Author: Rev. Dr. Mark Holland, Executive Director, Mainstream UMC
On behalf of Mainstream UMC, I just returned from the Philippines to learn, to share, to advocate, and to grow our mission together. General Conference is fast approaching and the United Methodists in the Philippines are working hard to prepare. The three Filipino Bishops, Rudy Juan, Ciriaco Francisco, and Pete Torio hosted a joint gathering of all their delegates to the General Conference on Wednesday, February 12. This was both an orientation to General Conference as well as a briefing on issues they would see. This gathering was a major undertaking considering the vast distances delegates had to travel.
The Methodist church in the Philippines has a long, rich history that stretches back to the Spanish-American war of 1898. This war ended 300 years of Spanish colonial rule, only to be followed by US colonial rule which was interrupted by a cruel 3-year Japanese occupation during World War II. The Philippines became an independent nation on, remarkably, July 4, 1946. In 2016, the United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration listed the Philippine Central Conference with slightly more church members than the Great Plains Annual Conference, around 225,000. The biggest difference is that they are divided into 3 episcopal areas and 26 annual conferences. Because of the way the General Conference allocates delegates, the Philippines have a robust 52 delegates, one clergy and one lay per annual conference. This makes them a significant voting group coming into Minneapolis.
Nearly all the delegates were present for the orientation and briefing. Surprisingly, all but maybe five of the 52 will be first-time attendees of General Conference. And, because they come from 26 annual conferences spread all over the islands, they do not know one another. This will not be a voting block per se. They certainly have a common culture, but in talking with individual delegates they share a broad spectrum of perspectives on everything from LGBTQ rights to issues of autonomy.
The beginning of the day mostly covered logistical issues of obtaining visas, flights, and housing arrangements. The bishops each spoke about different issues at General Conference from being prepared by doing the reading, to showing up to everything on time, to using their voice and taking leadership. It was good to see the Bishops encouraging the delegates to be bold on behalf of the Filipino Church. Rev. Gary Graves, the Secretary of the General Conference was in attendance as was Sarah Hotchkiss, the Business Manager of the General Conference. They gave an orientation on lots of logistical issues as well. They stayed through the whole event to make themselves available if delegates had further questions. They will be traveling to Africa as well to help with the orientation of delegates there.
The lunch break was longer than expected because the three Bishops walked over to the Cavite Annual Conference to be present for the vote on the Protocol, which passed. They planned the delegate orientation and briefing on the same site as the Cavite Annual Conference to accommodate Bishop Francisco so he could attend both. Having both events on the same United Methodist grounds proved fortuitous as both the Protocol and the Christmas Covenant were moved forward to General Conference. (There is a link to my post about the Cavite Annual Conference below.)
After lunch, the delegates reconvened, and they invited the guests from the United States to Speak. Karen Prudente, alternate delegate from the New York Annual Conference passed out copies of the Christmas Covenant and discussed it. Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, the General Secretary of the Connectional Table gave a presentation about the regional conference plan from the Connectional Table and voiced her support for the Christmas Covenant. Bishop Juan informed the delegates that the Cavite Annual Conference had just passed the legislation the day before.
After the Christmas Covenant discussion, I presented on the Protocol. My statement in support of the Protocol is that the passing of the Traditional Plan created a political earthquake in the United States that has threatened to fracture our church irreparably. The delegates in the United States that supported the Traditional Plan lost nearly a quarter of their votes afterwards and are a minority voice in our country. I passed out copies to every delegate of our Mainstream UMC map that show the delegate breakdown by annual conference. I also passed out the map that shows that the annual conferences in the US who reject the Traditional Plan generate 78% of the revenue through apportionments. The Protocol allows this small traditional group to leave without dissolving the global church. The Protocol also allows for the trials to stop which is essential to holding the US church together.
Further, the Protocol is simply a political fix to an intractable argument in the United States. The $27 million is money that will be paid by US churches to other US churches to keep us out of court. The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) has already designed their new denomination and wants out. I was also clear, the post-separation UMC has room for everyone, traditionalists, centrists, and progressives. The idea that all traditionalists are leaving is not accurate. The rest of us want to keep the big tent and connectional church intact to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
I also shared some context of the US church. The Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and United Church of Christ all ordain LGBTQ persons. The UMC remains the largest denomination in the US that ordains women, that does not ordain LGBTQ persons. In our sister denominations, the US churches ordain gay and lesbian pastors and their churches outside of the US do not. Why is it that the United Methodists cannot have a similar arrangement? I shared that there is a lot of frustration in the US that it feels like the global church has imposed these rules upon us. I asked what it would feel like if the US church told the Filipinos that they must ordain LGBTQ persons and do same-gender weddings in their churches, and if they did not, there would be a trial to kick them out of the church? This is the Traditional Plan imposing another culture on the US church.
I also made a pitch for the regional conferences that both the Connectional Table and Christmas Covenant represent. This offers a path where the US church can be who we are, and the rest of the world can be who they are. In talking with individual delegates afterwards, the biggest question is, will the regional conferences create enough space. As one pastor shared with me, he is in a very conservative church in a conservative community. He is worried if the US church ordains LGBTQ persons, will his church be accused of being a “gay church?” I noted that the US is already ordaining LGBTQ persons. We are not asking the Philippines to change; we are only asking to stop the harm by supporting the Protocol and more space through regional conferences. Rev. Rachel Baughman of UMC Next and Rev. Rob Spencer of Mission Together also supported both issues. We were joined by Lonnie Chafin, lay delegate from Northern Illinois. He also gave his support for the regional conferences and Protocol.
Our advocacy must have made Gary Graves uncomfortable because he felt compelled to stand up and state that he and Sarah were there only for the orientation and they do not take sides on issues. He reiterated this about four times, so his point was clear. He also made a baffling statement that “the Protocol legislation does not exist.” His point, I think, was that it has not been formally submitted to his office. His existential claim left a lot of us scratching our heads, particularly since the Cavite Annual Conference had just voted to send it to his office about an hour earlier—and he had sat and watched the proceedings!
There were no votes taken among the delegates to show support for or against either the Protocol or the regional conference plans. Most of this was new to most of the delegates since 90% of them were not in St. Louis. But in talking along the edges, there was an appreciation for hearing our perspective and having the chance to share some Filipino perspectives as well. A couple of pastors shared with me that they have LGBTQ persons in their churches, and they want to be in ministry to them also. Most also said, they had never heard a US perspective on the topic.
The Philippine Central Conference has a full plate in the next year. Bishops Juan and Francisco lean more compatibilist, and both are retiring this year. Bishop Torio has been clearly aligned with the WCA and will be the new dean of the Filipino Bishops. It is clear the delegates from the Philippines will not be voting as a block at General Conference. It is not clear if they will remain in the UMC, go with the WCA, or become autonomous. All three options are actively on the table. The votes their delegates take will be with an eye on what is best for their central conference. With all three of their Bishops supporting the Protocol, many of them likely will as well. What the regional conference plans mean to them remains to be seen.
The United Methodist Church is at a crossroads. Many in the Philippines expressed a feeling of being caught in between warring US factions. This is not where they want to be. Their new group of delegates is very engaged, very motivated, and ready to lead. There is no question that the delegates from around the world to the 2020 General Conference literally hold the future of our church in their hands. Let us pray that we are able to find a way forward.
Please visit our Facebook page to see pictures from our trip (pictures are hard with this email server). You can find us at www.Facebook.com/MainstreamUMC. While you are there, be sure to “like” and “follow” our page.
Please consider a donation to support Mainstream UMC’s global advocacy, www.MainstreamUMC.com/donate
Here is a link to my first article about Mainstream UMC in the Philippines: https://mainstreamumc.com/blog/mainstream-umc-in-the-philippines-part-1/
Here is a link to my second article about Mainstream UMC in the Philippines: https://mainstreamumc.com/blog/philippines-part-2-protocol-christmas-covenant-affirmed/
Here is a link to the Protocol: https://www.gracethroughseparation.com/legislation
Here is a link to the Christmas Covenant: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/delegates-offer-proposal-for-church-unity