Yesterday, February 12, 2020, I attended an informative session on the Protocol of Grace and Reconciliation, followed by a time of Q and A. The presenters were Tom Berlin, pastor of Floris UMC in Herndon, VA, and Keith Boyette, retired UMC elder in the Virginia Annual Conference and current president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Tom and Keith were both members of the mediation team that initiated the Protocol and both have been a part of the team writing the legislation to support the Protocol at General Conference 2020 in May.
I have known both Keith and Tom for many years. I met Keith first through the Emmaus community. He was then, or soon after, in the candidacy process to become a UM elder. I first heard Tom during a workshop at the Ministers’ Convocation in the ‘90s. I actually came to know Tom through my time as a fellow pastor on the Arlington district. I have respected both of them while not always being in full agreement at every moment, much like my relationship with most of my colleagues.
While I don’t claim to know every detail of the Protocol and the subsequent legislation, I am fairly well informed as I care deeply about the United Methodist Church. For full disclosure, I am one of many who sat on the fence of LGBTQIA+ “issues” for many years. As one of the early women elders, I felt my presence already rocked the boat for many people. I chose not to add to the rocking. I never preached a sermon on the motherhood of God; I simply avoided male language for God and humans wherever possible, and really only used it when I baptized someone. I also did not want to rock my marriage too much as I discovered my husband was far less progressive than I first thought.
Back to yesterday’s session. Keith and Tom walked us through how the mediation team came about and the details of the protocol and it’s legislation. There were many questions from the Clergy present about various nuts and bolts aspects, such as pension security, timelines, etc. I knew that most of these have been dealt with clearly in writing but I realized they came from the anxiety persons have been feeling so I bided with my own form of anxiety as Keith and Tom answered knowledgeably and kindly, but also having to admit that there is no way to know how the General Conference will deal with the Protocol.
They were both clear that, as Keith said, this agreement is a razor thin line that brings together a wide variety of perspectives. Any deviance from this meticulously mediated protocol is liable to end the hard won cooperation. Currently, seven advocacy groups have issued a statement in support of the Protocol: The Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church, Good News, Mainstream UMC, Reconciling Ministries Network, Uniting Methodists, UMC Next, Wesleyan Covenant Association. Obviously there are others who have not endorsed this protocol. These are mostly groups who are of more extreme views.
When I had an opportunity to raise a question, I asked to move beyond the nuts and bolts for the moment and have towards a time, when, with the presumption that the Protocol is passed, we end up in different Methodist denominations. How do they each envision their particular branch living in that reality? Both Keith, speaking about a new “traditionalist” Methodist denomination, and Tom, speaking about a post-separation UMC, emphasized the ability to direct focus and energy to discipleship, taking the Gospel into the midst of people’s lives, having a leaner, more nimble infrastructure of commissions (Keith’s word) and agencies. There was much we could all resonate with in both descriptions, and the passion was clear in each of them.
As I reflected on what I heard, I realized that while there was much in common, at least one major difference was clear. Keith spoke about his new denomination having a “cohesion of belief” (a direct quote) and a clear singular covenant out of which to operate, as opposed to now living in a denomination where there are many who do not cohere completely but who cannot be “excommunicated” (again a direct quote in answer to an earlier question as to why it is the traditionalists who are leaving to begin a new denomination), thus diffusing the focus and energy by the need to address or fight this lack of cohesion.
Tom, on the other hand, spoke of a UMC that is still a “big tent” (quote) where persons can coexist with a variety of perspectives, including centrist, progressive, and traditional; where each can be challenged, and supported, as they worship, fellowship, and grow together. This would be a church where no pastor would be required to marry couples outside of their own conviction, but all pastors would be free to marry couples according to their convictions. This would be a church where the Executive (Clergy) Session of the Annual Conference would vote to receive and ordain (or not) persons recommended by the Board of Ministry of that Annual Conference.
While I have been one who thought we should remain together, and get along despite our differences (I am a 9 on the Enneagram, after all), I have come to recognize that we are spending our time, energy, focus, and money on what appears to be a never-ending battle. I have come to the conclusion that for the time being we may better apart than together. As Tom said, there are people who will be reached by a more progressive form of the Methodist movement that neither a traditionalist or centrist one can reach; and there are people who can be reached by a more traditionalist expression than can be reached by centrists or progressives; and there are those who will be able to be reached by a big tent expression of Methodism. The point is using our time, energy, focus, and money reaching them rather than fighting each other.
I heard a number of people, including at least two who have a less progressive view than I, express their deep pain and anguish at the breaking apart of a family of Methodists. I heard my own grief and pain echoed in their words. I also believe in a God who is at not only the beginning of creation, who is also in the midst of the ongoing life of the world, and who will be with us when we are all drawn once more together in the singularity of love. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (Julian of Norwich). Thanks be to God.