A diverse group of 16 leaders in the United Methodist Church, including traditionalists, centrists, and progressives, recently came to an agreement about a proposal to split the denomination. The group spent several months hashing out the proposed separation plan and released their proposal on January 3, 2020. The “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation,” known as “the Protocol,” came together thanks in large part to attorney Ken Feinberg, who offered his services pro bono.
“There is not a price tag you could put on what Mr. Feinberg has done for us,” Bishop Thomas Bickerton said during an announcement about the Protocol.
Feinberg rose to renown for his negotiation work on cases such as the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Compensation Fund. According to UMC Bishop Gregory Vaughn Palmer, Feinberg believed the diverse group could come to a unanimous agreement on a separation plan “more than we seemed to believe in ourselves.”
Ken Feinberg Wanted to Preserve the ‘Integrity and Effectiveness’ of the UMC
Feinberg, who is Jewish, was asked by friend and UMC member Richard Godfrey to help the UMC, which has been crippled by conflict over their ambiguous stance on homosexuality for decades now. The Special Session of the General Conference in St. Louis last year was designed to put an end to the conflict. At that gathering, delegates voted to pass the Traditional Plan, which solidified the UMC’s Book of Discipline language declaring that homosexuality is “incompatible with the Christian teaching” and prevents clergy who identify as LGBTQ from serving in ministry roles. Even after the deciding vote, though, debates have continued to flare and various entities of the UMC have decided to disaffiliate themselves with the denomination.
During a panel discussion about the Protocol that was live-streamed in January, Feinberg explained that a unanimous agreement among group members was the only thing that was going to resolve the conflict. “Everybody, of the 16 members and the mediator, everybody recognized that if you do not reach a…unanimous agreement, ask yourself this question: ‘what is the alternative?’ to decades of strife, tension, stress.”
Speaking to Religion News Service, Feinberg explained why he decided to lend his services to the UMC without charge. “I just thought that it was important in contemporary America with all of the trouble we have now–social unrest and the division politically, cultural differences, et cetera–I thought it was in the public interest to preserve the integrity and the effectiveness of the church,” he said.
Feinberg said he set three ground rules for the mediation process:
One, confidentiality. No leaks. Everything that we’re discussing around the table as part of the mediation must remain sealed in that room. Everybody agreed, and confidentiality was maintained.
Two, make sure that the people around the table are the right people to mediate, that they have the credibility, the experience, the respect. That’s important.
Three, make sure that those mediation participants, those individuals, speak for the various constituencies—the progressives, the centrists, the traditionalists. Make sure that these people have the authority to help us all get to “yes” in this process, that they can deliver.
It doesn’t do any good if the wrong people are at the table, if they say, “Yep, we can do this,” and then they can’t deliver their constituency.
Who Was at the Table?
The group formed as an “outgrowth” of a consultation initiated in July 2019 by Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone and other Central Conference Bishops (the Central Conference includes Africa, Europe, and the Philippines).
Leaders from Europe, Africa, the Philippines, and the United States were involved in the Protocol. The 16-member group included representatives from various groups within the UMC, such as UMCNext, Mainstream UMC, Uniting Methodists, the Confessing Movement, Good News, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, the Wesleyan Covenant Association; Affirmation, Methodist Federation for Social Action, Reconciling Ministries Network, and the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus. Those familiar with the nuances of the UMC will understand these groups represent a wide spectrum of theological and doctrinal beliefs. Also present in the group were bishops from the United States and other nations.