Little did I know how quickly I would be proven right!
Does the Left Hand know what the Right is doing?
On February 20th 2020, Bishop Ken Carter of the Florida Annual Conference sent an email to his constituents explaining an unheard-of situation: in short, three members of Florida’s Cabinet (two District Superintendents and one clergyperson in a conference position) had filed articles of incorporation for a new non-profit entity named “The Florida Methodist Church.”
That’s right: A new denomination. Not an incorporation of the current UMC. Not an incorporation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. But a new Traditionalist denomination, as explained by one of the signatories District Superintendent Jay Therrell:
I discerned that God is leading me to start a traditionalist expression of Methodism in Florida (and possibly beyond). At first, I thought I would be able to approach my duties from a both/and perspective. I would both carry out my duties as district superintendent and continue to build a framework in the event the Protocol passes.
But it is bigger than that. These are three Cabinet members, meaning they serve as extensions of the Bishop, an episcopal position that pledges support of the unity of the church. So how on earth these people thought they could both be supporting the unity of the church AND creating a new division is beyond me.
Wednesday Night Massacre
And apparently, the dissonance was beyond Bishop Carter. His email shares the response of the Cabinet (the most powerful body in Florida United Methodism):
After respectful conversation, spiritual discernment and deep prayer, the following is the substance of the cabinet response:
Dionne Hammond and Rini Hernandez have removed their names from the document and agreed not to participate in the formation of a separate organization. They will continue as members of the cabinet.
Jay Therrell has decided to conclude his tenure on the cabinet on July 1, 2020. In addition, he will go on renewal leave on April 1, 2020. A new elder from the Florida Conference will be appointed as superintendent of the North East District and coverage will be provided for the district in the interim period.
There we go. Two of the Cabinet members will recant their action and commit themselves to working towards managing the unity of the church. And a third will get 3 months of paid leave while he is working to create a new Methodist denomination.
Where did this come from?
There’s no public statement from the three of them about where or why a new Traditionalist denomination was needed. Florida already has a chapter of the WCA, why do they need another one?
One possible answer comes from looking at the General Conference delegate elections at the Florida Annual Conference last Spring. This was right in the middle of the “wave” of delegates elected who were Centrist or Progressive. Tensions were high. Florida was electing Progressives and Centrists left and…well, left. But at least two Traditionalist candidates were rising high in the vote totals and stood a chance to get onto the delegation.
Then the WCA walked out from the delegate elections (the Florida WCA Facebook post said “we urge Traditionalist delegates to NOT vote at all for lay or clergy delegates…we can best register our votes by not participating any further.”) The support for those two rising candidates evaporated, and they didn’t make the delegation.
Those two candidates? Dionne Hammond and Rini Hernandez.
So this new denomination looks like a splinter from the WCA in Florida, a dissatisfaction with either the losing strategy or the leadership of the WCA, or simply wanting to create a new expression that was centered in Florida and not elsewhere.
I guess we’ll find out in the coming months or after General Conference.
Shared Interests, Shared Pain
The Protocol states that the parties involved in the mediation would support the Protocol and endeavor to support its passage. What that has meant in some conferences is that there’s an uneasy alliance between WCA and Centrists/Progressives with a common goal: Pass the Protocol and move on. That will only happen if both sides (or all sides) can bring their constituents to the table.
It’s a funny dance strategically: both sides want there to be divisions in the other side, but only after the Protocol is implemented.
- It benefits the Florida Annual Conference to have the WCA and another denomination be fighting over traditionalists, while they get to rise above the fray.
- The opposite is true perhaps in other conferences: Traditionalists would benefit from Centrists and Progressives to choose between both unity and Liberationist expressions.
But if the support for the Protocol starts to crumble, and it turns from a two-party negotiation to a multi-party negotiation, then the WCA and the Centrists/Progressives get nothing (or a more problematic plan). So if the Protocol is our future, it is in their best interests to hold their constituencies together for another few months, and then divide into warring camps after.
In short, WCA and Centrists/Progressives should be working together to name and reveal these sort of efforts (disaffected parties of either side creating New Methodist Denominations or non-profits) in any conference. By bringing sunshine to exactly how many divisions there are, we can better understand the landscape going into the 2020 General Conference.
We should all be in prayer for the Florida Annual Conference as these three persons are well respected. Florida is one of those regions where they are intentional about relationships across the spectrum. So the shockwaves of this action are not just institutional, but collegial and emotional in a way that those of us outside of Florida may not recognize. Even though folks knew they would likely be in different camps in a few years, they thought they were all in this together until the 2020 General Conference. This action betrays that hope, and prayer is needed.
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