Nobody ever wins a divorce. Ever. One person may not lose as much as another, but everybody loses. Even in a divorce that is necessary, like in an abusive marriage, nobody wins. Staying safe from harm isn't a win, it's just survival.
We should be clear that the Protocol agreed upon by a respectable group of progressives, centrists, and traditionalists is a call for divorce. And yet, there is some reason for hope. Perhaps because of the profound lack of trust that each group has with the other there have been times when it have felt more like some have been more concerned with making sure another group loses than that ones own group wins - to use Steven Covey's language, we would be more satisfied with a lose-lose scenario than a win-win. With the help of a professional mediator, the group that wrote the Protocol has potentially helped us avoid a lose-lose. Nobody "wins" everything, but everybody "wins" something.
This is not who I am so I am open to correction from those who claim this camp. There are some traditionalists, notably in the WCA, who have wanted to leave the denomination for some time. This plan let's them do so with their local church property and the formation of a new denomination. That's a win. Other traditionalists genuinely wanted to reform the denomination from within. For them, leaving is a loss. But the reality is that those of us in the center and progressive wings really truly are not leaving. Further, from a purely political standpoint, the votes in the jurisdictions are in place to elect bishops throughout the U.S. who would not enforce the Traditional Plan. The hard reality, which may have been a motivator for traditionalist leadership, is that the 20019 vote in St. Louis awoke a giant centrist voice in the U.S. that rebuked the direction traditionalists want to take the church. There was no guarantee that the 2020 General Conference would go there way. So, while it is not a total win, traditionalists who want to reform the denomination will get to live out their beliefs in a new denomination. My sincere hope remains that many traditionalists, using now familiar language, the traditional-compatibilists, will choose to remain in the new UMC. Almost all traditionalists have wanted a smaller institution with less bureaucracy. A new start with a new denomination is the perfect opportunity to implement this.
This is where I place myself. On the question of inclusion I am unabashedly progressive. On most other theological questions I am very much in the center of the denomination. Once it became clear that there was no way to preserve the denomination as we know it - once the traditional wing defeated the One Church Plan - some degree of division was entirely and regrettably inevitable. For centrists, the hope is that as few people leave as possible. That is why we have advocated for a high bar for conferences and churches to leave the denomination. Contrary to traditionalist talking points, the One Church Plan DID have an exit path - it was the existing exit path in the Book of Discipline which has a high bar. We did not want it to be easy to leave but we did want it to be possible. The 57% threshold for a conference is not as high as I would like but I understand why traditionalists could not live with it being higher. It seems like an acceptable compromise. I'm not a fan of the local church choosing the vote threshold for choosing differently than their conference. I don't understand this part of the Protocol, to be honest. But, again, it's compromise. It is not a total win. And yet there are significant pluses that I am happy with. I want to stay United Methodist. For better or worse, that name really is important. We will have to work hard at rightsizing the structure. That will be a difficult and painful task. But, with God's grace, we'll be up for the task and ready to move forward with all that are willing.
Some on the theological left are complaining that the group was not adequately representative. I get that, and I also understand why the moderator would be clear that there is an upper limit to how large a group can be to effectively negotiate. If it were me, I would have pulled out a couple bishops and added in someone under 50 (even under 40?!?) and another person of color. I suspect we would all have a slightly different formula for the perfect group. Progressives in the U.S. gain two important pieces with this plan. If there are progressives for whom this plan does not go far enough, there is the option of a new denomination. The $2 million offered to this group is very small compared to the $25 million for the traditionalist group, but the reality is that the negotiating team is correct that a potential progressive denomination would be considerably smaller than a traditionalist denomination. That's just how the math works. I would also ask progressives to walk back in time one year ago. Given the events of the special General Conference, I don't think a credible argument can be made that progressive United Methodists would have better options before them other than $2 million to form a new denomination or the opportunity to end the discriminatory language in our Book of Discipline. The goals of the Simple Plan are within reach. That is a good thing.
My friends in Africa are troubled. There is deep concern from some about a WCA denomination based on the draft plan for a new Book of Discipline. Some feel betrayed and let down. There is no question that the large majority of Africans are theologically more traditional AND there is no question that the large majority of Africans very much want to stay United Methodist. I would argue that under this plan Africans could have both. Along with the bulk of the U.S., they could stay United Methodist and with an additional degree of regional decision-making they could remain theologically conservative. Ultimately, though, the win for Africa and all central conferences is that they will get to make a choice. Maybe it is that lack of trust talking again, but I believe too often the U.S. has used people from Africa in particular as pawns in a U.S. game. I know that's how some of them are feeling right now. The charge some have made that going to regional conferences is a racist ploy to not let black Africans control us is outrageous. The reality is that we still have a colonialist mindset. Our current Book of Discipline which allows non-U.S. conferences to make adaptations effectively says, "The U.S. does things the normal way. If you're not normal like us you can make changes to fit your abnormal system." Regional conferences level the playing field for everyone. That's why many of us favored a U.S. Central Conference several years ago even when it was clear that moving in that direction would not alleviate the discriminatory language in the Book of Discipline. Now central conferences will be able to make their own choice without being placed in the middle of a U.S. conflict.
Other Central Conferences
Europe and the Philippines are complicated and more diverse than we might think at first. (See the first comment below on Europe, for example, which necessitated an edit to my original post). I can't speak well to either area and hope for additional comments from those who can.
People who are LGBT+
I consider myself an ally and I acknowledge that I cannot speak for people who identify as LGBT+. What I've heard from friends so far is mixed. Some love this plan and some hate it. What I'm certain of is that discrimination will not end because of the implementation of a plan. I've shared before that at the 2016 General Conference the lay leader from an annual conference told me without apparent embarrassment that 90% of churches in that conference would not accept a woman as a pastor. Legislation can help with discrimination. It can't end it. So I understand that for some this does not go far enough fast enough. I also understand that for many this is a huge blessing. It is not a win. It is more like ending the abusive marriage that I started with. It is not a win, but it is safety. It is progress. For that, I'm grateful.
The Money Question
One last piece. There is common frustration with the $25 million gift from the UMC to the traditionalists who leave. I've got to say that for me this is the least troubling aspect of the entire plan. I can't verify the accuracy of this report, but one blogger who seems to have a handle on the situation says the Episcopal Church has spent upwards of $60 million on lawsuits in their division. And that was four years ago. I have no reason to believe we would spend any less. I have friends who are attorneys. I love them. And I don't want to pay them $60 million.
The Most Right for Now
This is not a win. Divorce is never a win and we need to be clear that this is a divorce. Divorce of a church body is not, I believe, God's desire. I believe the Church is a partnership of the Divine and the Human. We are at a moment when the Human component of the Church is forcing a divide that the Divine component of the Church does not desire. But here we are. In our imperfect state we must, as they say, play the hand that we are dealt. The church I serve recently decided to move from three worship services to two. We formed a group, a negotiating team if you will, that explored eight different models for restructuring our Sunday morning - nine if you include just leaving everything the same. I didn't like any of them. All of them had pluses and minuses. None of them was perfect. So I came to appreciate the phrase that one of the members of the team shared - we ended up agreeing to the plan that was "the most right for now." The arrangement our church will use on March 1 is not perfect but it is the most right for this moment of time. Sometime in the future something else will be the most right for that time. I'm convinced, at least in this moment, that the Protocol team did a faithful job of discerning what is the most right for now for the People called Methodist. May we all pray for continuing discernment as we move towards General Conference and for the day that we are reunited in a new "most right" moment.