by Junius Dotson
I feel hope for the first time in a long time as we finally have a path to turn our focus away from legislation and litigation back to liturgy. To practicing our faith, in its most inclusive form perhaps ever. To ministering without the asterisk or theological disclaimer that God’s grace falls on some, but not others.
It was clear that the 2019 special called General Conference intensified the conflict regarding our differences related to the full participation of LGTBQ persons in the life of our church. Recognizing this reality, Sierra Leone Bishop John Yambasu and other Central Conference Bishops invited me and several other leaders into a conversation in July of last year. The goal of the conversation was to find consensus on a future that would not do further harm to the whole church.
Seated at the negotiating table, the faces of the people we were trying to protect from harm were ever present in my thoughts. They were family members. Friends. Some were at the table. Our church has been embroiled in this fight for 47 years. Before that, we waged yet unresolved battles to rectify decades of racial segregation.
Heavier still were the stakes. The health and viability of our local churches, schools, orphanages, hospitals and other global ministry initiatives hung in the balance, not to mention the Great Commission of 13 million United Methodists world-wide, the second-largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.
Ken Feinberg’s presence spoke to the urgent, historical significance of these talks. Feinberg had brokered the 9/11 victims’ compensation funds and BP Deepwater Horizon disaster settlements, two of the worst disasters of the past 50 years. I wondered quietly, if our conflict was leading us to a disaster whose impact we could not begin to comprehend or calculate.
To those of us at the table of 16 determined to stop the harm being done to our LGTBQ family – the stakes couldn’t have been higher. There were additional concerns permeating the negotiations. In all candor, similar “restructuring” efforts often occur at the expense of historically marginalized groups. It was important to try and avoid a similar turn in this process.
So, my thinking was guided by asking, “if this is going to happen, if we can’t stop this separation, then what must we rescue from the wreckage? How can we do this in a dignified way that respects the humanity of everyone involved? How do we preserve and strengthen ministries by and for Asian, Black, Hispanic-Latin, Native American and Pacific Islander communities as well as Africa University?”
We accomplished much via the $39 million earmark ensuring that there is no disruption in funding these vital ministries, but our work here is far from done. Still, I believe last week’s proposed settlement — called the “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation” — lifts us to a promontory where we can see a new beginning.
“The undersigned propose restructuring The United Methodist Church by separation as the best means to resolve our differences, allowing each part of the Church to remain true to its theological understanding while recognizing the dignity, equality, integrity, and respect of every person,” our proposal reads.
There’s still a ways to go, however, as Bishop John Yambasu told media. “All of us are servants of the church and realize that we are not the primary decision-makers on these matters,” Yambasu said, speaking on behalf of our group. The delegates at General Conference 2020 are the primary decision-makers. There’s still a matter of the vote and still many issues to wrestle with.
The truth is that plans for separation were already happening in churches, annual conferences and jurisdictions across our denomination. But, at least now we can see the end. The Protocol gives us a process and offers more certainty in the face of chaos and competing legislative plans.
Despite the tumult of the moment, I sense a certain hopefulness. Liberation unleashes its own brand of exuberance.
This hard-fought agreement presents a transformative moment moving us from hurt to hope. It makes room for all persons to fully participate in all aspects of loving God and neighbor. It also affirms the importance of making room for individual conscience in the life of faith. It provides and encourages a new way of thinking regarding governance and decision-making in our global church.
But this liberation, while thrilling, also bestows on us solemn responsibilities. We’ll have to quickly bind up our hearts and press on. Moving forward we may have a smaller footprint, but a larger mission. We will have to rethink the ways we deliver ministry. We must usher in a new understanding of what it means to be connectional in the 21st Century.
In essence, we have lots of work yet to do to map out an urgent and achievable plan to clarify our aspirations and how we’ll work through the process to conceive and organize for fresh innovative ways to be in ministry.
This new expression of the United Methodist Church has a future, and it is ours to shape.
About Junius Dotson
Junius Dotson serves as the Co-Convener of UMCNext Convening Team and is one of the 16 who negotiated the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace.