Author: Rev. Dr. Mark R. Holland, Executive Director, Mainstream UMC
It has been a dizzying week in the United Methodist Church. Just a week after the Liberia Annual Conference called for radical changes to the Protocol, the lead author of that petition has reversed himself and signed on with a much more reasonable, albeit still problematic endorsement. And, while the traditionalists around the world are unifying behind the Protocol, the President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), Mark Tooley, has pulled his name off the Protocol! It’s hard to keep up.
Let’s start in Africa. Just last week Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah, General Conference delegate from Liberia, brought a petition to his annual conference denouncing the Protocol and demanding it be amended. His amendments paralleled the desires of US traditionalists to distribute more money and to reduce the voting threshold to leave the denomination. His annual conference adopted the petition and forwarded these recommendations on to General Conference 2020 with a remarkable vote of 725-0. These amendments, if passed at General Conference, threaten to derail the entire Protocol and plunge the denomination back into chaos. There was significant gnashing of teeth in the US over this action.
This week, the Africa Initiative convened a meeting in South Africa. This is the African political arm of the “Reform and Renewal Coalition” comprised of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), Good News, the Confessing Movement, and the IRD. These US traditionalists fully fund the Africa Initiative to help pass their conservative agenda at General Conference. And, these same US traditionalists personally negotiated the Protocol and want Africa’s support for it to pass. Liberia’s action made them all look either manipulative (using surrogates to change the Protocol) or out of touch with their base (several of their Africa Initiative leaders decried their exclusion from the negotiating table.) The meeting in South Africa was needed to sort this out.
There are no reports yet about what went on behind closed doors, but an agreement was reached. Dr. Kulah, who is also the head of the Africa Initiative, has abandoned his 725 Liberian delegates who supported his plan last week. And he is the first signature on the new deal. He also abandoned the dubious distribution of $120 million and explained to UM News that Africa will not be “taken for a ransom because of our perceived financial challenges,” adding, “You may have the whole world, but give us Jesus!” Ironically, only an annual conference can submit legislation to General Conference this late, not advocacy groups. So, unless another annual conference adopts the recommendations of the Africa Initiative, it will only be Dr. Kulah’s Liberia petition (which cannot be retracted) that is before the delegates in Minneapolis, not this one.
Despite the improvements in this Africa Initiative document over the Liberia document, it is still disappointing that they are calling for significant changes to the Protocol. The first is they want to retain the name “United Methodist” and the “Cross and Flame” logo in Africa, even if they leave. Let’s understand this: they want to leave because they do not want to be associated with the US church…but they want the same name as the US church…Huh? The other concerns are they still want to change the voting threshold percentage and they want to make sure that everyone can vote “without any form of suppression or coercion by anyone.” Again, this is the land of unanimous votes on virtually everything, including constitutional amendments. Why do they care about voting percentage? And, why are they suddenly concerned about “suppression or coercion” when just one year ago they delivered 90% of Africa’s votes for the Traditional Plan? And, to add more irony, the fraudulent voting at General Conference 2019 traced directly back to supporters of the Africa Initiative. Now they want everyone to play fair! These proposals are not worth the risk of sabotaging the Protocol and frankly, they make no sense.
Speaking of making no sense, Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) has pulled his name off the Protocol of Grace and Reconciliation through Separation. His name was on the document when it was first released on January 3, 2020. Then, just five weeks later, his name was off the document when the final legislation was released on February 10, 2020. Nothing in the document changed and the IRD made no public statement. I reached out to Rev. Keith Boyette of the WCA who said only, “they declined to sign it.” I contacted Mr. Tooley directly and asked him why he had not signed on, he told me, “we’re not supporting or opposing Protocol at this time.” No further explanation was offered. Wow.
Mark Tooley was an original participant in the very first meeting called by Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leon back in July of 2019. After that meeting in Chicago, Mr. Tooley agreed that Rev. Keith Boyette of the WCA and Pat Miller of the Confessing Movement would represent him, the IRD, and the other Traditionalists in the negotiating room.
I was also in the room in Chicago on behalf of Mainstream UMC, representing the Centrists. We selected Rev. Tom Berlin and Rev. Junius Dotson, both of UMC Next to represent our interests at the table. Progressives chose Jan Lawrence of Reconciling Ministries Network and Randall Miller of the Western Jurisdiction to represent them. Rev. David Meredith was added as a member of the Queer Clergy Caucus. In each case, those of us who were not at the table were a part of many conference calls to check in and make sure the negotiations were in keeping with the hopes of the broader coalition.
When the negotiations concluded in December 2019, the 16 members of the negotiating team all signed onto the document. These signatures included the names of the organizations those negotiators represented. Both Rev. Keith Boyette and Pat Miller include their signatures and show they are representing the IRD. Those of us who were in a secondary role agreed to have our names added to the document as a show of support. My name is listed in this section as well as Mark Tooley’s. You can see the names on the list on the link below.
The IRD you might remember is not a Methodist organization per se. They operate in a number of denominations in the United States and are extremely vitriolic in their disdain for the mainline church. This is the group, after all, that has publicly accused the National Council of Churches of being Marxist sympathizers. No, really. They run an aggressive political machine aimed at taking over the boards and agencies of mainline churches. The Protocol leaves the United Methodist Church, along with our general boards and agencies intact and in the hands of traditionalists, centrists, and progressives who get along. We are the “compatibilists.” The IRD is the poster child of “incompatibilist” Christians who want political and theological hegemony. Because it has been their mission to dismantle the general agencies, it is perhaps more surprising that the IRD signed onto the Protocol in the first place, than it is that they abandoned it last week.
But now, the Africa Initiative, which the IRD helps fund, has endorsed the Protocol. Will the IRD choose to stand on an island alone? It looked very suspicious that the IRD pulled out of the Protocol the same week Liberia’s Jerry Kulah attacked it. Now that Dr. Kulah is back in the fold, what about Mark Tooley? My hope is that Mr. Tooley will honor the agreement that he signed and join the rest of us in fully endorsing the Protocol as written. I would also encourage members of the WCA, Good News, and the Confessing Movement to hold Mr. Tooley accountable for pulling out. His actions beg the question, is he committed to finding a resolution to our differences or simply creating more chaos at General Conference? One thing that is for sure, Mark Tooley has taken a huge step to further erode trust in him, the IRD, and in our church—at the most inopportune time.
What a week.
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Here is a link to the Protocol: https://www.gracethroughseparation.com
Last week’s UM News article with Rev. Kulah condemning the Protocol. https://www.umnews.org/en/news/liberians-want-changes-in-separation-plan
This week’s UM News article with Rev. Kulah endorsing the Protocol. https://www.umnews.org/en/news/key-african-group-supports-protocol-plan
Here is my article about the Liberia Annual Conference: https://mainstreamumc.com/blog/5-problems-with-liberias-protocol-vote/
You can see Mark Tooley’s name on the Protocol list here: https://www.gracethroughseparation.com/who-we-are
Here is a previous article of mine about the IRD: https://mainstreamumc.com/blog/ird-raising-big-money-for-more-harm/
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