suspends all processes related to “all administrative or judicial processes addressing restrictions in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church related to self-avowed practicing homosexuals or same-sex weddings, as well as actions to close churches, would be held in abeyance until the separation is complete.”

What This Means Going Forward

Those documents (above) explain this new development (“The Protocol”) better than I (Brian) could ever hope to do.  Here’s what little perspective I can offer: this plan would allow the United Methodist Church in the US to become fully inclusive (ordaining LGBTQIA+ pastors and allowing same sex weddings), while also making space for diversity of belief and practice within the new UMC. It would potentially hold the church together at a global level, and would allow churches that are strongly opposed to that change to exit the denomination without penalty (but would not force anyone to leave).  Just as importantly, key leaders of key groups within the church that have been in conflict for decades have agreed to cease their conflict and move forward on this plan together. That’s good news. The unceasing conflict is not healthy, and does not help us move forward in God’s work.

The agreement also includes a moratorium on church prosecutions of LGBTQIA+ clergy and pastors who perform same-sex weddings – waiting until this next round of negotiations and decision-making is complete before any further punishments are enacted.  That seems to be a healthy practice that will allow for better work across disagreements.

No one got everything they wanted from this plan, but everyone exited with something they could live with.  And the leaders involved in these negotiations have agreed to encourage the groups they lead to support this new plan.

This agreement does mean that the United Methodist Church will likely divide, and some of the more traditionalist elements of the denomination (those who cannot conscience being part of a denomination with LGBTQIA+ pastors or that allows same sex weddings) will leave the denomination.  That’s sad, but it seems like going our separate ways (and wishing each other well as we do) may be better than a future of constant conflict.  That said, if you are a traditionalist but can be OK with being part of a denomination with other people and other churches who believe and practice differently from you, there is still space for you in the UMC – and that’s good news, too, because this new plan still allows for diversity of belief, and I believe that diverse belief is part of what makes for a healthy church.

The plan also calls for the United States to become what’s called a “Regional Conference” of the United Methodist Church – meaning that it would be free to adapt some portions of church law to suit its context (parts of the church outside the United States already have this ability).  This would, in theory, allow us to retain the blessings of the global church, while also allowing the freedom to adapt portions of church law that make sense for the US but where the global church does not support such changes (such as LGBTQIA+ inclusion).

This plan also includes significant financial investment in historically marginalized and oppressed communities (particularly racial and ethnic minority groups).  As denominational financial assets are addressed (and some assets are given to the new traditionalist denominations that will emerge), the denomination is also choosing to invest resources in communities in which we’ve typically under-invested.  This is good and hopeful news – we’ve never done anything like that before, and I’m glad we’re doing it now.

It’s also important to note that this is not a done deal.  The body that came to this agreement was not an official body, and it has no official power.  It was a group of highly influential leaders, but only General Conference (the global gathering of the United Methodist Church, which will meet May 5-15 2020) can speak for the whole denomination or change church policy.  So, whatever you think of this new proposal, no actual changes will happen until at least May.

What this Means for Haymarket Church

Haymarket Church is committed to being an inclusive church AND a church where it is safe to hold diverse opinions.  For more on Haymarket Church’s commitment to inclusivity, see our Statement of Welcome and Inclusivity.

As we’ve said before, no action of any denominational body will keep us from welcoming all people and from making space for everyone at Christ’s table.

Also, as we say frequently, Haymarket Church is a church that values diverse opinions – we want to be a safe space to wrestle with hard questions and struggle with what we think/believe about all sorts of topics.  This means that you don’t have to agree with me, or with any particular stance, in order to be part of Haymarket Church. As long as you are willing to welcome all people, share God’s love with everyone, and respect the beliefs of others, you are welcome at Haymarket Church.  No matter who you are, no matter where you are from, and no matter what you believe, you are welcome at Haymarket Church.

I (Pastor Brian), believe that this is a hopeful next step for the United Methodist Church (UMC).  I love the United Methodist Church, and I think that it offers a lot of gifts and blessings to Haymarket Church.  I hope this proposal, if adopted, will help Haymarket Church be faithful to God’s calling for us and remain part of the UMC.  That said, I cannot make decisions about the future of Haymarket Church on my own.  Over the coming months, the Haymarket Church Leadership Team will be diving deep into this proposal and wrestling with what it means for the future of Haymarket Church.  We will host congregational informational sessions (likely as part of our regular Pub Theology gatherings) about the future of the denomination. If necessary, we will have Town Hall style meetings and give the congregation as a whole an opportunity to share its opinion on our church’s relationship to the denomination.

In short, we have a lot of work ahead of us, and nothing is settled yet.  But, this provides a hopeful path forward – an opportunity to move past the conflict and to move towards healing; an opportunity to reduce the harm that is being done, repent of the harm we have done in the past, and move forward in God’s work in this and other ways.

In short: there is much work ahead of us, but I am hopeful.

As always, if you have any questions about this, please feel free to reach out to me.  The best way to contact me is via email: brian.johnson@haymarketchurch.org.