On Friday April 16, 2021, the United Methodist Judicial Council released an important decision concerning the future of the proposed Separation Protocol. The opinion touches on two important topics: Advisory Opinions and the Constitutionality of a Separation Protocol. It is clear that the Judicial Council will not rule on the validity of a proposal prior to its passage by the General Conference. In addition, it appears that the Judicial Council does not think very highly of a proposed Separation Protocol. This is more concerning to churches waiting on a General Conference and a positive vote of the Separation Protocol to leave the denomination.
A review of the rulings helps us understand what the future holds for the United Methodist Denomination and the impact of the Judicial Council on future decisions of the General Conference.
No Advisory Opinion
In response to the proposed Separation Protocol, the Council of Bishops sought an opinion from the Judicial Council to determine if it was constitutional. The Judicial Council refused to answer the question, correctly noting that it could not offer an advisory opinion on a matter that was not introduced and adopted by the General Conference. In opinion 1407, the Judicial Council concluded that:
The Protocol, one of numerous legislative plans submitted to the General Conference for consideration, could be amended, substituted, or even rejected, thus, making it unlikely that it will be enacted in its current form. The Judicial Council, in taking an early action to fulfill its jurisdictional authority on a request for a declaratory decision on the constitutionality of [the Protocol], could potentially place a constitutional seal of approval on one proposed legislative item.” It would be improper for us to anticipate or engineer legislative outcomes. Until the General Conference has the opportunity to consider and act on all proposals, including the Protocol, we must avoid interfering with the legislative process through premature adjudication. For those reasons, the Petition fails the timeliness test.
Constitutionality of the Separation Protocol is in Doubt
The decision to offer an advisory opinion on a proposal is not a surprise. The Judicial Council has previously ruled that it could not, and would not, rule on proposals that were not passed by the General Counsel.
However, in reaching its decision, the Judicial Council scolded the parties of the Separation Protocol, when it offered the following opinion:
Unlike the legislative proposals under review in JCD 1366, the Protocol is the work product of a select group of bishops, clergy, and lay persons who took it upon themselves to offer legislative solutions to the longstanding conflict over the role of LGBTQIA persons in the Church and who met secretly in undisclosed locations over a period of time. The public was unaware of its existence until that group completed its work and issued a press release. More important, the authors of the Protocol received no official backing of the General Church and are, therefore, fundamentally different from the Commission on the Way Forward [hereinafter COWF].
The contrast could not be more striking.
The COWF was authorized by the 2016 General Conference and duly appointed by the COB for the purpose of the called session in 2019. Its composition, mission statement, meeting schedule, and venues were posted online ahead of time; its meetings and work progress were covered by UM News Service; its operation was funded by the General Church. After the COWF completed its work, the final report containing the three plans became the main focus of the 2019 special session of General Conference in St. Louis. From the beginning to the end, the COWF enjoyed an unprecedented level of interest and support from the General Church.
None of that is present here.
The message of the Judicial Council should be concerning to those who are waiting on the General Conference to vote on a Separation Protocol. It appears that the message being sent by the Judicial Council is that in the unlikely event that a Separation Protocol is brought to a vote at a General Conference, and it passes, the Judicial Council may invalidate it. The Council is clearly troubled that the process of considering the protocol, the contents of the proposal, the advancement of the protocol and the protocol was not sanctioned for consideration by an “official” Methodist entity. I suspect that when this does reach the Judicial Council, it will find it unconstitutional.
The Next General Conference
It is fairly clear that there will not be a specially called General Conference in 2022. The denomination cannot afford a General Conference in 2022 and again in 2024 – the date of the regularly scheduled General Conference.
Commentators are correctly noting that a vaccine for Covid will not be available around the world before 2023. This makes travel nearly impossible for most of the delegates of the General Conference. And that means that an in person General Conference is unlikely. One can confirm this simply by looking at the schedule of events at the Minneapolis Convention Center. As of April 2021, the public calendar includes many events scheduled for 2022 – but not the United Methodist General Conference.
More importantly, there is no desire by those within the Methodist institution to allow a vote on the Protocol to occur. It is clear that the institutionalist is playing the long game waiting for dissenting churches to leave so that it can claim the remnant of the denomination for itself without a vote on the Protocol. It more likely that the Detroit Lions will win the Superbowl in 2022, than a General Conference occurring. And the likelihood of the Judicial Council affirming some form of a Separation Protocol has the same slim odds of approval.
So why are you waiting?
Hope is not a strategy. Hope will not preserve your property and protect your ministry.
If your local church wants to leave the dysfunction and dying denomination and is waiting on a General Conference passing a Separation Protocol and the Judicial Council affirming the same, please consider the implications of the passage of time and the likelihood of status quo in a dying denomination on your ministry. The passage of time will not end well for you. The chart below is telling – there is a steady stream of people walking away from the denomination every day, and that stream continues to increase every day.
If you would like to talk to Dan Dalton or one of the professionals at Dalton & Tomich PLC about departing from the denomination, please contact us. You can learn more through our resources on our website and download eBooks and other resources to help guide you through this process.